Early Birds And Night Owls Can Both Be Unethical

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Even though we have known for ages that circadian rhythms vary wildly, we still equate getting up early with virtuous productivity and staying up late with a slacker/procrastinator mentality. And those of us who like to get our work done at midnight are probably just hard-wired to be that way. What we did not know, however, is that our circadian rhythms might be driving us towards unethical behavior if we are doing our decision-making at the wrong time.

RelatedQuiz: “What time are you most likely to behave unethically at work?”
Washington Post

A recent paper by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and Harvard sheds light on how, left to your own devices, you may become an amoral monster if you have to make an ethical choice during the wrong time of day. Basically, Christopher M. Barnes and his team set up a study in which lying resulted in more money for the text subject. First, they had people take a quiz to determine their chronotype — a fancy way of identifying which type you are: a morning person or a night person. Then they randomly assigned people to work on a task at seven in the morning or midnight without regard to whether they were a night owl or a lark. Then they waved some cash in front of their faces.

Participants undertook a die rolling task previously established as a test for unethical behavior. In this task, they anonymously rolled a die and reported the number back to us, and we paid paying them based on the number they reported (higher amounts for higher rolls).

Although we didn’t know what numbers participants actually rolled, we did know that everyone should report an average of 3.5. So any systematic differences across conditions (morning people in the morning vs. evening people in the morning, for example), would indicate cheating. Consistent with our prediction, an interesting and statistically significant pattern emerged. Larks in the night session reported getting higher rolls (M=4.55) than larks in the morning sessions (M=3.86), and owls in the morning session reported higher rolls (M=4.23) than owls in the night sessions (3.80).

(Aside: Did it not remotely occur to the people participating in this study that if they were getting rewarded with cash, something about the ethical implications of how you got that cash might be at stake?)

Setting aside the fact that there is something deeply sad about a person who would lie during a psychological research study, this has real-world implications for those of us in fields that are ostensibly grounded in ethical decision-making. While it is implausible to assume that a district court will let you start having motion practice hearings at 10 p.m., it is not absurd to suggest that firm managers would do well to accommodate employees in scheduling matters to maximize both productivity and ethical behavior.

The important organizational takeaway from these findings is that individuals may be more likely to act unethically when they are ‘mismatched’–that is, making a decision at the wrong time of day for their own chronotype,” Barnes, Gunia, and Sah write. “Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work. Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.

If you have the good fortune to be in charge of your own calendar rather than at the whim of a manager, you could consider ensuring that you schedule things like settlement conferences at at a time when you are most able to be ethical and effective.

Also, in case you are one of those night owls that are tired of always having your reputation besmirched as a lazypants, the study had something to say about that as well.

These results “cast doubt on the stereotype that evening people are somehow dissolute,” the authors conclude – early risers are just as likely to cheat when taken out of their temporal comfort zone.

If you are a night person, perhaps the researchers would write you a note you can give to your employer so you can finally stop trying to be in the office before dawn.

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  • To make the experiment valid wouldn’t you have to have the same people complete a task in the morning and the afternoon? Seems to me that some people might be dishonest all the time…