The Dark Side of Being a Night Owl

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I was seriously creeped out by recent research that linked my particular sleep-wake habits (the fact that I’m a night owl) with some not-very-nice personality characteristics.

In a small study, Peter K. Jonason at University of Western Sydney and colleagues asked 263 college students about their morning vs. evening habits and preferences. Students were asked a second batch of questions designed to measure the strength of their narcissistic, psychopathic, and Machiavellianistic personality tendencies. (I haven’t met a college student who isn’t all about me-me-me, but Machiavellian? I guess some of them do have enhanced manipulation skills when it comes to getting their parents to fork out money….)

The Creatures of the Night researchers found a correlation between students who said they functioned better at night and three disturbing personality traits that have the vampire-ish name, the Dark Triad.

Yikes.

I immediately turned to Facebook to see if my college daughters were A) up yet, and B) showed visible signs of darkness.

I also turned to behavior and sleep experts to pooh-pooh the study and to reassure me that me and my family’s long history of nocturnal habits are A) merely genetic, and B) benignly charming and not dangerous.

The experts did have plenty to say about the study, but they didn’t exactly reassure me.

Both clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, and psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, pointed out that the study was small and done with students who—whether they’re born with owl or lark sleep patterns (we’re all genetically disposed to a certain sleep-wake chronotype, Dr. Breus says)—become “notorious night owls” during the college years. They also pointed out that the study information was self-reported, meaning it came from the students themselves (as opposed to being observations made in a lab by researchers, for example).

But the gist of the research—that night owls might be more inclined to be less healthy in mind and body—that’s not so crazy. I’d seen research that night owls get poorer grades and may pack on extra pounds, but there’s more.

“When you look at people who are night owls, we know that they are more prone to disease. Research shows they are more likely to be depressed and have immune dysfunction. They have a lower resistance to things like colds and get sick more often,” says Dr. Breus, who is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep.

“Night owls like to be up when everybody else is asleep and you could argue that there is some kind of antisocial quality to them,” he says. Of course, there’s a big stretch between being genetically programmed to want to stay up late and get up late—and maybe being a little less social than other people—and being a psychopath!

The same dude who did the night owl study has done extensive research on Dark Triad behavior and created a dirty dozen list of dark qualities (he also studies “dark” behavior like booty calls and hookups). A Psychology Today blog lists the dirty dozen and it’s fascinating to look at the checklist that includes, “I have used flattery to get my way” and “I want others to pay attention to me” and “I tend to expect special favors from others.”

As the blog post says, the dirty dozen list of narcissistic/psychopathic/Machiavellian behavior is… a little dirty. It’s not definitive. Nor is this night owl research. But if it helps us better understand ourselves and others or draws attention to a sleep or personality issue, there’s benefit, says Dr. Ramsey, who is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York. (He, by the way, is one of those cheery larks. As a part-time kale farmer—he wrote 50 Shades of Kale—he is up at the crack of dawn.)

“It’s good to remind people to get help if they’re concerned about their sleep or lack of it,” he says. “Any time there’s a significant disruption in their sleep—that’s a great time to talk to a psychiatrist. There are strong correlations between people who have sleep disorders and psychiatric illness.”

I am a night owl and am typically up early, so I don’t think I’m a psychopath so much as I’m just overworked and sleep-deprived. This gives me more grump bucket tendencies than Dark Triad ones. But as the Psych Today article said: I’ve been warned. If this blog becomes too much of a cry for attention or I start to flatter you too much, please let me know.

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