Have a morally good morning

By Marie Rogers

When was the last time you did something morally unsound? I think most of us try to do the right things in our daily lives but sometimes the temptation is too great, or we just don’t have the time or energy to do the right thing.

Some psychologists suggest we have a finite amount of moral resources, which can become depleted by things like mental exertion or tiredness. Previous research has shown that participants who have engaged in a task requiring lots of self-control cheat more on a subsequent task than participants who have not.

Another recent study found that even the time of day can influence how moral our actions are. The experiment involved solving a simple mathematical task for which participants were rewarded with a small amount of money. However, some of the problems were unsolvable. People who took part in the afternoon were more likely to claim they had solved the unsolvable problems than people who took part in the morning.

coffee and cigarettesThe authors suggest that our self-regulatory resources are worn down throughout the day by the sheer amount of decisions we are required to make. By the end of the day we are more likely to be immoral than at the beginning of the day. This is in line with the ‘strength model’ of self regulation which compares self control to a muscle: it can become fatigued but can also become stronger with practise.

There are statistics indicating that impulsive crimes, violent attacks and relapses in addictive behaviour occur most frequently in the evening, as you might expect. This could be explained simply by the fact that it is easier to commit a crime under the cover of darkness. However, in the study described above, participants’ actions in the morning were compared to the afternoon (i.e. whilst still light). This suggests that moral actions may be affected by the time of day independent of light levels.

This has important implications for techniques to stop bad habits. Many of us make resolutions around this time of the year. These studies show that we must not over-exert our ‘willpower muscle’. For example, if you have resolved to give up coffee and smoking and start getting up an hour earlier you may find it much harder than if you had resolved to do just one of those things.