Morality in the Morning

Are we more dependable and trustworthy at breakfast than at dinner?

The Morning Morality Effect_Psychological Science January 2014Are you tired of your account managers giving you the runaround about their weekly TPS reports? Try moving your meetings with them to the a.m.! According to a just-released study from the Association for Psychological Science (APS), straight answers are more likely in the morning than in the afternoon.

The APS study proposes that the rigors of everyday living erode our capacity to resist lying and cheating, using four experiments to substantiate what researchers call the “morning morality effect.” The morning morality effect basically means that, by the end of the day, our ability to process moral decisions and maintain self-control is about as effective as an empty can of air freshener.

The study also found that people with a greater innate propensity for theft, murder, and bullshit are influenced by the morning morality effect to a greater degree than those with a naturally heightened sense of moral awareness. In other words, unless you’re a codependent fixer, the colleagues you likely already avoid will get even worse toward quittin’ time, while the steadfast goody-goodies will be more likely to resist the temptation to act on their amoral thoughts.

(Still, ever notice how impatient the sanctimonious types can become by the end of the day? Sounds to me like the APS is sayin’ that, come four o’clock, even the cloyingly self-righteous can’t help plotting to kill their rich uncles.)

Association for Psychological Science

People want to do the right thing, the study says, but time pressures, sleep deprivation, and duties that require one form of self-regulation or another decrease people’s self-control, which leads to unethical behavior in the face of temptation. So yes, the esteemed Association for Psychological Science is basically saying it’s fatigues fault you took off your wedding ring to go talk to the new girl three cubicles over. And the part of me well aware of the lines I cross at the end of a long afternoon when I’m tired and irritable doesn’t disagree. If I get cornered on a phone call, say, I’m much more likely to come up with some baloney to get myself off the hook as quickly as possible, whereas in the morning I’m a lot more patient.

This is nothing we don’t already know about ourselves, so big whoop, right? What interests me is how studies like this tend to sell us on the idea of our fates being inevitable.

In other words, I can’t help reading into this a little and meeting resistance to the idea of afternoon exhaustion being an acceptable excuse for unethical behavior and an inability to overcome temptation. There’s something just too compelling about letting science soothe our guilt and make it okay not to try.

Back in the ’80s, I remember how the parents of a glum 12th-grader sued Ozzy because his music “told” the kid to eat a 12-gauge shotgun shell. I laughed at how dumb of an excuse that was, but being able to spot an excuse didn’t stop me from rationalizing my own bad choices. So as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter what time of day you lie, cheat, or steal. Being worn out doesn’t get you off the hook, just as recognizing laughable excuses won’t prevent you from inventing whoppers. Maybe someone should study the part of the brain that convinces us to justify bad coping skills.

The point is, morality in the morning doesn’t hold a candle to defying your fate.