Cognitive Daily

To say college students* aren’t well-known for their efficient sleep habits might be the most dramatic understatement since Washington observed that Valley Forge winters are “a bit nippy.” I can remember dozing off with my head in a pile of books at the library when I was in college, then waking with “The Riverside Chaucer” imprinted on my face in mirror-image.

Undaunted by college students’ reputation for irregular sleep, a group of researchers conducted a large study of Ohio State University students’ sleeping habits. Among the many questions they attempted to answer was a simple one: how does loneliness affect sleep? Certainly loneliness is an important issue for college students, and focusing in on this aspect of the sleep data was a team led by John T. Cacioppo.

Their study design was simple: before enrolling in the sleep study, the participants were given a battery of tests, one of which was a loneliness scale: a 20-question measure developed at UCLA and demonstrated to be a reliable indicator of loneliness. The top fifth, middle fifth, and bottom fifth were selected for further study.

Cacioppo et al. further narrowed the field by eliminating people who scored high on an index of clinical depression, who were in their first or last term in college, or who weren’t enrolled full-time. Participants spent one night at the research center on campus, where they were fitted with a device that monitored head and eyelid movements. These measures were used to create a sleep efficiency score. Then the students monitored their own sleep using the same device for five more nights. Here are those results:


People with high loneliness ratings had significantly lower sleep efficiency ratings than less lonely people, both in the lab and in their own beds. They also spent more time awake after they had initially fallen asleep:


Cacioppo et al. claim that this is the first study that has found that lonely people do not sleep as well as non-lonely people. Whether loneliness causes poor sleep is not answered by this study, which can only show a correlation between loneliness and inefficient sleep. Perhaps poor sleep causes loneliness, or perhaps some other condition causes both loneliness and poor sleep (though individuals suffering from depression, possibly the most likely culprit, were excluded from this study).

Do you have any crazy college sleep / sleep deprivation stories? Share them in the comments (which may also be used to comment on the study)!

Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., Berntson, G.G., Ernst, J.M., Gibbs, A.C., Stickgold, R., & Hobson, J.A. (2002). Do lonely days invade the nights? Potential social modulation of sleep efficiency. Psychological Science, 13(4), 384-387.

*or university students, as they’re called outside the U.S.


  1. #1 coturnix
    January 19, 2006

    Very interesting! I linked to this from Circadiana, so perhaps some of the sleep-blog readers will come and comment here. Do you have a PDF you could send me?

    [P.S. commenting still does not work for me from Firefox, I am doing this from IE #$%^&]

  2. #2 HP
    January 19, 2006

    Hi. First off, I just found your blog, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. When I was an undergrad, I regularly volunteered to be a research subject for various cognition/perception studies in the psych lab at Indiana U. I found the whole thing fascinating, so this a real treat.

    I would like to say, though, that having only recently been diagnosed and treated for severe obstructive apnea, after nearly losing my job (not to mention several close calls behind the wheel), I have a bit of a blind spot now regarding crazy college sleep deprivation stories. I’m also an insomniac, and I live alone, so this latest study is a real downer for me.

    (/* thinks a bit; decides not be a drag */ Well, okay, there was that one time I was trying to cram for a final, and fell asleep right before the test, woke up and ran into the classroom about 10 minutes before the test ended, and the professor was all conciliatory, telling me not to worry; I could come back and take the test with the afternoon section. Turns out my hay fever was acting up, and my eyes were tearing up as though I’d been sobbing hysterically. And, oh yeah, there was the time I had to give a recital the day after returning from a grueling, 72-hour, alcohol-fueled bus tour [the band was alcohol-fueled, not the bus]. I went out and played, and one professor said, “I really enjoyed your performance, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone take five minutes to walk out to the center of the stage before.” But other than that, I have no sense of humor about this topic at all. 🙂

    Coturnix: Do you have a URL for Circadiana? Maybe that’s something I should check out.

  3. #3 h3f
    January 19, 2006

    When I was in college, particularly my freshman year, I never wanted to go to bed because I was always convinced that someone, somewhere, was going to have fun without me.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    January 19, 2006

    HP and h3f —

    Thanks for the stories — great stuff! And here’s a link to Circadiana.

  5. #5 Scott Reynen
    January 20, 2006

    Interesting. So when we see someone who looks tired, it might actually be more helpful to invite them out than to suggest they stay home and relax.

  6. #6 Will McKenna
    January 20, 2006

    My freshman year I stayed up for 40 hours straight studying and taking exams. After finishing all of them I wasn’t even tired anymore and played on my computer for a few hours. When I finally decided I’d better go to sleep (since I was starting to freak out about not being tired), I slept for 18 hours straight.

  7. #7 sharon
    January 21, 2006

    But here’s the thing. You haven’t defined your object, so everything you say after that is…well…not going to parse.

    What is a ‘college student’? My friends mother just got into Oxford- she’s in her 50’s. Is she included in your definition? My other friend in her 20’s works in the film industry- and goes to school full time online. Is she included in your definition? You need to be a lot more thorough with your defining your objects, to be able to have your code parse.

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    January 21, 2006


    I’m not quite sure why you think these results are “not going to parse.” The results are statistically significant. Alhough Cacioppo et al. don’t report the mean age of the students in this study, I would suspect that these students are mostly traditional students, since they are at a residential, four-year college. The point is, in this group, loneliness correlates with inefficient sleep. I’d argue that if we were talking about only 21-year-olds, the results would be interesting, and if we’re talking about an even wider age range, they would be even more so.

  9. #9 Tyler A.
    May 23, 2008

    This isn’t so much a story as it is a comment, but I have notoriously bad sleeping habits. Amongst the time during my transition to college there were bits of time where I had felt particularly lonely. Likewise there have been times when I have not been lonely. The difference I have noticed in regards to my sleep at least was that during days when I didn’t feel lonely at all, due to spending times with friends, etc, when I went to try and sleep there was a far greater sense of “completion” to my day. This relieving sense of completion made it feel more comforting to “end my day” as it were with sleep. Perhaps that fits into the situation? Many people, while not all obviously when you consider people who suffer depression, feel lonely often because they aren’t being socially active for whatever reason. Perhaps because of our innate need to socialize we feel uncomfortable essentially wrapping up our day with going to bed. Maybe because of that discomfort their sleep is likewise disturbed.

    Obviously this may not be the case since I haven’t researched this but I think perhaps it deserves consideration.

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