In this weeks Faculty Q&A, Georgetown McDonough Assistant Professor of Ethics, Sunita Sah, explains how chronotypes (which determine whether you’re a morning (lark) or evening (owl) person) influence our ethical behavior.
Q: What piqued your interest in studying chronotypes and morality?
A: I always have found myself to be more productive later in the day while consistently receiving advice to do my most important work first thing in the morning. There also is a stereotype that suggests that morning people are saintly whereas those that lie-in may lack morals – this is a fascinating research question for anyone who is interested in ethics.
Q: What is the “morning morality effect” and how does it relate to your research?
A: The morning morality effect suggests that people are more moral in the morning when they have more energy to resist temptations. However, approximately 40 percent of people experience increased energy as the day goes on (often called “owls”) so this effect would not apply to them. Our research investigated the “chronotype morality effect” to understand how people’s ethical decisions can be different due to both chronotype and time of day.
Q: How do chronotypes influence an individuals’ behavior?
A: Chronotypes (which determine whether you’re a morning (lark) or evening (owl) person) influence behavior in a number of different ways. In our research we investigated how people differ in their ethical decisions depending on their chronotype and the time of day. We found that evening people were more likely to be unethical in the morning and morning people were more likely to be unethical late in the evening – the match between chronotype and time of day was a better prediction of ethical behavior than the time of day alone.
Q: How did you test ethical behavior?
A: We tested ethical behavior in controlled settings via two different tasks. In the first study, participants were paid money for solving simple math problems (known as the matrix task among ethics researchers). Participants believed their work was anonymous and so they could get away with over-reporting the number of problems they ‘solved’ to earn more money. However, after the study, we could determine who cheated by over-reporting. The second study used a similar technique but we asked participants to tell us the score of a die that they rolled in private. Again, participants earned more if they reported a higher number. This time we couldn’t determine if any particular individual cheated but overall each group should report an average of 3.5 rolls. We found, as per our predictions that morning people (larks) were more likely to cheat in the evening and evening people (owls) were more likely to cheat in the morning.
Q: Given the findings of the study, what is your advice to employers?
A: Managers may find it helpful to learn the chronotype of employees (and themselves) and create work structures, schedules and hours that match peak times for individuals. Employers who require larks to make challenging, ethical decisions at night or owls to make similar decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging unethical behavior. Employers should also carefully consider overtime, shift work, flextime, and requirements during Daylight Savings Time clock changes.