The Early Bird Get the Ethics?

by Karen Solomon, Bioethics Program Student

Does early to bed and early to rise, make a man healthy, wealthy and more ethical? Earlier research suggested a “morning morality effect”: that people are more ethical early in the morning, becoming less so as they “wear out as a day wears on.”

Not so fast, researchers now say. New research casts doubt on conceptions that night owls are less ethical than their early rising lark counterparts. Instead, a better predictor for ethical behavior takes into account the “fit” between one’s chronotype — night owl or morning lark — and the time of day when ethical behavior is implicated.

Consider the night owls who have more energy as the day wears on, with peak energy levels in the evening. Researchers postulated if internal body clocks supply the energy for ethical behavior, then the body clocks of night owls, people who have more energy as the day wears on, should overcome the morning morality effect, and demonstrate more ethical behavior in the evening.

To test this hypothesis, researchers asked participants to complete a matrix task or a die role and report the outcome, for the opportunity to earn a nominal monetary reward or tickets toward a raffle. What researchers evaluated, however, was the participant’s honesty in reporting the actual task outcome. Researchers found morning larks more likely to report task outcome honestly in the morning, during the larks’ peak energy hours. Conversely, night owls were more likely to behave ethically in the evening, confirming researchers’ belief that the fit between chronotype and time of day are better predictors of ethical behavior than chronotype alone. (Gunia, Barnes, & Sah, 2014)

Future research is needed to uncover the underlying mechanisms involved in the “chronotype morality effect” and the impact of interventions that boost the match or aggravate the mismatch between chronotype and time of day. However, these results clearly have broad implications, particularly for shiftwork in the workplace.

For example, understanding how body clocks inform ethical decision-making by health care professionals, particularly those involved with hospital emergency rooms and critical care units, may become a valuable tool in responding to the intense and often unpredictable nature of ethical dilemmas that characterize medical ethics. Such decision-making encompasses a range of highly personal and emotional health care decisions, including end-of-life care, organ donation, starting and stopping life-sustaining treatment, and informed consent. Such medical ethics decision-making also reflects the untimely nature of accidents, illness, and other tragedies.

In the future, health care administrators and professionals who understand the importance of aligning those involved with ethical decision-making with processes that take into account optimal times for ethical decision-making may provide the best opportunity for ethical decisions that stand the test of time. For example, scheduling ethics consultations and professional staffing consistent with optimal times for sound ethical decision-making may confirm the conventional wisdom that timing is, in fact, everything.

[The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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