Being honest gets more difficult as the day wears on

Researchers discuss the 'morning morality effect'

People are more likely to be dishonest or act immoral in the afternoon or evening versus in the morning as one's self-control wears off throughout the day, according to new research published in Psychological Science.

Harvard's Maryam Kouchaki says she noticed the phenomenon—called the "morning morality effect"—in various studies she had conducted in the past on "lying, stealing, and cheating." To test her theory, Kouchaki and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments.

In one experiment, college students were asked to identify patterns of dots on a computer screen and were awarded money based on which side of the screen they determined had more dots. They had no financial incentive for giving correct information to the researchers.

Students tested between 8:00 am and 12:00 pm were less likely to cheat than those tested between 12:00 pm and 6:00pm, researchers found.

In a second experiment, researchers tested students' moral awareness by asking them to fill in word fragments, such as "_ _ RAL" and "E_ _ _C_ _." In the morning, students were more likely to form the words "moral" and "ethical," and in the afternoon, students were more likely to form the words "coral" and "effects."

In another experiment, researchers asked online participants to send a dishonest message to a virtual partner or to report having solved an unsolvable number-matching problem—participants were far more likely to be dishonest in the afternoon than in the morning. 

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

The researchers add that their findings could have implications for businesses attempting to decrease unethical behavior, by taking "something as seemingly mundane as the time of day into account" (Kouchaki et al., Psychological Science, 10/28; Medical News Today, 11/1).


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