Morality And Self-Control Are Easier In The Morning
October 31, 2013

Moral Disengagement Happens More Often In The Afternoon, Mornings Makes Us More Honest

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Is there benefit to finalizing big business decisions or administering quizzes and tests in the morning? A new study conducted by Maryam Kouchaki of Harvard University and Isaac Smith of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business suggests you will have more honest interactions in the morning hours.

As the researchers explain, our ability to exhibit self-control to avoid cheating and lying is eroded significantly as we go through our day. As a result, the study claims people are much more likely to exhibit dishonesty in the afternoon than in the morning. The team’s findings have been published in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal, Psychological Science.

"As ethics researchers, we had been running experiments examining various unethical behaviors, such as lying, stealing, and cheating," researchers Kouchaki and Smith explain. "We noticed that experiments conducted in the morning seemed to systematically result in lower instances of unethical behavior."

After having that realization, the researchers decided it was important to examine the idea of whether or not it is, in fact, easier to resist the opportunities to obfuscate, cheat, steal or engage in other unethical behaviors in the morning than in the afternoon.

Previous research has established how self-control can be depleted due to lack of rest or making repeated decisions throughout the day. Kouchacki and Smith saw an opportunity to examine whether normal activities through the day might lead people to increase their dishonest behavior due to a depletion of self-control.

Their study consisted of two separate experiments. The first study involved college-age subjects who were shown a split screen which had various patterns of dots on each side. Each subject was asked to identify whether a greater number of dots were displayed on the left or right side of the monitor. However, a cash payout was not determined by correct answers, but rather by which side they perceived had more dots. Here’s the catch: when the subject selected the right side, they received a payout 10 times greater than if they selected the left side. This created a financial incentive for the subject to select the right side, even if there were unmistakably more dots on the left, which would be a clear case of cheating.

The research team had hypothesized the subjects tested between 8:00 am and 12:00 pm would be less likely to cheat than the subjects tested between 12:00 pm and 6:00 pm. They termed this the “morning morality effect.”

At the same time, subjects’ moral awareness was tested in each of the sessions. With the use of word fragments, the team found morning subjects would complete a fragments like “_ _RAL” and “E _ _ _C_ _” with “moral” and “ethical.” Conversely, the afternoon subjects would likely form the words “coral” and “effects.” This, say Kouchacki and Smith, further supports the idea of the morning morality effect.

The second experiment conducted by the team involved an online test of participants from across the United States. Unsurprisingly, the same pattern was noted. The online subjects were more likely to send a dishonest message to a virtual partner or to report having solved an unsolvable number-matching problem in the afternoon, as compared to subjects tested in the morning.

Additionally, the team discovered the extent of subjects’ moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is the ability to behave unethically without feeling guilt or distress. This realization reinforced the difference in how strong the morning morality effect was. Subjects who more easily were able to morally disengage were likely to cheat in both the morning and the afternoon. Those with a lower propensity to morally disengage – subjects one might expect to be more ethical in general – were honest in the morning, but less so in the afternoon.

"Unfortunately, the most honest people, such as those less likely to morally disengage, may be the most susceptible to the negative consequences associated with the morning morality effect," the researchers write. "Our findings suggest that mere time of day can lead to a systematic failure of good people to act morally."

Kouchacki, who earned her doctorate at the University of Utah where Smith is currently in the PhD program, noted this research and its results could have implications for organizations or businesses trying to reduce unethical behavior.

"For instance, organizations may need to be more vigilant about combating the unethical behavior of customers or employees in the afternoon than in the morning," the researchers explain. "Whether you are personally trying to manage your own temptations, or you are a parent, teacher, or leader worried about the unethical behavior of others, our research suggests that it can be important to take something as seemingly mundane as the time of day into account."