The Morning Lobby — Big Morning? The Morning Industrial Complex? — has deep roots.
Benjamin Franklin supposedly coined the proverbs “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” and “The early morning has gold in its mouth” in the early days of the republic, though he was certainly not the first to champion early birds. The notion that all people should be up an at ’em in the a.m. is deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness, instilled on the first day of kindergarten and reinforced by, oh, the vast majority of jobs that exist. To rise early is to exercise discipline and maturity, or so holds the prevailing wisdom; sleeping in is a luxury, an indulgence in adolescent whims. (Unless, of course, you’re a tortured male author, in which case all bets are off.)
Science supports this notion, to an extent. A 2013 study by Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac Smith, published in Psychological Science, proposed the “morning morality effect,” which essentially says that people lose moral awareness and self-control as the day progresses. They built on an idea of ego depletion put forth in 1998 by sociologists Roy Baumeister, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice, who demonstrated that self-control appears to be a limited resource that depletes with usage. However, that's not the whole truth — not for everyone.
Kouchaki and Smith conducted experiments that gave their subjects the opportunity to act honestly or to cheat and lie; the tests were run in the morning and in the afternoon. They ultimately found that people engaged in dishonest behavior more often in the afternoon sessions, leading them to believe that our moral compass loses its pointing as evening approaches. Not good for night owls.
But this isn’t the entire story. Sunita Sah, a behavioral scientist and professor at Cornell University, was intrigued by Kouchaki and Smith’s results. In a 2014 study also published in Psychological Science, she notes a discrepancy overlooked by Baumeister’s ego depletion research: Though many people lose energy over the course of a day, “approximately 40-percent of people experience increased energy later in the day.” She’s referring, of course, to night owls: Individuals whose chronotype grants the most energy long after morning has passed.
Chronotype is determined by one’s internal circadian rhythms, which fluctuate during the day. For some it peaks during the day; others, nighttime. But it’s not the only factor governing wakefulness — there are also homeostatic processes, which basically increase your sleep drive the longer you stay awake.
Sah writes that while circadian and homeostatic processes are mostly independent, “both have similar effects on several psychological variables.” She goes on to say that “Whereas homeostatic processes lead many individuals to lose energy throughout the day, circadian processes exacerbate these processes for morning people and oppose them for evening people.”
This, then, raises a problem for the morning morality effect. When it comes to evening people, Sah hypothesized, homeostatic and circadian processes must logically conflict at each end of the day — homeostatic energy would be highest in the morning, circadian trough would appear, and vice versa. One’s ability to make ethical decisions, then, depends on the “relative strength” of the processes. If they’re equal, the evening person should demonstrate comparable ethical behavior in the morning and evening. If homeostatic processes are stronger, morning morality should hold true; if circadian processes are stronger, then save your life-or-death decisions until after sundown.
Sah and her colleagues, Christopher Barnes and Brian Gunia, conducted a series of studies with participants of varying chronotype — some morning people, some evening people. In one test, participants were asked to perform a “matrix task,” and awarded cash for matrices they completed correctly. In another, they were asked to report the outcome of die rolls. Both tests involved self-reporting, giving participants plenty of chances to lie. Which they did.
The team found that the morning morality effect indeed held true — but only for morning people.
“Morning people demonstrated the morning morality effect,” she and her colleagues wrote, “in accordance with both their homeostatic and chronotype processes. Evening people, however, behaved more ethically in the evening than morning.”
They concluded that we’re probably better off discarding the “morning morality effect” moniker for a more inclusive “chronotype morality effect.” In an amusing touch, they also note that their findings “cast doubt on the stereotype that evening people are somehow dissolute.”
Evening people, take comfort: You’re probably not evil. On the other hand, you probably are stuck.
“Research shows we are best to work with our chronotypes than against them,” Sah said via email. Though it’ll probably be a while before society embraces the peculiar needs of evening folk, there’s always the chance you might grow out of it… eventually.
“Our chronotype is not stable across our lifespan — we change as we age,” continued Sah. “And other factors such as exercise and the amount of blue light you are exposed in the evening can shift your sleeping patterns.”
Maybe Apple’s new iOS update is a sign that tides may soon turn. Until they do, it’s a morning person’s world — you’re just sleepwalking in it.