Does the economy affect sleep?

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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There may be more to economics than the stock market and unemployment rates. Consider the matter of sleep.

Then again, sleep is not very sensitive to economic incentives, as Daljit Dhadwal found.

“Economists try to study all aspects of human behaviour, just like sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists,” says Dhadwal, who received his master of arts in economics Oct. 7. His eye-catching thesis, The Demand for Sleep, examines how economists use time diaries to measure economic effects on sleep time.

In a time diary study, randomly chosen people from across the U.S. record what they do every 10 minutes over a day.

While demographers have used the studies to trace how American life has changed over the last four decades, they also make it possible to test the economic model of time allocation - how economic incentives might impact our time.

Dhadwal says the time diaries show all sorts of patterns in people's sleep times. Most are predictable. “All of these patterns seem to indicate that people can control some amount of their sleeping time,” he says.

“For example, people tend to sleep more on weekends than on weekdays and people with babies sleep less than those without young children.”

Dhadwal analysed time diaries from 1985 to determine if economic incentives, such as a person's wage, can explain the sleep patterns.

He found only weak evidence of economic effects on sleep, but points out: “Over time, we will get a better sense of what behaviours are sensitive to market forces and what behaviours are not by carrying out such analysis. It's interesting to see that sleep is not affected very much by economic incentives. This helps us in the search to find what behaviours might be affected.”

That's a question that Dhadwal, who hopes to work in statistical analysis, will sleep on.

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