We know that self-control is a finite resource. For example, you're on a diet. You're using up a lot of your self-control on not eating unhealthy foods -- salads for lunch -- but you might have a few more glasses of wine at that happy hour/networking event than you otherwise might given that your self-control is being devoted to your diet. Controlling smoking, drinking, eating, whathaveyou, these can all be self-control depleters.
Now, some new research finds that ethical conduct might fall into this category as well. In a new paper (gated) by Harvard and University of Utah researchers, they find:
In a series of four experiments, both undergraduate students and a sample of U.S. adults engaged in less unethical behavior (e.g., less lying and cheating) on tasks performed in the morning than on the same tasks performed in the afternoon. This morning morality effect was mediated by decreases in moral awareness and self-control in the afternoon. Furthermore, the effect of time of day on unethical behavior was found to be stronger for people with a lower propensity to morally disengage. These findings highlight a simple yet pervasive factor (i.e., the time of day) that has important implications for moral behavior.
For example, in one experiment the researchers recruited 70 people online and asked them solve certain puzzles or "matrices." The trick was: some of the puzzles were unsolvable. The incentive was this: for each puzzle solved, the participant would get a monetary reward. With the results being self-reported there was an obvious open door to grease the pecuniary wheels. Human nature being what it is, both the morning participants and afternoon participants cheated (i.e., reporting that they solved the unsolvable matrices). But "afternoon participants cheated more."
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The study has obvious implications for businesses and organizations. The authors notes that they "need to be more vigilant about combating the unethical behavior of customers (or employees) in the afternoon." But these findings are not simply important to make sure customers don't shoplift or employees don't steal. Overall, the findings have "important implications for moral behavior." That is, our own moral behavior.
The authors state: "the capacity for self-control is like a muscle, and requires rest after use for its strength to be restored."
So, yes, being a "good person" is like anything else that requires self-control: we all know the old saw about how people will usually do the wrong thing as long as it's not too much work. If we have an important ethical decision to make, it sure seems like we should mull it over in the morning. Perhaps it's no coincidence why the cliche "sleep on it" is a cliche. Somewhere in the reptilian area of our brains, we might know we're better people in the morning.