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Caffeine can help resist pressure to act unethically

David WelshFeeling a bit worn down from the holidays?

Sleep deprivation can render us more likely to act unethically, especially when we feel social pressure to do so.

But caffeine can temporarily patch that vulnerability, according to new research by David Welsh, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

“When you’re sleep-deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down,” says Welsh. “However, we found that caffeine can give sleep-deprived individuals the extra energy needed to resist unethical behavior.”

Zombie state

According to the National Sleep Foundation, one-fifth of Americans sleep fewer than six hours a night, a legion of the sleep-deprived whose ranks have grown sharply over the past two decades.

To learn how this rise of the walking dead might affect ethical behavior in the workplace, Welsh and co-authors Michael Christian of the University of North Carolina and Aleksander Ellis and Ke Michael Mai of the University of Arizona designed a series of laboratory experiments.

Earlier studies established that sleep deprivation depletes regulatory resources, leading to increases in unethical behavior. So the authors sought to investigate the role of two important moderators in the workplace: social influence and caffeine.

Positive buzz

After keeping study participants up all night, they were offered the opportunity to win money in a multi-player game. Winnings, they quickly learned, could be maximized by sending deceptive messages to another player.

As expected, the participants proved to be more likely to cheat when sleep-deprived, But they were more likely still when also encouraged to cheat by an experimenter—a person of authority.

Negative social influence exacerbates a person’s vulnerability to behaving unethically.

To test the effect of caffeine, some of the participants were administered a typical dose of the common stimulant. To prevent any placebo effect, the caffeine was delivered in a stick of chewing gum rather than the more familiar cup of coffee or can of Red Bull.

The caffeinated study participants reported feeling more alert and energetic. And in this state, they proved to be better equipped to fend of the temptation to cheat, even when encouraged by an authority figure.

Short-term fix

Caffeine counteracts the negative effects of sleep deprivation and the dark side of social influence. But only temporarily. And a large body of research warns that too much caffeine can result in a litany of negative physiological side effects.

So what’s a concerned organization—and it’s sometimes exhausted employees—to do?

Welsh says that employers should first develop a broadly ethical culture that minimizes the likelihood that employees will feel pressure to behave unethically, whatever their physiologic state. They also could enact policies and schedules that reduce overwork and excess hours, provide sleep awareness training, avoid scheduling tasks that require a great deal of self-control when deadlines loom, and even allow for workplace napping.

And for the inevitable times when employees are depleted from overwork or a lack of quality sleep, organizations would do well to provide caffeine in the workplace in the form of coffee, tea, energy drinks, even chewing gum.

“Caffeine may be a short-term fix for people who are sleep-deprived. It may help you navigate a particular ethical dilemma,” Welsh says. “But caffeine is not a panacea. And it has some potential drawbacks, especially if you rely on it too much over time.

“The ideal is to come to work well rested.”

Building a Self-Regulatory Model of Sleep Deprivation and Deception: The Role of Caffeine and Social Influence” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.