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When are you most vulnerable to unethical behavior? Check your chronotype

barnes-christopher-dir.jpgEven the most ethical people have their moments of weakness. When energy wanes, willpower is depleted, and the temptation to act unethically becomes more difficult to resist.

According to new research by Christopher Barnes, these moments of ethical vulnerability are dictated by each individual’s chronotype—their tendency to be an early bird or a night owl.

Early birds are most prone to behave unethically late in the day and into the night. But night owls are most likely to do the wrong thing in the morning.

This finding adds an important layer of individual complexity to the prevailing “morning morality effect” theory which holds that people are more ethical in the morning, before their stores of willpower are drained by repeated use throughout the day.

“Our study portrays a more complex picture,” says Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. “During typical waking hours, there’s not any one time of the day at which you can say that everybody is especially vulnerable to being unethical.”

Variable ethics

The morning morality effect represented a significant advance in understanding how ethics are variable rather than fixed—influenced by time and situation rather than by character alone.

Barnes explains that we are, indeed, most equipped to do the right thing when we are at our freshest and our stores of willpower, or self-regulating ability, are strongest. And when these stores are depleted, we are most vulnerable to the temptations of cheating, lying or stealing.

But he believed that this influential theory—that people wear out as the day wears on—didn’t tell the whole story.

“My colleagues and I thought that the morning morality effect made sense… for some people,” says Barnes. “But not as much for others.”

Namely night owls, the estimated 40 percent of the population who experience increased energy levels late in the day and into the night.

Know your chronotype

To get a more complete understanding of the relationship between ethics and time of day, Barnes and co-authors Brian Gunia and Sunita Sah introduced chronotype into the discussion. Chronotype—whether we have more energy in the morning or evening—dictates our individual circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle of physiological functions.

The authors conducted a pair of laboratory studies using well-established procedures for examining unethical behavior, but mismatched the time of day with the inherent chronotypes of participants. So some morning people (larks) were tested late at night. And some night people (owls) were tested in the morning.

The morning morality effect held up for larks, who proved more prone to unethical behavior at night than in the morning. But owls had the opposite result, committing more unethical acts in the morning than at night.

Their variable times of lowest energy coincided with their weakest shows of ethical willpower.

Smart scheduling

In the workplace, unethical opportunities abound. Cook the books. Steal from the company. Take credit for someone else’s work.

Barnes believes one way that managers can help prevent ethical breeches is by matching employee chronotypes to work schedules. The easiest way to accomplish this may be through offering flextime work schedules. These flexible policies allow employees to customize their work day (or night) to their own best hours when they will be most energetic, efficient and effective, and also most impervious to unethical temptations.

Barnes also warns against creating ethical “danger zones” by pushing employees to excessive overtime hours that are mismatched with their chronotypes.

“Chronotype is another variable that managers should take account of,” he says. “Understand whether you have larks or owls working for you. Try to match schedules to their natural circadian rhythms.

“You can push owls to become larks or larks to become owls. And you might have some success. But it will be limited. They will always be pounding coffee trying to make up for the mismatch between their schedules and their natural circadian rhythms.”

The Morality of Larks and Owls: Unethical Behavior Depends on Chronotype as Well as Time-of-Day” is published in the journal Psychological Science.