Insufficient sleep reduces voting and other prosocial behaviours

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Insufficient sleep is a growing public health concern in industrial societies. Although a lack of sleep is known to negatively affect private behaviours—such as working or going to school—comparatively little is known about its consequences for the social behaviours that hold society and democracy together. Using three complementary methods, we show how insufficient sleep affects various measures of civic participation. With survey data from two countries, we show that insufficient sleep predicts lower voter turnout. Next, with a geographical regression discontinuity design, we demonstrate that individuals from the United States who tend to sleep less due to circadian impacts of time-zone boundaries are also less likely to vote. Finally, we experimentally manipulate short-term sleep over a two-stage study. We observe that the treatment decreases the levels of civic engagement, as shown by their willingness to vote, sign petitions and donate to charities. These results highlight the strong negative consequences that current levels of insufficient sleep have on vitally important measures of social capital.

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Fig. 1: Observational estimates for insufficient sleep on voter turnout (Add Health and SOEP).
Fig. 2: Quasi-experimental estimates of the effect of insufficient sleep on voter turnout.
Fig. 3: Quasi-experimental placebo estimates.
Fig. 4: Randomized controlled trial estimate of the effect of sleep restriction on civic participation.

Code availability

The replication code that produced this report is available in the Supplementary Information Appendix. The replication code for the Add Health study cannot be shared as we ‘cannot move files or data in or out of the [computing environment]’ that houses the Add Health data/code (per Duke University’s PRDN data sharing terms).

Data availability

The following restrictions apply to data in studies 1 and 2: the Add Health (restricted) data set used in study 1, the SOEP data in study 1 and the Catalist data used in study 2 are proprietary and cannot be shared by the authors. For information about how to access the Add Health restricted-use data, see The SOEP data are available after registration with the DIW Berlin, see Catalist is a subscription-based service; for information about contracting with Catalist, see The data that support the findings of study 3 are available from the corresponding author on request.

Change history

  • 05 August 2019

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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J.B.H. thanks the NSF for its support (no. SES-1657821). J.P.S. thanks the Yale CSAP. We are also grateful for the helpful feedback from V. Arceneaux, P. Aronow, E. Busby, J. Clinton, R. Enos, B. Fraga, A. Gerber, S. Hill, G. Huber, J. Kalla, L. Keele, M. Kryger, T. Mendelberg, M. Meredith, D. Mutz, J. Nagler, S. Nuamah, D. Rand, M. Rangel, R. Tituinik and audiences at the APSA/MPSA meetings and at Princeton, Yale and BYU. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

J.B.H. and J.P.S. contributed to the observational, natural experimental and experimental analyses and write-up. D.L.D. contributed to the experimental design, analysis and write-up.

Correspondence to John B. Holbein.

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Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Figures 1–6, and Supplementary References.

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Holbein, J.B., Schafer, J.P. & Dickinson, D.L. Insufficient sleep reduces voting and other prosocial behaviours. Nat Hum Behav 3, 492–500 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0543-4

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