Mornings are only moral for morning people

This is Part II of a series of three blog entries, based on a series of three articles in which two teams of researchers go back and forth on what they think is the influence of time on day on our decisions. Part I was posted last Thursday, and Part III will be posted this coming Thursday.

I am not a morning person. I can force myself into a morning schedule when I have to teach classes at 8 a.m., but left to its own devices my body would remain alert and active well into the evening, and then sleep through noon. I have done some of my best writing – include my master’s thesis – in the red-eye hours, and I would much prefer to see sunrise as the last vision before sleep than the first sight upon waking. I am undoubtedly a “night owl”, the poetic name for a chronotype that puts peak alertness and activity after dark. Anyone else who is a night owl, and has felt the difficulty and effort involved in dragging out of bed at the insanely early hours (i.e., before 10 a.m.), should have felt a moment of skepticism over last week’s report that people are more honest in the mornings. If it comes to being too tired to overcome self-interest in favor of the moral thing to do, afternoons seem far less risky than those first few hours awake.

Are we more likely to cheat and lie as the day wears on? Photo by Jo Christian Oterhals, used under creative commons license.

Are we more likely to cheat and lie as the day wears on? Photo by Jo Christian Oterhals, used under creative commons license.

There are three chronotypes we are interested in. There are night owls such as myself. There are also the “morning people” – a phrase usually uttered with a mixture of affront and frustration at those who bounce out of bed at dawn feeling refreshed – and “day people”, who aren’t inclined to either late nights or early mornings. (In an attempt at poetic parity, morning people have sometimes been called “larks”, but the name has never really caught on, and no one seems to have settled on a mid-day bird for the day people).

In theory, we are more moral in the mornings before the daily acts of living – resisting the temptation to have chocolate for breakfast, holding our tongue in traffic, making nice with the difficult co-worker – eat away at our reserves of self-control and make it harder to overcome our initial urges to lie or cheat. However, we don’t necessarily start out with a full complement of mental energy and then go into decline, because sleep isn’t the only thing that influences how alert we are; our circadian rhythms, regulated by chemicals secreted into our bloodstreams at different times of day, create multiple different peaks of mental energy. I sometimes think of this as my “second wind”; I’ll be tired in the morning but, without even taking a nap, the afternoon and late evening will each bring a renewed vigor to my mind. This could quite possibly counteract any draining of my cognitive resources from decisions made and self-control exerted earlier in the day.

And that’s what researchers looking closer at the morning morality effect found. These experiments used tasks similar to the original study, such as having volunteers look for certain sets of numbers in a matrix and paying them 50 cents if they said they solved it – even if the numbers weren’t actually there to begin with. This time, however, volunteer also completed a survey to determine if they were morning people, day people, or evening people (if you’re curious, you can take a similar survey yourself). When people were solving these number puzzles between 7:30 and 9:30 in the morning, only 20% of the “morning” people lied and said they solved an unsolvable puzzle, but 40% of the “day” people lied, and almost 60% of the night owls lied. Here’s a really good excuse for sleeping until 10 or so, then; I can avoid a high-risk time for stretching the truth.

A second study provided further evidence that when you are more likely to lie depends on your chronotype. This time, volunteers were asked to roll a dice, out of view of any experimenter, to determine how many raffle tickets they would receive. By chance, the average dice roll would be a 3.5, because there are equal odds of rolling a 1 through 6. As you can see in the chart below, everyone seems to have inflated their rolls – but morning people had more dramatic inflations in the evening, while night owls had more dramatic inflations in the morning.

Morning people are more dishonest in the afternoon, but evening people are more dishonest in the morning. Based on data from Gunia et al. (2014).

Morning people are more dishonest in the afternoon, but evening people are more dishonest in the morning. Based on data from Gunia et al. (2014).

This is a very short report, so the researchers don’t offer a lot of explanation for what it is about chronotype that contributes to our moral decision making, beyond the general idea that chronotype comes with different biological timed moments of extra alertness that could provide the mental energy to override those immoral impulses. This would probably be of great interest to drug companies, or a science fiction author ready to write about pharmaceuticals that might turn morality on or off. Most importantly, it reminds us that there are no simple explanations for what we do. It’s not merely one risky time of day for everyone, but different risky times of day for each person – likely also changed by how much sleep they got the night before, how recently they had a sugary snack, and any of a host of factors we haven’t looked at yet. So don’t automatically distrust things people tell you in the afternoon just yet.

Of course, the original researchers aren’t 100% on board with the new interpretation of their idea. We’ll explore their reaction next week.

Gunia, B.C., Barnes, C.M., & Sah, S. (2014). The morality of larks and owls: Unethical behavior depends on chronotype as well as time of day. Psychological Science, 25 (12), 2272-2274 PMID: 25287664


One thought on “Mornings are only moral for morning people

  1. Excellent blog post, thank you. I’m always looking out for studies that tell a more nuanced story than the standard ‘mornings are best, for everything, always’ message that emerges from time-of-day research. Those of us who are late chronotypes know that there’s something wrong with arguments that difficult and creative tasks are best done between 5am and 8am. (Unless we’ve been up since the day before, of course!)

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