Social Norms About Sleep Patterns

Kari Kohn Kari Kohn

At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova writes about the recent work of Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist whose work suggests that sleep patterns are related to biology rather than character. Roenneberg’s work aside, some human populations seems to have fairly strong social norms about the virtue of early rising and the vice of sleeping late. Popova writes:

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. (He would have scoffed at Einstein, then, who was known to require ten hours of sleep for optimal performance.) This perceived superiority of those who can get by on less sleep isn’t just something Napoleon shared with dictators like Hitler and Stalin, it’s an enduring attitude woven into our social norms and expectations, from proverbs about early birds to the basic scheduling structure of education and the workplace… our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

As Roenneberg points out in his book, Internal Time:

This myth that early risers are good people and that late risers are lazy has its reasons and merits in rural societies but becomes questionable in a modern 24/7 society. The old moral is so prevalent, however, that it still dominates our beliefs, even in modern times.

Roenneberg also offers a defense of late risers:

I am often asked whether we cannot get used to given working hours merely through discipline and by confining our sleep habits to certain times. The assumption inherent in this question is that the human body clock can synchronize to social cues. I tend to find that any such questioner, who usually also displays a somewhat disdainful tone towards the weakness of late chronotypes, is an early type — someone who has never experienced the problems associated with the [desynchronized] sleep-wake behavior of late chronotypes.

In the face of scientific evidence and modern work schedules, our agrarian attitudes toward sleep are a testament to the persistance of social norms. Maybe its time for a change.

Read Popova’s post here. Hat tip: Counterparties.

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