Faced With a Moral Dilemma? Sleep On It Before Making a Decision!



By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


Notorious figures such as Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Napoleon Bonaparte have more in common than their immoral and unethical behavior. History shows that they all were sleep deprived.

For example, “It is known now that Hitler suffered not only from chronic anxiety, but also insomnia and related somatic symptoms similar to what we today might call irritable bowel syndrome,” (Psychology Today).

And according to one report, Stalin suffered from chronic insomnia. He also regularly drank alcohol, which can disrupt a person’s sleep.   

There are also far less egregious examples of unethical behavior on the part of sleep deprived individuals, such as the ubiquitous, successful entrepreneur who ran afoul of securities laws when she clearly did not need to do so; A-students who cheat on an exam after pulling an all-nighter even though they probably would have aced it in any event; or the usually easy-going person who overreacts and picks a fight with a fellow customer over a for-sale item in a store.

Or take, for example, the story of the woman involved in a fight, which went viral after being caught on camera, that took place in a Walmart. She said part of what caused her unacceptable behavior was sleep deprivation.   

What Could Possibly Be Going On?

Turns out that not getting enough sleep can make you irritable, short-tempered, unfocused and less effective at accomplishing your daily tasks. If that were not enough, researchers at Arizona State University have now shown that sleep deprivation can also have a negative impact on your ability to make ethical and moral decisions.

“Sleep deprivation makes it harder to exert self-control. However, self-control is often required to resist unethical temptations,” said Professor David Welsh, one of the researchers with Arizona State University.

“Resisting unethical behavior when you are sleep deprived can often feel like going to the buffet on an empty stomach.”  

Sleep deprivation increases the probability that you will engage in behaviors you otherwise would not even consider. And there are reports of studies which suggest that not getting enough sleep increases your risk for being easily distracted, behaving impulsively and making poor decisions.

There is even evidence that sleep deprived people may be more likely to confess to a crime they didn’t even commit!

To put this another way, there is evidence that your behaviors and thinking processes when you are sleep deprived are very similar to being drunk or hungover. People who are sleep deprived do about as well on tests as those who have had a few drinks. And, just like alcohol, sleep deprivation lowers your inhibitions, which allows you to more readily act upon your less-than-honorable impulses. It’s not that not getting enough sleep is making us collectively less moral or ethical per se – but it does seem to make it easier for us to make less ethical decisions and then to act on them.

Sleep and Self-Control

In addition to all the other ways not getting enough sleep impacts your physical and emotional health, it also makes it harder for you to exert self-control. This is one of the reasons why it’s easier, for example, to stick to a diet or not cave to peer pressure earlier in the day than later in the day when sleepiness starts to creep in. With reduced self-control, it’s easier to succumb to both internal and external temptations and pressure to do things you might not otherwise do.

What happens in these cases is that the part of your brain responsible for higher functions, such as self-regulation, decision-making, weighing long-term consequences against short-term gains and “sticking to your ethical guns,” does not work as well when you’re tired or sleep deprived, as it does when you are getting your optimum nightly sleep. For most people, this is around seven or eight hours a night. This impact of not getting enough sleep is also cumulative, which means that the more sleep deprived you become, the less likely it becomes that you will make the most ethical or moral decision in any given situation. Granted, some people want more than others to be ethical in their daily behavior, but even they, eventually, will not be immune to the impact of not getting enough rest. No matter what our moral compass, we all need sleep!

Given that the Better Sleep Council has found that around half of Americans say they don’t get enough sleep (and don’t do anything about it) and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate many people get fewer than six hours a night, it’s no wonder that many people question the current apparent decline of ethical standards!

How Can You Be Proactive?

Recognize the impact not getting enough sleep has on your ethical and moral compass and take steps to compensate for it. This includes trying to not make important moral decisions when your guard is down, such as later in the day.  

Another method is to bolster your self-control by drinking or eating something that will increase your alertness, such as caffeine, which has been reported to help some people behave more ethically when they are tired.

Do yourself a favor by getting more sleep, and do what you can to enhance the quality of that sleep. Here are some suggestions on what you can do to achieve this:

  • Set a schedule. Try to be consistent with when you go to bed and when you wake up, the National Sleep Foundation suggests.
  • Create a sleepy environment. A room temperature between 60-67 degrees and a nice, dark atmosphere free of noise and distraction can help. Also use eye-shades and ear plugs if you need to. And make sure you have a comfortable mattress and pillow.
  • Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath or warm shower before going to sleep. Limit electronic media before going to sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening. These can interfere with sleep. Try to avoid a large meal two or three hours before bedtime. If you are hungry, go for a light snack 45 minutes before bed.
  • Exercise. Add regular exercise to your schedule to reap tons of benefits, including better sleep. Never been one to hit the gym? Find a fun hobby like walking your dog after dinner or playing tennis with friends.
  • Consider magnesium. This mineral gets overlooked, but it’s important for over 300 reactions in the body. It may help you combat insomnia. To learn about specific foods, like cherries, that may help you sleep better, read here.

By taking these steps, you’ll be on your way to making decisions that your conscience will thank you for.

Enjoy your healthy life!


The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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