Early to bed, early to rise ... makes us better in ethicists' eyes

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Ever since I used to wake up early as a young child and turn on the morning farm report on TV, my still-sleeping parents knew they had an early riser. An active morning person, if you will. They can be excused if they didn't know they were also likely rearing an honest, ethical person.

Now I have the research to help prove it.

The farm report was merely a consolation prize. The best of weak pre-dawn offerings back when there were just three or four channels to choose from on the big wooden box in the middle of the living room. Somehow a suburban boy made do. Trust me. (Believe me, it's OK to trust me.)

Maryam Kouchaki, a research fellow at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has my back.

Kouchaki and colleague Isaac H. Smith of the University of Utah conducted a study that showed that individuals tend to be less truthful as the day wears on.

The researchers — ironically — lied to study subjects and told them they were taking part in a decision-making experiment. Actually, the investigators had created a simulation to discover how honest people are at different times of the day.

Study subjects could earn more money if they lied during the experiment. More untruthfulness was discovered in the afternoon than in the morning.

Some 65% of subjects lied for small financial gains in the afternoon, while just 43% did so in the morning. (Perhaps more telling is that apparently 8% chose to lie all the time, but that will have to wait for another time.)

Rest easy, nursing supervisors. This doesn't mean you need to spy on your entire overnight shift to see what unethical behavior inevitably will unfold. It appears that it's not so much the time of day but rather the length of time one has been awake that influences breakdowns in ethical behavior.

Kouchaki and Smith said the rise in lying is due to “psychological depletion,” a cognitive weakening that people experience the longer their day wears on. 

The implications are a bit frightening. Kouchaki said that replaying the experiment four times yielded similar results every time: People were 20% to 50% more likely to act dishonestly during a 3-6 p.m. time slot.

“They were depleted of the resources they needed for self-control,” she told the Harvard Business Review. Worse yet: Those with typically higher ethical standards were more likely to fall hardest in this late-day time slot. In other words, no one was immune.

Rather than issuing blanket rules and new policies out of fear that employees will rob you blind or neglect their duties in the afternoon, Kouchaki simply recommends scheduling smarter “to avoid systemic pitfalls.” This will “limit opportunities for immorality,” which can include things as simple as whether to clean up after oneself in the company kitchen.

Have managers contemplate tougher decisions earlier in the day, or after a break. Don't put off the toughest moral issues until the end of the day.

Call it an endorsement for healthy tea times or well-engineered siestas. “Self-control is like a muscle — we need to restore its strength after use,” Kouchaki explains. “Rest, relaxation, meditation, prayer, a snack — all those things can help restore us.”

And leave us more likely to make ethical decisions, as sure as Orion Samuelson knows the difference between a combine harvester and a cultipacker.

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor … and still typically rising far too early in the suburbs for any practical purpose.



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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.