Harvard Study Reveals Something Alarming Happens to Morning People at Night

The news: Some people are "morning larks," early risers attentive first thing in the morning; others are "night owls," less productive in the morning but more likely to come alive at night. And while these characteristics and energy levels might affect productivity, does it effects ethical judgement as well?

Yes, according to a new Harvard study. Previous research has shown that people are more likely to become more unethical as the day goes on, but the Harvard team wanted to see if people with different sleeping patterns had different responses to temptation. So the researchers separated study participants into morning larks and night owls and gave them two different decision-making tasks that actually tested their honesty.

The result: The Harvard team found that "larks will be more unethical at night than in the morning, and that owls will be more unethical in the morning than at night" — the more tired people felt, the more they were inclined to lie.


Image Credit: Harvard Business Review

What does this mean for business? Studies like this challenge the notion of a traditional 9-5 workday: If people are naturally inclined to be more productive and ethical at different hours of the day, isn't it inefficient and ultimately dangerous for a company to ask everyone to work the same hours?

The Harvard team think so. "Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work," they wrote in the Harvard Business Review. "Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior."

As technological advances make it easier for people to telecommute or restructure their schedules, it's up to managers to decide whether they want to allow flexible workdays. If you can get people to operate at optimum efficiency and moral uprightness for their shift, does it matter when they do the work?

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Eileen Shim

Eileen is a writer living in New York. She studied comparative literature and international studies at Yale University, and enjoys writing about the intersection of culture and politics.

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