We may like to think we can act ethically when the situation calls for it, but as it turns out, something as simple as the time of day may affect our ability to make ethical decisions.
Research into this idea started with a paper called The Morning Morality Effect. The paper laid out evidence for a simple theory:
From the time we wake up, we are continuously expending energy on random tasks. As the day goes on, we have less energy to give, and this negatively affects our ability to act morally.
Said another way, as we use more energy throughout the day, we are more likely to make unethical decisions. However, while scientists thought that this theory was onto something, they believed it wasn’t enough to provide a complete answer. What if, they surmised, the morality effect wasn’t just a morning thing, but instead had to do with whether someone is a morning or night person?
To test this, scientists had a group of participants fill out a survey to determine whether they were morning or night people. Those who showed a strong indication as being one or the other were then randomly split into two testing sessions, one in the morning and the other at night.
In each session, people were trusted to roll a die and report the number that they rolled. The higher the number, the more raffle tickets they would receive to use toward a prize. This system created an incentive to cheat since reporting a higher number would result in more raffle tickets, and if participants chose to lie about what number they rolled, they could.
After the sessions, researchers calculated the average number rolled for each group. What they found is that morning people were more likely to lie about what numbers they rolled during the night session, reporting more high die rolls than the average for the night people. Data from the morning session also yielded the same result. Night people who tested in the morning were found reporting higher numbers than the average for morning people.
This study, coined The Chronotype Morality Effect, shows that one's ability to make moral decisions is not necessarily linked to the amount of energy expended throughout the day. Instead, moral decision making appears to be related to a person's chronotype.
chronotype – a person's natural inclination with regard to the times of day when they prefer to sleep or when they are most alert or energetic.
Basically, morning people are more likely to act morally in the morning, and night people are more likely to act morally at night. This isn't a rule that applies to everyone, of course, but the study's results and real-world implications are intriguing nonetheless.
So, are you a morning or night person? Have you noticed this type of behavior before in your own life?