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Honesty gets harder as day wears on, researchers find

Oct. 30, 2013
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

The self-con­trol that helps us re­sist cheat­ing or ly­ing wears down as a day goes on, mak­ing us more likely to be dis­hon­est in the af­ter­noon than in the morn­ing, ac­cord­ing to new find­ings.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the most hon­est peo­ple” may be the most sus­cep­ti­ble to that ef­fect, the re­search­ers wrote, ex­plain­ing their find­ings.

“We had been run­ning ex­pe­ri­ments ex­am­in­ing var­i­ous un­eth­i­cal be­hav­iors, such as ly­ing, steal­ing, and cheat­ing,” added the re­search­ers, Maryam Kouchaki of Har­vard Uni­vers­ity and Isaac Smith of the Uni­vers­ity of Utah. “We no­ticed that ex­pe­ri­ments con­ducted in the morn­ing seemed to sys­tem­at­ic­ally re­sult in low­er in­stances of un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior.”

This led them to won­der: Is it eas­i­er to re­sist op­por­tun­i­ties to lie, cheat, steal, and en­gage in oth­er un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior in the morn­ing than in the af­ter­noon? Know­ing that stud­ies have shown that a lack of rest and re­peat­ed decision-mak­ing can de­plete self-con­trol, Kouchacki and Smith ex­am­ined wheth­er nor­mal daily ac­ti­vi­ties would do so and in­crease dis­hon­est be­hav­ior. Their find­ings are pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

In two ex­pe­ri­ments, college-age par­ti­ci­pants were shown var­i­ous pat­terns of dots on a com­put­er. For each pat­tern, they were asked to iden­ti­fy wheth­er more dots were dis­played on the left or right side of the screen. Im­por­tant­ly, par­ti­ci­pants weren’t paid for get­ting cor­rect an­swers, but were in­stead paid based on which side of the screen they said had more dots; they were paid 10 times more for pick­ing the right over the left. Par­ti­ci­pants there­fore had a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive to se­lect the right, even if there were un­mis­takably more dots on the left, which would be a case of clear cheat­ing.

Par­ti­ci­pants tested be­tween 8:00 a.m. and noon were less likely to cheat than those tested be­tween noon and 6:00p.m., the re­search­ers said, a phe­nom­e­non they called the “morn­ing mor­al­ity ef­fect.”

They al­so tested par­ti­ci­pants’ mor­al aware­ness in both the morn­ing and af­ter­noon. Af­ter pre­sent­ing them with word frag­ments such as “_ _RAL” and “E_ _ _ C_ _” the morn­ing par­ti­ci­pants were more likely to form the words “mor­al” and “eth­i­cal,” where­as the af­ter­noon par­ti­ci­pants tended to form the words “co­ral” and “ef­fects.”

The re­search­ers found the same pat­tern of re­sults when they tested a sam­ple of on­line par­ti­ci­pants from across the Un­ited State, they said. Par­ti­ci­pants were more likely to send a dis­hon­est mes­sage to a vir­tu­al part­ner or to re­port hav­ing solved an un­solv­a­ble number-matching prob­lem in the af­ter­noon, com­pared to the morn­ing.

They al­so found that the ex­tent to which peo­ple be­have un­eth­ic­ally with­out feel­ing guilt or dis­tress—known as mor­al disen­gagement—made a dif­fer­ence in how strong the morn­ing mor­al­ity ef­fect was. Par­ti­ci­pants with a high­er propens­ity to mor­ally disen­gage were likely to cheat in both the morn­ing and the af­ter­noon, they found. But peo­ple who had a low­er propens­ity to mor­ally disen­gage—those who might be ex­pected to be more eth­i­cal in gen­er­al—were hon­est in the morn­ing, but less so in the af­ter­noon.

They add that their re­search re­sults could have im­plica­t­ions for or­gan­iz­a­tions or busi­nesses try­ing to re­duce un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior. “For in­stance, or­gan­iz­a­tions may need to be more vig­i­lant about com­bat­ing the un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior of cus­tomers or em­ploy­ees in the af­ter­noon than in the morn­ing,” the re­search­ers wrote.


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The self-control that helps us resist cheating or lying wears down as a day goes on, making us more likely to be dishonest in the afternoon than in the morning, according to new findings. “Unfortunately, the most honest people” may be the most susceptible to that effect, the researchers wrote, explaining their findings.. “We had been running experiments examining various unethical behaviors, such as lying, stealing, and cheating,” added the researchers, Maryam Kouchaki of Harvard University and Isaac Smith of the University of Utah. “We noticed that experiments conducted in the morning seemed to systematically result in lower instances of unethical behavior.” This led them to wonder: Is it easier to resist opportunities to lie, cheat, steal, and engage in other unethical behavior in the morning than in the afternoon? Knowing that studies have shown that a lack of rest and repeated decision-making can deplete self-control, Kouchacki and Smith examined whether normal daily activities would do so and increase dishonest behavior. Their findings are published in the journal Psychological Science. In two experiments, college-age participants were shown various patterns of dots on a computer. For each pattern, they were asked to identify whether more dots were displayed on the left or right side of the screen. Importantly, participants weren’t paid for getting correct answers, but were instead paid based on which side of the screen they said had more dots; they were paid 10 times more for picking the right over the left. Participants therefore had a financial incentive to select the right, even if there were unmistakably more dots on the left, which would be a case of clear cheating. Participants tested between 8:00 a.m. and noon were less likely to cheat than those tested between noon and 6:00p.m., the researchers said, a phenomenon they called the “morning morality effect.” They also tested participants’ moral awareness in both the morning and afternoon. After presenting them with word fragments such as “_ _RAL” and “E_ _ _ C_ _” the morning participants were more likely to form the words “moral” and “ethical,” whereas the afternoon participants tended to form the words “coral” and “effects.” The researchers found the same pattern of results when they tested a sample of online participants from across the United State, they said. Participants were more likely to send a dishonest message to a virtual partner or to report having solved an unsolvable number-matching problem in the afternoon, compared to the morning. They also found that the extent to which people behave unethically without feeling guilt or distress — known as moral disengagement — made a difference in how strong the morning morality effect was. Participants with a higher propensity to morally disengage were likely to cheat in both the morning and the afternoon, they found. But people who had a lower propensity to morally disengage — those who might be expected to be more ethical in general — were honest in the morning, but less so in the afternoon. They add that their research results could have implications for organizations or businesses trying to reduce unethical behavior. “For instance, organizations may need to be more vigilant about combating the unethical behavior of customers or employees in the afternoon than in the morning,” the researchers wrote.