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Study: People lie more during certain times of the day

Teresa Tanoos's picture
More people lie in the afternoon

People are more likely to lie, steal or cheat in the afternoon, according to a new Harvard study published in Psychological Science.

Researchers involved in the study reported that they had been conducting experiments on a variety of unethical behaviors when they noticed the tests they ran in the morning consistently showed a lower incidence of deceitful behavior, prompting them to investigate further to find out if people were more apt to engage in lying, stealing and cheating in the afternoon.

The researchers - Maryam Kouchaki of Harvard University, and Isaac Smith of the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business – set out to see if routine morning activities were enough to fatigue some people to the point that self-control was weakened, therefore resulting in more dishonest behavior in the afternoon. After all, recent research shows how our brains are constantly being bombarded with all sorts of images and information, which may in part explain how mental fatigue sets in as we go about our day.

For the study, they conducted two experiments on college-aged participants who were asked to look at numerous different patterns of dots on a computer screen. After viewing each pattern, the participants were then asked if they saw a greater amount of dots on the left or right side of the screen.

There was also a money reward, but it’s important to understand that the participants did not receive any money for correctly identifying which side had more dots. Rather, they received a monetary reward depending on which side of the screen they picked as having more dots – and, if they chose the right side over the left, they received 10 times the amount of money.

The idea was to give a financial incentive to the participants to choose the right side, even if was obvious that the left side had more dots. This, of course, is how the researchers determined which participants were engaging in deceitful behavior just so they could get more money.

Consistent with giving the participants a financial incentive if they cheated, the researchers also conducted the experiments at two different times, morning and afternoon, so they could test what they referred to as the “morning morality effect”, as well as the participants’ “moral awareness”.

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As a result, the research team found that participants testing between the hours of 8:00 am and 12:00 pm were less likely to lie or cheat than those who tested between 12:00 pm and 6:00pm. This phenomenon is what the researchers deemed to be the "morning morality effect”.

The participants’ “moral awareness” was also tested in both the morning and afternoon, as the researchers showed them words with some of the letters filled in and some of them not, similar to words containing empty blank spaces on the TV game show, “Wheel of Fortune”.

For example, participants would see fragmented words, such as as "_ _RAL" and "E_ _ _ C_ _". Those who tested in the morning were more likely to fill those blanks in to spell out the words, MORAL and ETHICAL. However, the participants who tested in the afternoon were more likely to spell out the words, CORAL and EFFECTS; thus, providing additional evidence to support the “morning morality effect".

The research team also conducted tests via the Internet with a sample of participants throughout the United States, and the results were similar, with online participants in the afternoon being more likely to send a dishonest email to a virtual partner than those testing online in the morning.

Interestingly, they also found a difference between morning and afternoon participants regarding the level of guilt or remorse they felt after engaging in dishonest behavior. Referred to as “moral disengagement”, the study showed that those participants who demonstrated a greater likelihood of morally disengaging had a tendency to lie or cheat as well, regardless of the time of day, which can also happen with the best of intentions, including what we do and don't tell our loved ones.

However, those who demonstrated a greater propensity for ethical behavior were indeed more honest –in the morning that is, as some of these "more honest" folks also tended to be more dishonest in the afternoon.

The reason behind this, the researchers explained, is that “the most honest people, such as those less likely to morally disengage, may be the most susceptible to the negative consequences associated with the morning morality effect."

In other words, the researchers found that “the time of day” alone could influence an otherwise moral person to behave in ways that are not so moral.

Abstract Reference: Psychological Science