Insufficient sleep could be suppressing voter turnout, study finds

Why do people decide not to vote? New research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour provides evidence that lack of sleep may play a role. The study found that insufficient sleep is associated with lower voter turnout and reduced intentions to vote.

“Civic participation holds democracy together. However, measures of civic participation like voting in democratic elections have languished — or by some accounts declined — in recent years,” said study author John Holbein, an assistant professor

“This is true despite the fact that more people than ever are interested in politics and say that they want to participate. However, many people who show a genuine interest in being active participants in democracy fail to actually follow through and engage. We wanted to know why that is.”

“While brainstorming ideas with my coauthors, David Dickinson and Jerome Schafer, we came up with the idea that it might be because voters are simply too tired to actually follow through on their good intentions. We know that people are sleeping less and less over time. And we know that these patterns affect performance in the labor force. Could a lack of sleep also be having a negative effect on citizen engagement? This project set out to see if that was actually the case.”

For their study, the researchers examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health and the German Socioeconomic Panel. Both of the large nationally representative longitudinal surveys included questions about civic participation and sleeping.

By analyzing Census data, Holbein and his colleagues also found that individuals living near the eastern side of U.S. time-zone boundaries tended to sleep less and were also less likely to vote.

The researchers then conducted a controlled experiment to confirm the findings. More than one thousand participants were recruited and surveyed via Amazon Mechanical Turk. The participants were randomly assigned to complete a second survey either in the afternoon or between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m at night.

Holbein and his colleagues found that participants who completed the survey in the middle of the night were less willing to sign a petition to increase recycling in their community, less willing to donate money to the Red Cross, and expressed a lower intention to vote in an upcoming election.

“In the paper, we present evidence from three different study designs that tired people are much less likely to do the types of things that hold democracies and communities together. Tired individuals are less likely to vote, donate, and sign petitions for a good cause,” he told PsyPost.

“This shows that many people want to participate but are just too tired to do so. Sleep deprivation has real consequences for the social health of our communities. Not only does it make it harder for people to get their jobs done or to do well in school it also makes them less likely to contribute in ways that build democracies.”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“There are two primary questions lingering from this study. First, we don’t really know who is most affected by sleep deprivation. It could be the case that sleep deprivation has larger effects for individuals who are already unlikely to participate,” Holbein explained.

“When it comes to voting, it could be the case that Democrats are affected differently than Republicans (for example). If, that’s the case, then sleep deprivation may have the potential to swing election outcomes.”

“Second, we’re still waiting to see what the effect of long-term sleep deprivation is. Our experiment tested the effects of short-term sleep deprivation. We’re still waiting to see how big of an effect chronic sleep deprivation has on prosocial behavior. We’re working on answering these questions in subsequent studies,” Holbein said.

“We sometimes think that not getting enough sleep only affects us. But, that’s not true! Sleep deprivation makes us more selfish and willing to focus on ourselves rather than others. Doing all that we can to make sure that we get enough sleep is vitally important for the health of our communities and our democracy

The study, “Insufficient sleep reduces voting and other prosocial behaviours“, was authored by John B. Holbein, Jerome P. Schafer and David L. Dickinson.