Monday, February 08, 2010

Sleep Schedules and Equal Consideration

People generally appreciate that sleep is important, and so one shouldn't make a lot of noise in residential areas late at night. That's great. What bothers me is that people often treat the mornings rather differently. Scheduling maintenance work on campus housing for 7:45am somehow doesn't strike the university as grossly inconsiderate, the way that scheduling it for 11pm surely would. Of course, one can imagine circumstances in which this would be perfectly reasonable, i.e. if one had a reasonable expectation that everyone would ordinarily be awake at that time anyhow. But we're talking about graduate student housing here, and it should be common knowledge that there's a fair bit of variation in the sleep schedules of graduate students. Many find that they work better at night, and so don't ordinarily wake up until fairly late in the morning.

Early-risers (or administrators with traditional working hours) often seem not to understand this. Perhaps they think that any grad student who's still asleep at 8am is just "sleeping in", the way that they themselves might do on a lazy weekend. I don't think that would be an adequate justification anyhow -- interrupting a pleasant sleep-in is bad enough -- but of course the actual situation for those of us with later sleep schedules is rather different. We're talking about interrupting one's normal sleep schedule. It is less like interrupting the early-riser's weekend sleep-in, and more like waking them up at 5am, or whenever qualifies as a couple of hours before their usual waking time. (Or perhaps like keeping them up at night for a couple of hours past their usual bedtime.) It's really quite unpleasant.

Perhaps the inconsistent treatment is thought to be justified by early-riser moralizing: really (the thought goes), people ought to wake early. Those on later sleep schedules must just be lazy, indolent, etc., and so have no right to a full night's sleep. Hell, it'd be good for them to get up earlier, so what are they complaining about?

But this argument seems doubly dubious. First, I'm not sure what the empirical basis is for thinking that everyone would flourish best with a larkish sleep schedule. This neglects the full scope of human cognitive diversity. Secondly, the attempted justification seems objectionably paternalistic. Even if someone would do better to change their sleep schedule, surely that's their business, and others ought to respect their wishes (including their actual sleep schedule) so far as possible. And on a more practical note: interrupting their sleep this once (or however often the apartment requires maintenance work) doesn't seem likely to have any long-term effect. It'll just make them tired and grumpy for the rest of the day. And that's really not a very nice thing to do to someone.


  1. Night owls of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but your varying degrees of fatigue!

  2. The maintainance workers might like keeping a normal workday schedule so that they can be with their families in the evenings. It's not so much a moral issue as a comme il faut kind of thing. There's a generally accepted workday. It is to some extent arbitrary, but it's necessary that there be some convention in order to coordinate diverse human endeavors, little things like needing to be done with work in time to pick up kids at day care. If your sleep pattern is out of line then it seems to me that the consequences are for you to deal with. I don't think that because you're morally bad, but because people shouldn't be asked to bend their schedules to your idiosyncrasies. The difference between 11pm and 8am is perhaps conventional, but it is necessary to have some such conventions.

  3. Part of the ordered maintenance was in areas where people aren't sleeping. So pareto improvements could very easily be achieved by simply switching the order. (And remember, we're talking about grad students here; it's hardly unusual for members of this population to not want to be woken at 7:45am.)

    So sure, I grant your point that some conventions are necessary. But that's no excuse to pass up easy (practically costless) opportunities to accommodate others. It's not as though there's any pressing reason why the university has to order the residential maintenance in particular to be the first order of the day.

  4. I think that conventions are necessary as sleep is necessary. Though, why should the conventional be to interrupt the same hours of the day? Imagine work that has to be done for a number of consecutive days and a graduate student to have interrupted sleep for months at a time. Couldn’t it be that idiosyncrasies are human and widely in existence and should be taken into consideration further not just as idiosyncrasies but as in the effect it has on any persons sleep or quiet time being interrupted always , at the same time in the same way...It seems that informing ahead of time and some change in the pattern of what is considered established conventions would serve most equally.

