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Live Fast, Die Young, and Sleep Later: Life History Strategy and Human Sleep Behavior


Background and objectives

Life History Theory (LHT) describes trade-offs that organisms make with regard to three investment pathways: growth, maintenance and reproduction. In light of the reparative functions of sleep, we examine sleep behaviors and corresponding attitudes as proximate manifestations of an individual's underlying relative prioritization of short-term reproduction versus long-term maintenance.


We collected survey data from 568 participants across two online studies having different participant pools. We use a mixture of segmented and hierarchical regression models, structural equation modeling and machine learning to infer relationships between sleep duration/quality, attitudes about sleep and biodemographic/psychometric measures of life history strategy (LHS).


An age-mediated U- or V-shaped relationship appears when LHS is plotted against habitual sleep duration, with the fastest strategies occupying the sections of the curve with the highest mortality risk: < 6.5 hr (short sleep) and > 8.5 hr (long sleep). LH 'fastness' is associated with increased sleepiness and worse overall sleep quality: delayed sleep onset latency, more wakefulness after sleep onset, higher sleep-wake instability and greater sleep duration variability. Hedonic valuations of sleep may mediate the effects of LHS on certain sleep parameters.

Conclusions and implications

The costs of deprioritizing maintenance can be parameterized in the domain of sleep, where 'life history fastness' corresponds with sleep patterns associated with greater senescence and mortality. Individual differences in sleep having significant health implications can thus be understood as components of lifelong trajectories likely stemming from calibration to developmental circumstances. Relatedly, hedonic valuations of sleep may constitute useful avenues for non-pharmacological management of chronic sleep disorders.Lay Summary: Sleep is essential because it allows the body to repair and maintain itself. But time spent sleeping is time that cannot be spent doing other things. People differ in how much they prioritize immediate rewards, including sociosexual opportunities, versus long-term goals. In this research, we show that individual differences in sleep behaviors, and attitudes toward sleep, correspond with psychological and behavioral differences reflecting such differing priorities. Orientation toward sleep can thus be understood as part of the overall lifetime strategies that people pursue.

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