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08/01/2014

Day or Night: Ethics Depends on Time

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Is that shirt the cashier forget to ring up a bonus or do you point out the oversight? Do you report your peer for being an impaired physician or just look the other way when she drinks? Cut your $20 million pay as a CEO or “layoff” 10,000 workers?

When dealing with ethical issues like these your first step may be to watch the clock. A study published last year found that people are more moral in the afternoon than in the mornings. The reason is that everyday living tires us out and our will seeps away. Thus by the afternoon, we have lost much of our ability to “resist moral temptations.”

In a more recent study, researchers took the further step and wondered if “night owls” would experience the same effect. They hypothesized that such people would not show this dissipation in the evening, but rather might be more ethical in the evening hours when their energy was at its highest. I found this particularly interesting since I am a night person myself. In fact, I’m writing this piece at 2am. What Gunia et al found is that morning people are more ethical in the morning and night people are ethical in the evening.

How much of ethical decision making comes down to our chronotype? Should I avoid making morning decisions? Should my physician spouse who is awake at 5:30am avoid making evening ethical decisions? I guess this would preclude that we could ever make a decision together. In classes, I teach my students ethical theories and frameworks to help guide their moral deliberations. But perhaps these tools are only useful when students are at the height of their diurnal energy. This suggests that patients and subjects should only be permitted to go through consent processes and sign forms during their optimal time of day.

I want to suggest that there’s some limitation to these studies that are often missed in public debate. “Early risers ‘less moral at night” said the BBC. “Morning People Are More Likely to Lie to Their Bosses in the Afternoon” according to the Atlantic. The Washington Post wrote “The 9-to-5 workday is practically an invitation to ethical lapses.” They peddle easy answers that are often miss the subtlety.

First, both of these studies relied on experimental laboratory settings. In other words, these were artificial scenarios that subjects were asked to think about. Whether real behavior would follow these models is unknown. Second, correlation is not causation. Just because these experiments found a correlation does not mean that chronotype or time of day is the cause. There could be other mitigating factors. For example, a series of studies have shown that intelligent people stay up later and presumably sleep less to accomplish all that they do. Does this mean that staying up late will make you smarter or that you should stay up later so you look like you’re smarter? Probably not.

These studies do not seem to control for when is the maximum energy hour is or for how many hours people were awake. A morning person at a 10am session may have been up for 5 hours, but a night person at a 4pm session may have only been awake for 3.  Also consider that being a morning or evening person was self reported and that subjects received compensation for their participation (course credit and a modest amount of cash).

Theses studies also beg the question as to what one does with this information. Should I only work in afternoons/evenings to maximize my chance of making ethical choices? I’m not sure my university would appreciate that. But, it does make me consider offering classes in the early morning (obviously with a morning oriented instructor) and the evening to maximize chances that my students will be ethical in an ethics course.

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