Want to get an honest answer from someone? Your chances are better if you ask them in the morning.
Turns out, morality is like dieting: it’s easier to do the right thing at the beginning of a day versus later at night.
In 2013, ethics researchers Maryam Kouchaki of Harvard University and Isaac Smith of the University of Utah tested the theory that “normal, unremarkable experiences associated with everyday living can deplete one’s capacity to resist moral temptations.”
They put 274 adults through four experiments at different times of the day. Participants were more likely to engage in unethical behaviors, such as lying and cheating, in the afternoon, and a higher level of moral awareness and self-control was found in the morning. The researchers called their results the “morning morality effect.”
“Behaving in a moral way takes will power,” says Alex Lickerman, M.D., author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self. “Unfortunately, will power is a weak mental force that declines as the day goes on or as you use it.”
Doing the right thing is effortless when you’re not tempted to choose wrong, says Lickerman, but when there is a personal incentive to do the wrong thing, you have to fight temptation. “If your will power has already been depleted by other things, you may find yourself doing the unethical, and rationalizing your actions,” he says.
For example, in one of the study’s experiments, participants were shown a square divided in half and scattered with dots; they were asked whether there were more dots on the right or left side. A nickel was given for each response, regardless of whether their response was correct. Counting dots causes mental fatigue, but morning participants were more likely to take the time to answer honestly than those in the afternoon.
In another experiment, participants were asked to send a message to a fellow participant. The message could be truthful or deceptive. If they chose to send the truthful message, they would receive $0.25; sending a deceptive message earned $0.50. Participants sent more deceptive messages in the afternoon.
Participants were also asked to rate a series of statements on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree). For example, “Considering the ways people grossly misrepresent themselves, it’s hardly a sin to inflate your own credentials a bit.” Responses were designed to gauge how often the person would “morally disengage” when faced with ethical temptation. Ironically, those participants whose answers indicated that they had stronger morals were more influenced by the morning morality effect.
How can you use the findings to your benefit? If unethical behaviors might impact your results, take into account the time of day of your actions.
Confront employees with moral choices earlier in the day, says Lickerman. For example, ask that expense reports be filled out on Monday mornings, and hold employee or project review meetings before noon when a fresher perspective is needed.
Consider the best time of day to tackle a challenge. If you’re asking for a raise, for example, your boss may be more open to the idea in the morning, says Lickerman. “They’d be more likely to look at the merits of the question,” he says. But afternoon fatigue might benefit you in some situations: “Studies show that judges are more likely to hand out harsher sentences in morning than afternoon,” says Lickerman. “As you get mentally tired, you tend to be less fair or moral.”
And make important decisions early in the day. “When you’re fresh, you’ll be more likely to go with your gut and perhaps make the best choice,” says Lickerman.
“Organizations may need to be more vigilant about combating the unethical behavior of customers or employees in the afternoon than in the morning,” Kouchaki and Simth write. “Whether you are personally trying to manage your own temptations, or you are a parent, teacher, or leader worried about the unethical behavior of others, our research suggests that it can be important to take something as seemingly mundane as the time of day into account.”