The Impact of Sleep on Risk

Making decisions when you haven’t had enough sleep is a bad idea.  We all know this, but now, researchers at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience have shown us why.

In research led by Professor Scott Huettel , carried out principally by graduate student Vinod Venkatraman, adults have been observed carrying out gambling tasks after being kept awake all night, and their responses compared to those of other volunteers who got a night’s sleep.

Vinod Venkatraman (left) and
Scott Huettel

Two observations are important

  1. The behaviour difference was marked: the sleep deprived volunteers took bigger risks in search of greater wins
  2. brain activity in the two groups was different.  In the risk-taking, tired volunteers, researchers saw more activity in the brain area that is believed to be key to calculating value (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) and they also saw reduced activity, after a loss, in an area linked to negative emotions (the right anterior insula).

Brain maps, published by Nature. Click image to go to the article.

To learn more about the emotional centres of your brain and see where they lie on a full size image, click on the image, to go to a review article from the eminent journal, Nature.


Another observation that the team made was that these effects did not correlate to the levels of alertness that volunteers showed.  They may have felt sharp, but the sleep deprivation still did its harmful thing.

Why does this matter?

Project managers often find a stage in the project where they need to sweat their team to get caught up, or meet changing client requirements.  At these times of greatest pressure, it is rest, relaxation and often sleep that have to take a back seat for a harassed PM and their team.  This is exactly the time when you can least afford mistakes.

Yet Venkatraman’s and Huettel’s research shows empirically that this is also the time when risk taking is most likely and also when we are most likely to ignore the negative consequences of our failures.

The “so what?”

Prioritise sleep.  Don’t let the pressure of your project seduce you into working your team so hard that their judgement starts to fail because they cannot get a good night’s sleep.

Oh yes… In the UK, there was uproar in some quarters when it was suggested that it would be a bad thing for junior doctors to no longer work 48 hour shifts.  Really?


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