The murky waters of moral mornings

This is the final entry of a three-part series of 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. You can refresh on the original study here, and the counterargument that being a morning person matters here.

How does a researcher respond when she has carefully designed and analyzed her experiments, developed an exciting case for it, sent it out to the world in the form of a published article…and then someone else turns around with their own study and says, well, that idea might be right…but only for some people?

I can imagine any mix of possible reactions, from excitement that someone else is interested in the theory to fear of competition and being “scooped”, from curiosity about the proposed refinement to chagrin at having missed something. In the saga of the morning morality effect, I can certainly imagine a researcher feeling that chagrin and disappointment as they see what was beautifully clear and simple rule of behavior (people are more trustworthy in the mornings!) become complicated by caveats (…if they’re morning people) that might seem so obvious with 20-20 hindsight (how could I have forgotten that some people just can’t function in the morning?
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.

Such a blend of emotions might explain Isaac Smith and Maryann Kouchaki’s response to the evidence that modified their morning morality effect: that the “morning morality effect” may be weaker in night owls, but it isn’t entirely absent. It’s an attempt to compromise, preserving their original theory while also acknowledging the strength of the new evidence, but it’s based on a mixed bag of criticisms. Some of their critiques about the new research are good, but others seem narrowly focused and even a bit disingenuous at times.
The first reason Smith and Kouchaki give for their skepticism is that Brian Gunia and his colleagues found a weaker morning morality effect than their original research; in four different studies with different mixes of people, Smith and Kouchaki’s research found a clear morning morality effect when averaging across all volunteers, while in Gunia’s study the morning people and night owls canceled each other out when they were combined. They blame this on two things. First, Gunia didn’t include the “day people”, who have a middling chronotype and might have also shown a morning morality effect. Fair enough; we don’t know when those day people are going to be more or less trustworthy, and odds are good that it’d be earlier in the day when cognitive resources are fresh.
Their second explanation seemed somewhat less likely: Gunia put the “evening” sessions after midnight instead of around dinnertime. Smith and Kouchaki propose that even night owls lose their moral compass from morning to early evening, and then regain it late a night through the magic of “circadian processes”. On the one hand, yes, ego depletion and the wearing down of cognitive control resources suggest that moral decisions could wear down during the day; on the other hand, ego restoration through sugar or a view of nature suggest that the hours after lunch might see morality on the upswing. Either way, I’m don’t see an afternoon session changing the fact that night owls were inclined to cheat or lie around breakfast, which is what killed any overall morning morality effect.

My biggest problem with their complaint about the lack of a compelling morning morality effect, however, is the way they dismiss the obvious explanation. The more morning people you have in your study, the more likely you are to find a morning morality effect because they’ll pull the average toward their way of behaving. This is the first explanation that Smith and Kouchaki bring up, but they immediately dismiss it as unlikely. However, go back to their original study, and you will see that their online post recruiting volunteers went up at “midmorning on a weekday” (Kouchaki & Smith, 2014, p. 99) and that most participants had responded in half an hour. So, all volunteers in their research were people who were up and online in the morning. Call me crazy, but I suspect there would be far more morning and day people looking for studies to volunteer in at that hour of the day than there would be night owls. Voila; Instant bias to morning people.

One point Smith, Kouchaki and I agree on is that we need a better understanding of what mechanics allow our chronotype to restore our mental acuity, beyond the vague idea that hormones get secreted on a schedule and restore energy to our day. I’m ready to believe that being a night person helps, but how? Which hormones are secreted, and why do they influence moral decisions? How many times during the day does our circadian rhythm shift and take our morality and self-control with it? Can we override that shift with sugar? Whatever the mechanism is, I suspect it will be far more complicated and unpredictable than “mornings are moral”.

Although if it turns out that there is a predictable formula for using how much of a certain hormone is in our blood stream to predict how likely we are to lie or cheat, then I (and all dystopian science fiction writers) will be very intrigued.
Smith, I.H., & Kouchaki, M. (2014). Does the morning morality effect hold true only for morning people? Psychological Science, 25 (12), 2275-2276 PMID: 25287665


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