Gender differences in sleep deprivation effects on risk and inequality aversion: evidence from an economic experiment

PLoS One. 2015 Mar 20;10(3):e0120029. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120029. eCollection 2015.


Excessive working hours--even at night--are becoming increasingly common in our modern 24/7 society. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is particularly vulnerable to the effects of sleep loss and, consequently, the specific behaviors subserved by the functional integrity of the PFC, such as risk-taking and pro-social behavior, may be affected significantly. This paper seeks to assess the effects of one night of sleep deprivation on subjects' risk and social preferences, which are probably the most explored behavioral domains in the tradition of Experimental Economics. This novel cross-over study employs thirty-two university students (gender-balanced) participating to 2 counterbalanced laboratory sessions in which they perform standard risk and social preference elicitation protocols. One session was after one night of undisturbed sleep at home, and the other was after one night of sleep deprivation in the laboratory. Sleep deprivation causes increased sleepiness and decreased alertness in all subjects. After sleep loss males make riskier decisions compared to the rested condition, while females do the opposite. Females likewise show decreased inequity aversion after sleep deprivation. As for the relationship between cognitive ability and economic decisions, sleep deprived individuals with higher cognitive reflection show lower risk aversion and more altruistic behavior. These results show that one night of sleep deprivation alters economic behavior in a gender-sensitive way. Females' reaction to sleep deprivation, characterized by reduced risky choices and increased egoism compared to males, may be related to intrinsic psychological gender differences, such as in the way men and women weigh up probabilities in their decision-making, and/or to the different neurofunctional substrate of their decision-making.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Sex Factors
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology*
  • Sleep Deprivation / psychology*
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

The authors acknowledge financial support from the Spanish Ministry of Economic Competititveness (ECO2012-34928), Italian Ministry of University and Research MIUR (PRIN 20103S5RN3_002), Generalitat Valenciana (Research Projects Gruposo3/086), the Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Económicas (IVIE), and the Ministero della Salute (RF-2009-1528677). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.