  5. Strikes me this is an example of a fairly insidious problem: that of privileging norms over people. I see it all the time. A norm becomes widely recognized as having moral force - perhaps because, in a range of circumstances, what it says you should do is what you ought to do - and it is then respected regardless of whether doing so disrespects people. (Those who keep disreputable sleep schedules are often victims of this kind of "normalized disrespect." So too are those who use sexist or racist language in non-assertoric contexts - like with their ironic friends (ambiguity intentional). And then there are the examples that get the most press, such as the Biblically sanctioned mistreatment of those with certain sexual preferences / orientations.)

    The problem is insidious for three reasons. (1) If a highly regarded - widely internalized - norm authorizes immorality, then there will be a disconnect between feeling guilt and doing wrong (so there will be no psychological pressure to refrain). (2) This disconnect remains even for those who (in some sense) recognize that what they're doing is cruel. (I just know there is a conspiracy of larks who thrill at the prospect of startling a laggard... And then sleep easy because their early morning bustle has the sanction of a reputable norm.) So privileging norms before people promotes inhumanity. (3) It promotes inhumanity, too, because, with the norm highly regarded, those who respect it (while disrespecting people) are held to be pillars of the community! Far from being sanctioned, they are praised for their sins.

    The horror! The horror!

  6. I sometimes have this problem as I am a musician and often work late, so have a range of rather dull audio books on an old MP3 player. If I get woken up I just listen to something like Gibbons Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. Have never made it belong the first 5 minutes without dropping off again. This also masks other sounds. It needs a bit of experimentation to get the volume just right and a comfortable set of earbuds, but it really works.
    Going out into the desert or somewhere far from people makes you realise how noisy modern city living really is, not just in the morning. Some people almost feel uncomfortable with silence, do they need noise to reassure themselves that they are not alone?
    I like having a "quiet space break" to let my ears and brain get tuned in to noises like wind and leaves rustling.

  7. In this case it's definitely possible that there were no real other alternatives that didn't waste significant resources (these employees likely have a 7-3 workday or something) and even if not it was likely an oversight.

    What I find far more troubling is that often people explicitly refuse to offer accommodations for late risers in a context that takes account of other similar preferences.

    For instance in the math department at berkeley one filled out TA (GSI) preference forms on which you indicated when you would be taking classes and any special circumstances like childcare or a job that would make it difficult for you to teach at a given time. However, the form explicitly indicated that even having a long travel time to campus so you would have to rise exceptionally early was not an acceptable reason.

    So things people do for their own pleasure like taking ancient greek or reproducing are taken into account but if what matters to you is having a late schedule that doesn't even deserve consideration. And don't even let me get started on the implicit discrimination in granting special monetary and time consideration for child-care but not for the equally important lifestyle issue of a long distance relationship.

  8. I can think of reasons for preferring to do construction at 8 AM to 11 PM that have nothing to do with concerns about the potential for disturbing people's sleep.

    It's dark outside at 11 PM, and it's usually light outside at 8 AM--I'd think it would be a lot harder to do construction at night, no?

  9. "I can think of reasons for preferring to do construction at 8 AM to 11 PM that have nothing to do with concerns about the potential for disturbing people's sleep."

    I'm sure you can. I'm less sure how this is relevant. The point is that concern for those who are trying to sleep is something that it's generally recognized should be taken into account by considerate people. (It's obviously not the only thing that's ever relevant.) And yet -- as TruePath points out -- it's very common for people to fail to extend this basic consideration to late risers, even when they could be easily accommodated. (Again, I'm not suggesting that sleep preferences could or should always be accommodated, no matter the external circumstances.)

  10. "I'm sure you can. I'm less sure how this is relevant."

    I'm sorry, I thought it was obvious. I took your post to be presuming that concern for sleep schedules is something that university administrators take into account in scheduling construction. I'm suggesting that if your only evidence is the timing, then you may be too hasty in jumping to conclusions.

  11. Actually, your response sounds like you mean to be just be making a general point. If your general point is that people are differentially considerate towards early and late risers, then I agree.

    If your point is that this differential consideration is what explains the scheduling of construction, then I think the evidence severely underdetermines that conclusion, given the existence of alternative explanations.


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