How Coffee Makes You More Honest

Studies on sleep-deprived workers show that caffeine can help steel us against unethical temptations at work.

How Coffee Makes You More Honest
[Image: Flickr user Katherine Lim]

Do you take cream and sugar in your truth serum?


We already know that coffee gives us more focus, better memory, and provides an extra kick when cortisol is low, but it’s also making us more honest.

According to a recent study, caffeine helps you resist pressure to act unethically at work.

Being tired, the researchers said, makes it harder to stay resolute. “When you’re sleep deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down,” said David Welsh, an organizational behavior professor at the University of Washington.

In the study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, participants pulled an all-nighter and then chewed either a piece of regular gum, or gum laced with 200 milligrams of caffeine–the equivalent to two cups of coffee. They were then given the opportunity to play along with a lie to earn money.


The caffeinated group was less likely to take the bait; they balked at the dirty dealings. The group without caffeinated had only fresh breath to console their consciousnesses–they were more easily plied to leave morals behind for some cash.

“Caffeine can help you resist by strengthening your self-control and willpower when you’re exhausted,” said Michael Christian, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

And, as earlier research shows, there’s a definite link between sleep deprivation and misbehavior. Deviant behavior costs companies as much as $200 billion each year, but according to the study of overworked nurses, “providing employees with caffeine can completely reverse the negative effects of sleep deprivation, at least in the short term.”

Wearing employees down until they’ve burned out of ethical restraint is a larger problem itself, but the researchers offer a few practical lessons from their findings:

  • Cut back on long hours and excessive workloads.
  • Schedule decision-making meetings and high-pressure tasks around long-haul projects.
  • Provide awareness training for burnout, and don’t encourage an over-working culture.
  • When all else fails, start another pot.

Hat tip: Fortune

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.