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Afternoons turn us into lying, cheating, lazy jerks

Young woman sitting tired at desk
Fotodesign Holzhauser / Getty Images stock

Mornings are optimistic. The day is new, untouched. No one’s ruined anything yet. You head out the door, hopeful about what this day will bring, and what you’ll accomplish.

And then morning fades into afternoon. Nothing has gone the way you planned it. You get snappy, grumpy. Maybe you accidentally abandon the Excel spreadsheet you should be working on and wander over to

Mornings really are when we’re our most virtuous -- and by the afternoon, exhausted by our earlier attempts at being angelic, we’re more likely to lie, cheat, or indulge in lazy behavior, new psychology research suggests.

“From the moment people wake up in the morning, daily life requires the exertion of self-control,” write the study authors, Maryan Kouchaki and Isaac Smith of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “In deciding what to eat for breakfast, where to go and why, or even what to say and to whom, people regulate and control their desires and impulses.

“Normal, unremarkable experiences associated with everyday living can deplete one’s capacity to resist moral temptations,” they write. “In other words, people are more likely to act ethically and to overcome temptation in the morning than later in the day.”

This new study, published this week in the journal Psychological Science, builds onto research that has suggested self-control is a finite resource. And by the afternoon, we’ve run out of it, the authors suggest.

To prove this, the researchers rounded up 62 undergrads, who signed up for either a morning session (between 8 a.m. and noon) or an afternoon session (between noon and 6 p.m.). The experiment design is a little weird, so stay with me: They showed the volunteers 100 squares that had been cut in half into two triangles. Each triangle was marked with a smattering of little dots. The participants were told to hit one button if there were more dots on the right side, and another button if there were more dots on the left. The catch: They were told they’d be paid more for hitting the button that signified there were more dots on the right side – even if they hadn’t answered honestly. And a third of the squares clearly had more dots on the left side, so it would be clear if people were cheating.

And people did cheat – especially in the afternoon session. Participants in the afternoon indicated more frequently that dots appeared on the right side than those in the morning sessions.

In another experiment, people were given the choice to read some brain food (The New York Review of Books) – or some lighter fare (People magazine). Nearly 60 percent of the volunteers in the afternoon sessions chose the People magazine – in the morning, just 40 percent of them chose People.

Translated into real life, the study suggests that we should realize this human weakness and organize our days accordingly. Difficult tasks that involve some sort of moral component should be done in the morning; leave the less complicated busy work for the afternoon, if possible, the authors suggest.

“Our message is simple yet important,” the authors write. “The morning morality effect has notable implications for individuals and organizations, and it suggests that morally relevant tasks should be deliberately ordered throughout the day.”