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Our moral siestas

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] An experiment shows people are more likely to do good deeds in the morning

Is there a time of day when we are more likely to do the right thing? 

Most of us take it for granted that we are equally open to weighing things all day long especially when it involves a check with our moral compass. Many experiments over the years have shown that we do get psychologically tired, i.e., we have a limited reserve of self-control.

There are many things that require self-control and choosing to do good is one of them. It would seem that while good acts abound, they generally could not be relied on to overflow limitless from one person all the time.

Now comes an experiment that seems to show which time of day we are likely to do good. And that is in the morning.

The experiment was cleverly designed. It involved participants counting dots on the right or left of the screen. They were not given money for counting correctly but rather if they claimed that the right screen contained more dots. In fact, they were paid so much more if they reported more dots on the right screen regardless of whether that was true or not.

Obviously, this was the window where they could cheat. And as it turned out, cheating was more likely to occur in the afternoon. Further probes showed that online, people are more likely to lie in the afternoon than in the morning when sending messages to a partner or in reporting the results of a number problem. 

This has implications when it comes to ethical decisions that we make every day. In particular, it applies if you have a job that requires this kind of active engagement with one’s moral compass all day long in making decisions or guiding others along, such as being a judge, a teacher, a politician, a social worker, among them.  

This is quite a serious thing. We are, so to speak, sleeping on the job! It would be extremely lame if war would ensue because the decisions that led to it were all forced to be made late in the day. In fact, I wonder how many of the violent conflicts in human history could have been mitigated or avoided had the decisions that led to their outbreak been made early in the day?

And for our own present systems, should we just have trials in the mornings? Now, what would happen to our already backlogged courts if they were to operate only in the mornings? Shall we do fundraising for charities only in the mornings? What else can we do to override the “afternoon sickness” of our moral selves? 

As far as I have looked, I have not yet found the answer in science. Should we invoke other forms of motivation or inspiration, other than feeling good about doing the right thing, to keep ourselves from taking a moral siesta?

For believers, is it prayer, more prayer? For the non-believers, is it art in the way it refreshes the perspectives we have on the human condition? 

I personally found so much inspiration in philosopher Alain de Botton’s talk on art as therapy. He said art “serves the need of our psyche” – the balancing of our many selves, the knowledge that we are not alone, the feelings of inadequacy. He says that art, when framed that way, speaks to us in those ways and more; and I agree with him. 

Since art and creativity are everywhere, maybe we should consciously engage them. That way, we could see if the span of our ethical selves, interspersed with experiencing art in various forms – music, visual art, dance, among others – would stretch our moral fiber, regardless of the hands of the clock. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, Science Solitaire and Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire. Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at

Sleeping man image from Shutterstock

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