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New Study Shows We’re More Likely to be Bad When We’re Tired

As a child my mother used to tell me that when you’re sick, you get sicker as the day wears on – fevers increase at night. I don’t know whether there is truth to that or whether it was an old wives’ tale, but a new study is indicating that our proclivity for making immoral decisions tends to go up at night. According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, our ability to regulate our own moral code declines as the day goes on, so the later it is, the more likely we are to cheat, commit fraud, or lie.

Isaac H. Smith is an assistant professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University who was co-author of the study with Maryan Kouchaki, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Referring to the time that we are more likely to make good decisions as “morning morality,” Dr. Smith says, “To the extent that you’re cognitively tired, you’re more likely to give in to the devil on your shoulder.”

The two conducted a series of experiments in which people were tested in either the morning or the afternoon. The group was asked to look at images of dots on a computer screen and to report whether they were concentrated on the left of the screen or on the right. They were promised money totaling up to five dollars for answers that indicated that the dots were bunched on the right, and knew that even if they cheated and misreported that the dots were on the right when they were actually on the left, they would be paid.

In one of the experiments, the doctors found that there was a 25 percent higher incidence of cheating by those who took the test in the afternoon. Subsequent experiments yielded similar results. The test confirmed previous research that indicates that when the brain becomes tired it is more likely to lose what is known as “executive control.” Our ability to make moral choices is impacted. One of those previous studies done as a collaboration between scientists at Harvard and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that people were more likely to impulsively cheat the more cognitively tired they became.

We are more Likely to make bad decisions at night and/or if we are tired We are more Likely to make bad decisions at night and/or if we are tired

There are those who disagree with the findings of these studies. Some believe that saying that we have a morning morality that loses its strength and dominance as we become physically and cognitively tired is too simplistic and overlooks the impact of whether a person is a night owl or a lark, and there is truth to the idea that different people perform differently at varied times of the day. Drs. Smith and Kouchaki respond to that argument by indicating that regardless of whether you function better in the morning or night, the brain will eventually tire and your moral judgment will decline as it does.

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