New experimental research by Kouchaki & Smith (2014), published in Psychological Science in January, shows that people are more likely to act ethically and to overcome temptation in the morning than later in the day. The authors refer to it as the morning morality effect.
The reason why people’s ability to exert self-control decreases as the day progresses is that self-control is a limited resource (check out my post 8 facts about self-control). We simply do not have an infinite amount of self-control in the self-control bank, so to speak. Luckily, self-control resources can be replenished with relaxation (Tyler & Burns, 2008).
This new study shows that the mere experience of everyday living can reduce people’s capacity for self-control. From the moment we wake up, we are confronted with tasks that drain our self-control resources.
People constantly regulate and control their desires and impulses in that people set up goals all the time. From this perspective, it makes perfectly sense that self-control resources peak in the morning and that we are better at exerting self-control at this time of the day.
Across four experiments, the authors found that people are more likely to cheat or lie in the morning than in the afternoon because self-control depletion leads to reduced moral awareness and more unethical behaviour.
This effect was strongest in people who had a lower propensity to act unethically (i.e., the most honest people). This is because, people who have a higher propensity to act unethically already have deactivated their self-control capacity. In other words, the time of day does not influence their capacity because they normally do not exert self-control.
So it seems that honest people are more likely to do “bad” things in the afternoon, as their self-control resources are at a low level at this time of the day, but of course they need to be tempted to do “bad” things.
Some temptations are more difficult to resist than others. We might need to consider the temptations we expose ourselves to, especially later in the day, whenever it is possible. We may otherwise risk behaving in ways that are inconsistent with our desired goals.