The Connection Between Sleep Deprivation, Caffeine and Self-Control

Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, decision making, ethics
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Building a self-regulatory model of sleep deprivation and deception: The role of caffeine and social influence
Authors: D. T. Welsh, A. P. J. Ellis, M. S. Christian, & K. M. Mai
Reviewed by: Mary Selden

Many of us can’t imagine going a day without our caffeine of choice—coffee, energy drinks, tea, soda, or any number of others. A recent study cited in this article claims that 90% of Americans ingest some form of caffeine daily in order to overcome the effects of sleep loss. But did you know that caffeine could also help you maintain better self-control?

THE IMPACT SLEEP DEPRIVATION

When our mental resources are depleted, we have a harder time regulating our behavior. This is often what happens with sleep deprivation, which can decrease our ability to control impulses and overcome temptation.

As our resources for self-control are depleted from lack of sleep, we become more susceptible to negative social influence— such as being less able to resist someone who tries to persuade us to do unethical things, such as deceiving others.

 

CAFFEINE & SELF-CONTROL

The authors claim that caffeine can actually boost our natural resources in these situations, helping us to better control our actions and refrain from unethical behavior, even when someone is attempting to influence us.

The study found that, when participants were tired, they were more likely to succumb to unethical suggestions from others. But, after consuming caffeine, the participants had more resources to resist social influence (that is, the researcher telling them to deceive the other participants) because the caffeine alleviated some of the effects of sleep deprivation.

 

SLEEP VS. CAFFEINE

These findings are particularly applicable in work settings, where sleep deprivation in employees could make them less able to resist unethical temptations from others at work.

But, while helpful in some regards, caffeinated beverages also have some disadvantages. Caffeine is a diuretic, can increase anxiety and heart rate, and can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches and fatigue when you stop consuming it.

It’s not a cure-all solution for resisting unethical suggestions, either: The study found that well-rested individuals had much greater self-control than those who were tired, even when the sleep-deprived individuals ingested caffeine. Well-rested individuals didn’t experience the same benefits as sleep-deprived individuals who ingested caffeine, because it affected them less. So they were ultimately able to resist unethical behavior equally well, whether there was social pressure or not.

But if rest is lacking, caffeine may give people the extra boost they need in order to get back some of the self-control they’ve lost from being exhausted.