People suck. Well they certainly seem to after several nights without sleep. As the lost hours pile up, those simple things sent to try us become all the more difficult to face. We are generally just less able to employ self-control to moderate our feelings towards the outside world. I mean, it’s like Nigel Farage said to me down the pub once, we even tend to make racist comments when we’re a bit tired. Now sleep deprivation does not make you racist, despite amusing attempts to throw old Nige a bone, but it may be that a lack of shut-eye can make us less able to inhibit unconscious biases.
Unconscious biases are not necessarily a bad thing before we start to bash them. They allow us to employ speedy decision making without having to weigh up the pros and cons of a situation. When you’re faced with immediate danger you don’t want to spend time considering the difficult childhood of your knife wielding assailant for any more than a split second before you run away with your tail, and wallet, trailing behind. However, when we’re not facing a troubled mugger your conscious mind can step in and make use of available mental resources to stop yourself acting on your unconscious biases. This allows you to mask your own biases under the shield of social desirability. However, how do you assess an individual’s unconscious biases if they are unaware of them themselves?
It is possible to assess your unconscious biases by completing something called the implicit association test (IAT). This was developed by social psychologists Anthony Greenwald who wanted to try to understand the unconscious biases individuals held. They felt that explicitly asking individuals about sensitive issues was a poor way to investigate controversial topics as people would be likely to hide their true responses behind a ‘socially desirable mask’. Instead if you got people to respond very quickly to words paired with negative or positive emotions you could see how readily certain associations are recognised. For example, you could show pictures of white and black faces and pair them with positive and negative emotions. You could then present every possible combination in a randomised order (black-good, white-bad; black-bad, white-good) and see how quickly people respond to these pairings. The logic being that if you were quicker to respond to black-bad and white-good than the other pairings you, on an unconscious level, see these as more strongly related than the alternatives. Race is used here as an example but this task has been used for a wide range of different judgements such as gender and careers, weight, age and many others. You can see many of them and give the task a go here.
It should come as no surprise that sleep is considered important when it comes to our unconscious biases. Hopefully anyone who has read at least one of these posts should be aware of how many things sleep is important for. A study published in 2015 showed that by stimulating slow wave sleep (i.e. the deepest stage of our nightly slumber) you could enhance daytime training to reduce unconscious negative biases. However, it was still relatively unknown how sleep loss could influence our own hidden biases. This is not just an interesting question but an important one too when you consider that implicit biases can negatively guide our behaviour outside of our awareness.
Therefore, in a paper published last month a team from Harvard University explored this question and wanted to understand whether chronic sleep deprivation could lead to an ‘unmasking’ of negative implicit biases. More specifically, they asked: Are we more likely to express an implicit negative bias towards Muslim Arab names when we are sleep deprived?
To test this question, seventeen participants were invited into the laboratory for 25 days and it was under these strictly controlled walls that participants’ sleep was monitored. During this period, invited participants spent five days on 4 hours sleep and two days on 8 hours. This continued for a total of three weeks. The same participants, were invited back 2 months later to spend another three weeks in the laboratory but this time they could sleep for 8 hours every night. This meant that each participant served as their own control for the study. On the 21st day participants were given the implicit association test (IAT) for Muslim-Arab names and the scores during the well-rested and sleep-deprivation conditions were compared. The researchers predicted that during sleep deprivation participants would show an increased negative implicit bias towards Muslim-Arab names (i.e. they would be less able to mask their biases).
So, what did they find?
Well when participants were well-rested they did not show a negative implicit bias towards Muslim-Arab names. This is good and somewhat encouraging. However, when they were sleep deprived the same participants did show significant evidence of a negative implicit bias. That is, they more readily associated Muslim-Arab names with “bad” rather than “good”. This suggests that sleep deprivation may make us more likely to express our implicit biases.
Well before we get carried away this task is not a perfect way to assess unconscious biases and simply because our perceptions are unconsciously altered does not mean our behaviour is too. It’s also important to note that this group of participants did not have an implicit negative bias normally (e.g. when well-rested). Yet, it was possible to see that a moderate bias was found following three weeks of substantial sleep deprivation. On that note, it would be very interesting to see if in groups who already have an implicit bias show the same increase in bias following sleep deprivation and whether good sleep could reduce the negative implicit bias shown.
However, it does suggest that sleep deprivation in situations where workers have to act quickly and intuitively may bias our perceptions in a negative, and potentially fatal, way. This is particularly relevant for police officers, military personnel, and individuals working in airport security who may work long shifts and who may need to make snap judgements. We should be careful before anyone shouts from the rooftops “being sleepy makes you more racist”. This task is looking at implicit biases and the IAT do not represent explicit biases. In most instances we have the time, and resources, to make a balanced judgement. Nonetheless this research showed that a lack of sleep can negatively influence our own unconscious biases towards others. As for outright racism? A lack of sleep won’t suddenly make you racist – sorry Nige.
Alkozei, A., Killgore, W. D., Smith, R., Dailey, N. S., Bajaj, S., & Haack, M. (2017). Chronic Sleep Restriction Increases Negative Implicit Attitudes Toward Arab Muslims. Scientific Reports, 7.