Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Zombie nation? (an update on a sleepless world)

Sadly this isn't a post about German trance band made famous by this piece of popular music (slightly NSFW) but a follow up to my previous post about sleep reduction and the economy. It stirred up plenty of debate here and at Marginal Revolution and EconLog so I thought I'd follow up with some amendments and replies. Thanks to everyone who linked and commented- working through a new idea like this is exactly what I hoped the blog would allow.

Is 2.5 hours realistic?

Plenty of responses were sceptical whether modafinil could reduce sleep to 2.5 hours a night regularly. This is a fair point and the figure is definitely toward the extreme end of reported experiences on the Internet and most of these were not long term users. I used the 2.5 hours as an extreme case (which it's fair to say is probably not achievable for most people with current medicine) but the more common experiences seem to be people who reduce their sleep by a few hours habitually and people who use the drugs to stay up for extended periods once in a while without suffering the drastic cognitive declines insomnia normally entails. It'd probably be possible to keep people up for this long but I'll agree with the commenters that this is likely unsafe. So current drugs such as Modafinil are probably not capable of changing a whole population over to a 2.5 hour sleep schedule, so we would probably be looking at smaller increases in the work day than the 34% discussed. Still, the mechanisms of increased productivity should still apply albeit at a smaller magnitude.

40 hour weeks are as much as we can do

Other commenters suggested that a 40 hour work week is the maximum productive number of hours people could manage. This may be true at present but most of the studies on these drugs do suggest they have a substantial impact on reducing fatigue and maintaining performance. I'd see this 40 hour limit as a contingent fact of our normal mental state rather than a cast iron rule. These drugs are doing more than keeping users awake in an undead state but actually prolonging the time that they are able to be alert.

An arguably stronger effect of this class of drugs would be increasing the productivity of those already working long hours. The current usage of these drugs seem to support this view. A study of doctors found that their performance during long shifts was significantly improved by taking modafinil. The authors conclude that:

 Our results suggest that fatigued doctors might benefit from pharmacological enhancement in situations that require efficient information processing, flexible thinking, and decision making under time pressure. However, no improvement is likely to be seen in the performance of basic procedural tasks.

Sleep is important

At the moment this is definitely true and there is convincing evidence that sleep promotes memory consolidation. What we don't seem to know (it'd be good to hear from any sleep experts who have a more complete answer) is how much sleep is required and whether these functions are affected (positively or negatively) by wakefulness drugs.

People enjoy sleep

I am genuinely not sure if this is true. I certainly enjoy dreaming (which is only a small proportion of total sleep), snoozing (that half asleep phase after you wake up) and feeling refreshed. But I'm not sure I like sleeping 8 hours simply because it meant I was asleep for 8 hours. If I could feel equally refreshed and remember just as many dreams after 3 hours I'd probably be just as satisfied. I'm not sure if the number of hours in which I was not experiencing anything is something I value in itself so much as for the effects it has on me.

I don't want to work more hours

This was probably the most commonly made point. Whether this is valid comes down to whether we care about the proportion of our time that we are at work or the total amount of work we do in a day. The American Time Use Survey in the previous post suggests that (at least on work days) people spend more of their waking hours working than all other activities combined (this includes household tasks and caring for dependents). If we do get extra wakeful time it could all go to leisure but this would be a huge increase in the proportion of our waking lives spent in leisure. This of course is no bad thing but our current tendency spend a high proportion of our time on work suggests that people do not value leisure so much as to forgo wages substantially.

The split I suggested would increase leisure time much more proportionally than it would work time. Nevertheless, it is an open question whether we fundamentally dislike working more than 8 hours a day regardless of the time we spend in leisure. It is possible that regularly working 11 hour days would be unpleasant regardless of how much leisure time was available for relaxing. There may be timetable that can allow extended breaks of several hours during the day but everyone knows lunch breaks don't feel as good as real time off.


Nelly wrote that:
"These drugs may make someone more productive on a daily basis, but wouldn't necessarily make someone more productive on an hourly basis. Maybe more importantly, it is quite possible that those who would choose to take these drugs would be negatively selected. They would likely be taking them to become more competitive, which would be in line with your increasing the labor supply argument."

This is an interesting point and might be true to begin with. However, if the negative selected individuals are managing to compete with those with a higher underlying skill, it might make sense for skilled people to take these drugs as well in order to maintain their position. In a jobs market where the payoff to human capital is partially positional (i.e. almost every jobs market), people with higher talent are disadvantaged by people with lower talent using drugs to catch up. If the talented can't stop the dopers from using drugs, then they may be pushed towards joining them.

This creeping economic pressure to use these drugs is still the most convincing argument against their use. But this is roughly analogous to the economic pressures to use any other technology. Workers who refuse to use any motorized transport limit their job opportunities and only a few farmers still use pre-industrial methods. That's not to say that cars and fertilizer are purely positive developments but they still spread rapidly.

These pressures mean that if we do decide that we don't want to live in a society that relies on these drugs, we may have to actively regulate them rather than leaving the decision to individuals.


  1. ''If we do get extra wakeful time it could all go to leisure but this would be a huge increase in the proportion of our waking lives spent in leisure. This of course is no bad thing but our current tendency spend a high proportion of our time on work suggests that people do not value leisure so much as to forgo wages substantially.''

    ...they shouted from atop of their ivory tower.

    This is just hypocritical. For most of us, work is necessary, in that survival is conditional on that amount the average person gets for their 8-10 hours a day. Then, most work is exhausting, and to a significant degree, plain boring. This is why people get paid to do it. these properties of most jobs continue to determine life beyond those 8 hours, simply by making people dull. That is why people may get bored with leisure and consequently not care so much as to trade in even more lifetime for some extra $$.
    I kindly suggest you understand these basic facts before continuing with your 'science'.

    1. Disagree... From the original post:

      "our current tendency spend a high proportion of our time on work suggests that people do not value leisure so much as to forgo wages substantially."

      I would rephrase that... People value material goods and the social status a higher income provides (by buying/displaying those things) more than they value leisure.

      Human beings run the rat race. Willingly. And always want more. Have a 3-bedroom bungalow for you, your wife, and your 3 kids (two of whom share a room)? Well why not move out to the suburbs and get a 5-bedroom house so each kid can have their own room and you get a media room out of the bargain? Oh, and you need to outfit that media room with furniture, a big screen and a stereo? Oh, and the longer commute means you want to drive a nicer car to and from the office? I guess the Mrs. will have to go back to work. After all, she wants to make sure she still takes a big vacation every summer, right?

      It's a rare person who looks at their income and says "yeah, this is comfortable enough to live on and I really don't need anything more." Much more common is the person who is *always* angling for more income, higher social status, and to keep up with or stay ahead of the Joneses.

      Americans don't work 40+ hour weeks because they have to do so to survive. They work 40+ hour weeks because mere survival is not enough for them to feel happy.