Sleep Deprivation And Its Impact On Morality And Sleep Quality

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you’ve found it challenging to make the right judgments after not getting enough sleep, you might not be surprised that sleep and moral decisions are connected. Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can impact a person's ability to make moral decisions. Around 30% of adults in the U.S. are not getting the recommended amount of sleep, which may affect their daily lives.

Researchers have found that recognizing what is morally right or wrong can be difficult when we don't get enough sleep. This means we may not understand the consequences of our actions or make appropriate choices. This challenge may be connected to the idea that our ability to control ourselves and make decisions can be limited when we don't sleep enough. Read on to learn more about how morality and sleep are linked.

Therapy may help resolve concerns with sleep and morality

Morality and sleep: The connection

We often consider morality a fixed set of beliefs and principles, but factors like sleep may influence our moral decision-making. Let’s explore the connection between morality and sleep, how sleep can impact decision-making, and the potential effects of sleep deprivation on moral judgments and personal ethics.

How sleep affects decision making

Sleep may be heavily involved in our ability to make sound decisions, especially when faced with moral dilemmas.

Our brains require sufficient sleep to process complex situations and weigh the pros and cons of potential actions or behaviors. When sleep-deprived, individuals may experience challenges assessing moral situations accurately, which can lead to reduced moral awareness and possible errors in judgment.

Studies have shown that people who are sleep-deprived may experience challenges with emotionally charged moral dilemmas. These individuals may take longer to decide than their well-rested counterparts. In addition, even partial sleep deprivation may lead to a reduced ability to understand the moral implications of a situation. A sleep-deprived individual may make decisions that contradict their usual ethical standards.

Working through a moral dilemma without enough sleep can be likened to trying to solve a complex math problem while distracted by loud music; it may be harder to concentrate and figure out the right solution. For example, let's say you're tired and find a lost wallet full of money. If you've had plenty of sleep, you might think through the moral implications—it's someone else's money, they might really need it, and so on. You would probably try to find the owner or turn it into a local authority.

But if you're sleep-deprived, you might not think through the issue as thoroughly. You could feel less responsible for doing the right thing and be tempted to keep the money for yourself. That's an example of how lack of sleep can make us more likely to behave unethically.


Neuroscience of sleep and morality

The relationship between sleep and morality is an emerging area of interest in neuroscience. Let’s discuss how the brain functions during sleep and how brain regions might be involved in moral decisions.

A look at the brain during sleep

Have you ever wondered what happens to your brain while you sleep? The brain doesn't just go on standby mode, but rather, undergoes a series of changes. Brain activity typically occurs even when your body is at rest.

During sleep, the neurons or nerve cells in your brain are typically active, while blood flow and chemical signals change. These changes usually happen as the brain cycles through different stages of sleep. Each stage can affect our psychological health differently, from memory storage to managing our emotions.

Think of it this way: Maybe you've spent all day studying for a test or work presentation, and your brain has been gathering new information. When you sleep, your brain starts organizing and storing this information; this is called memory consolidation. In addition to helping with memory, sleep may also play a role in managing our emotions. Have you ever noticed how stressful or upsetting events may seem better when you are well-rested? That's because the brain may more efficiently regulate our emotions after having enough rest.

Brain regions and moral decisions

Moral decision-making is often not a simple cognitive process. Instead, it can involve several different parts of the brain. Some of the key brain regions include the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the insular cortex. Each brain region handles different tasks that help us with our emotions, understanding social situations, and making moral judgments.

The prefrontal cortex, in particular, acts as the brain’s decision-making hub. It weighs the information and predicts the outcomes of different actions to help us make ethical choices. But when we don't get enough sleep, the prefrontal cortex may not perform at its best, which might lead to impaired moral judgment.

Meanwhile, the amygdala and insular cortex are also potentially important for moral behavior. They can help process emotional information and assess the ethical aspects of various situations. If your sleep is disrupted, these brain regions might not function properly, reducing your ability to make morally sound decisions.

Scientists have discovered a phenomenon known as microsleeps, which are brief moments of sleep that may occur when you're awake and sleep-deprived. You can't control these episodes and might not even be aware they're happening. With sleep deprivation, these microsleeps can increase in frequency, potentially affecting your decision-making abilities, including those related to moral judgments.

Improving moral decision-making through sleep

As morality and sleep may be highly connected, improving sleep could be important in promoting moral decisions. Some ways to improve sleep quality to facilitate moral reasoning in everyday life may include the following:

Sleep hygiene practices

Improving your sleep hygiene or how well you sleep may have a positive impact on your ability to make ethical decisions. There are several habits you might develop to improve the quality of your sleep. They include the following:

  • Trying to stick to a sleep schedule. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. 
  • Making sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. You may keep it dark, quiet, and cool to help you relax. 
  • Avoiding drinks with caffeine or alcohol a few hours before you sleep. 
  • Developing a relaxing routine before bedtime, like reading a book, meditating, or taking a warm bath. 
  • Limiting the use of screens before bed. The blue light from electronic devices may disrupt sleep patterns.

Recognizing the impact of rest

Understanding the value of rest may be key to maintaining our mental abilities, including making ethical decisions. By recognizing the signs of sleep deprivation, such as irritability, challenges concentrating, and poor decision-making, you may be able to prevent it from occurring. You may then be able to proactively improve your sleep quality and, in turn, your ability to make sound moral judgments.

Therapy may help resolve concerns with sleep and morality

How online therapy may help with morality and sleep

Online therapy may be valuable for people with moral dilemmas or sleep-related concerns. For example, therapy can offer an avenue to connect with mental health experts from home, likely opening up a conversation on the link between morality and sleep. With the help of a therapist, you might explore ways to manage mental and emotional stress that may be affecting your sleep quality. Also, you may feel more comfortable opening up to your therapist from your comfort zone, thereby eliminating unnecessary awkwardness or self-consciousness.

Research has shown that receiving therapy through an online platform can be as effective as in-person therapy sessions. Online therapy has been shown to improve sleep quality and depression symptoms in people with insomnia and depression. One study that included over 100 participants found that online cognitive behavioral therapy helped reduce the severity of insomnia and depression. With a flexible and accessible option of online therapy, individuals can benefit from the expertise of a mental health professional at their convenience.


Sleep deprivation can impair our ability to make ethical decisions, affecting how we manage life's challenges and dilemmas. Considering the quality of your sleep may help if you feel your decision-making abilities waver. Are you getting enough rest? Could improving your sleep also improve your ability to make moral choices? You may want to keep these questions in mind as they may help you lead a more balanced life. If you have concerns relating to sleep or morality, resources are available to help. Online therapy platforms can provide the support and guidance you need.
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