There are some curious cultural ideas around sleep, namely that there’s something virtuous or impressive about not getting very much of it. “Burnout” is often shorthand for success: if you’re successful it follows that you’re also pretty busy, in which case you’re less likely to get enough sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously boasted that she only needed to sleep four hours a night, as has Donald Trump — though whether that bolsters or damages the prestige associated with sleepless nights probably depends on your politics.
There may also be links between sleep and perceptions of masculinity, a new paper in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research suggests. In a number of studies, Nathan B. Warren and Troy H. Campbell from the University of Oregon found that not only do we associate sleep deprivation with masculinity, but that men who sleep less actually experience more favourable social judgements than their better-rested counterparts.
In the first study, 144 participants were asked to imagine a man shopping for a bed; when approached by a salesperson, the man is asked how much he sleeps. Participants were randomly assigned to two conditions: in one, the man answers that he sleeps a lot, while in the other he states that he sleeps very little. After hearing the man’s answer, participants rated how masculine they felt he was — and when participants heard that he had lots of sleep, masculinity ratings were significantly lower than in the little sleep condition.
Next, participants were asked to describe either a masculine or non-masculine man’s habits and behaviours: what he would like to do for fun, for example, as well as how much sleep he would get on average. As in the first study, there was a link: those in the masculine condition described their character sleeping for 33 minutes less than the non-masculine character.
The team then explored why men who sleep less are seen as less masculine. They asked 207 participants to describe a man who either gets “lots of sleep” or “little sleep”, rating his character on seven measures of agency (e.g. “he is individualistic” or “he is assertive”).
Again, participants rated men who sleep a lot as significantly less masculine than those who sleep a little. But participants’ perceptions of agency seemed to be key to this link: characters who sleep a lot were described as having less agency than those who sleep a little, and this in turn led people to rate those characters as less masculine.
A later study looked at social judgements: are men who sleep more judged more harshly than those who sleep less? Participants were asked how American society would judge various people (e.g. “athletes” and “adult males”) if they either slept “a lot” or ”very little”.
As predicted, men who sleep a lot were evaluated more negatively than those who sleep a little, while there was no difference for women. Interestingly, judgements across other categories were uneven — athletes were positively evaluated when they slept a lot, whilst lawyers were more favourably looked upon when they slept a little. A subsequent study again showed that perceptions of agency and masculinity were important when making these social judgments.
Finally, the team found that even self-evaluations were influenced by stereotypes about sleep and masculinity. Men who imagined telling another person that they slept more than average felt significantly less masculine than those who imagined saying they slept less than average.
The key factor in understanding why there is such a strong link between sleep and perceived masculinity, the team argues, is agency. Many facets of agency are considered to be stereotypically masculine — assertiveness, individualism, orientation towards goals — compared to the more “feminine” traits of empathy or affection. If you’re goal-oriented and assertive, you’re likely to be someone who strives to use their time efficiently — which is where the perceived link between success, sleep and masculinity might come into play.
For those who aren’t particularly interested in abiding by gender stereotypes or reject them altogether, the results probably don’t make much difference. But if men are sleeping less because of worries around masculinity, they could face some seriously negative consequences: physical or mental health issues have often been linked to poor sleep. Challenging stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, as in so many other areas, may prove beneficial when it comes to persuading men it’s alright to have a good night’s sleep.