To better understand the sometimes catastrophic effects of sleep loss on naturalistic decision making, we investigated effects of sleep deprivation on decision making in a reversal learning paradigm requiring acquisition and updating of information based on outcome feedback.
Subjects were randomized to a sleep deprivation or control condition, with performance testing at baseline, after 2 nights of total sleep deprivation (or rested control), and following 2 nights of recovery sleep. Subjects performed a decision task involving initial learning of go and no go response sets followed by unannounced reversal of contingencies, requiring use of outcome feedback for decisions. A working memory scanning task and psychomotor vigilance test were also administered.
Six consecutive days and nights in a controlled laboratory environment with continuous behavioral monitoring.
Twenty-six subjects (22–40 y of age; 10 women).
Thirteen subjects were randomized to a 62-h total sleep deprivation condition; the others were controls.
Unlike controls, sleep deprived subjects had difficulty with initial learning of go and no go stimuli sets and had profound impairment adapting to reversal. Skin conductance responses to outcome feedback were diminished, indicating blunted affective reactions to feedback accompanying sleep deprivation. Working memory scanning performance was not significantly affected by sleep deprivation. And although sleep deprived subjects showed expected attentional lapses, these could not account for impairments in reversal learning decision making.
Sleep deprivation is particularly problematic for decision making involving uncertainty and unexpected change. Blunted reactions to feedback while sleep deprived underlie failures to adapt to uncertainty and changing contingencies. Thus, an error may register, but with diminished effect because of reduced affective valence of the feedback or because the feedback is not cognitively bound with the choice. This has important implications for understanding and managing sleep loss-induced cognitive impairment in emergency response, disaster management, military operations, and other dynamic real-world settings with uncertain outcomes and imperfect information.
Whitney P, Hinson JM, Jackson ML, Van Dongen HPA. Feedback blunting: total sleep deprivation impairs decision making that requires updating based on feedback. SLEEP 2015;38(5):745–754.