Morality? It’s a morning thing…

November 5, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

How moral are you feeling at the moment? The answer, curiously, may depend upon when you are reading these words.

Any discussion of ‘morality’ is contentious, but we tend to speak of it as a quality that you have in fixed amounts, even though the way we express our moral sense is often through the quality of self-restraint that is generally context specific, and more tangibly, something that depletes gradually throughout the day.

Indeed, a recent study in Psychological Science suggests we become progressively less ethical as the day goes on. A good write up of the study at Psychblog explains the key experiment as follows:

“The authors checked out this theory of a ‘morning morality’ effect by giving participants in four studies opportunities to cheat while carrying out simple computer-based tasks. Sometimes people were tested in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. Each time, during the tasks, they were surreptitiously given chances to cut corners or tell little fibs. Across the studies, the researchers found that people were less likely to cheat and lie in the morning than the afternoon.People who cheated more in the afternoon also showed lower moral awareness, suggesting their moral character was bleeding away as the day proceeded.”

In so far as this effect is true (‘morality’ cannot be scientifically operationalised; and even if this is done very sensitively/carefully, one experiment is not enough…) its greatest value is probably *not* that we should take our biggest and most important ethical decisions when we feel at our brightest and freshest (because we knew that already).

The deeper value of the study is to get away from the idea that morality is a binary quality that we either have or don’t have; but rather think, as Zimbardo and many other have been arguing for a long time, that morality is primarily situational- it’s less about who we are and more about where we are, who we are with, and what we are doing.

Comments

  • George Gantz

    This is similar to the findings of Baumeister and Tierney (reported in their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength). They found that willpower (as in resisting the temptation to cheat?) is like a muscle with a finite reserve of strength – you get moral fatigue from resisting temptation, eventually losing the ability to resist.