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Timing your request for that questionable favor…

Monday, November 25, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

morally ambiguousSo you need to ask someone to do something and that “something” lies in the morally murky or ambiguous realm. We won’t offer examples of what that favor may be, but you know what we mean. You may wonder when is best to ask. Right after you’ve begun the day (and they’ve had ample coffee)? At lunch? At the end of the day? When?

Science to the rescue! While we know you would never use science for evil (or even the morally murky), consider this an interesting tidbit for cocktail conversations. You’ve probably seen the study about hungry judges and decision-making. When judges get hungry, they just say ‘no’ to parole. Once they eat, the likelihood of parole returns to where it was at the beginning of the morning session. Aha! You say. Asking for that morally murky favor is best right after lunch.

The answer is kind of, sort of. As it turns out, we are more likely to behave morally or ethically earlier in the day. Self-control, it would seem, is a finite resource and when we are tired or depleted, we cannot easily access that self-control. Researchers completed four separate experiments and consistently found evidence supporting higher levels of “moral behavior” in the earlier part of the day. The findings were consistent whether the participants were the ubiquitous undergraduate sample or people of varying ages who were recruited online.

Participants in all four experiments were given the opportunity to cheat, and those completing the experiments in the afternoon were more likely to cheat than those completing the experiments in the morning. Oddly, those who self-reported higher levels of morality (the researchers describe these people as “least likely to morally disengage and thus expected to generally behave more ethically”), were most likely to fall prey to the afternoon decline in moral behavior (as indicated by rate of cheating).

The researchers discuss this work as a contribution to the body of work on “bounded ethicality”. This is an area suggesting unethical behavior is “due in part to psychological processes and cognitive biases that lead people to engage in certain behaviors without consciously recognizing the ethical implications”. As we get increasingly tired throughout the day, we are more prone to simply act, without seeing the potential repercussions (or the ethical implications) of our actions.

The authors suggest the following to help “good” people avoid doing “bad” things:

Organizations may want to have increased vigilance for unethical behavior (of both customers and employees) in the afternoon as compared to the morning.

Individuals may want to complete morally relevant tasks in the morning rather than in the afternoon or evening. Delaying decisions on morally relevant tasks until the next morning might produce a better result.

Time of day isn’t really an excuse for engaging in morally questionable or clearly unethical behavior, but it’s helpful to know that we are more likely to make bad choices when we are more tired or, as the researchers say, depleted.

So, if you were the sort of person who would ask someone to do you a morally questionable favor, this research would say the end of the day (or maybe that mid-afternoon slump) is the best time.

If you are not that sort of person (like the vast majority of our readers) it is a powerful insight to not agree to do things in the late afternoon when you are tired but, instead, to put off those decisions until the next morning! Preferably after your coffee.

Kouchaki M, & Smith IH (2013). The Morning Morality Effect: The Influence of Time of Day on Unethical Behavior. Psychological Science PMID: 24166855

For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita


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