Would You Sleep More if Someone Paid You?

By Sayeh Nikpay, PHD
August 14, 2020

In-person academic seminars have become a casualty of the pandemic, and lots of new virtual economics seminars have popped up to fill the void, including the Electronic Health Economics Colloquium, an open-access, open-invitation seminar series that I help organize. Last month, Osea Giuntella presented “Why Don’t We Sleep Enough? A Field Experiment among College Students.” 

Giuntella and his co-authors Mallory Avery and Peiran Jiao conducted a randomized controlled trial in which they tracked the sleep habits of two groups of college students — they promised one group money if they slept more and promised the other group nothing. This kind of promise is called a commitment device, a way of getting yourself to do something you might not otherwise do. The researchers found those who were assigned the commitment device slept about 20% more on average, leading to modest gains in health and academic performance. 

The result I found really interesting, though, was that among those who agreed to be paid to sleep more, people who thought they already got enough sleep (even if they actually didn’t) were less likely to change their sleep behavior. In other words, our beliefs about how much sleep we get can actually get in the way of getting better sleep, even when we are being paid to sleep more! Another important finding was that those who slept more as a result of the payments cut their screen time before bed nearly in half to make more time for sleep.

This paper was a wake-up call for me, and it has me thinking about setting up my own commitment device. I consistently do not get enough sleep, especially now that child care has crowded out work time during the pandemic. The good news is the paper found that these types of commitment devices help form good habits, as many participants continued to sleep more even after the experimental payments stopped.

(If you want to see the presentation, you can watch it here.)

Sayeh Nikpay is an associate professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Tradeoffs’ Contributing Research Editor. Her research focuses on the impact of health reform on labor market decisions of individuals and hospital finance.

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