Good People Do Bad Things in the Afternoon

Our morality seems to run out before the end of the day.

Posted Apr 21, 2014

Person with fingers crossed behind back

If you need to have an important conversation or to negotiate a delicate issue with your team, you’d best do it in the morning. Recent research by Kouchaki and Smith shows that people are significantly more likely to lie, deceive, and act immorally in the afternoon than in the morning.

You can probably relate. You start your day with the best of intentions; choose a healthy breakfast, take the stairs instead of the elevator, get straight to a few key tasks when you get to work.  But by 3:00pm, that energy and self-control has waned.  You are tempted by the leftover cookies in the kitchen, enticed by the elevator when you only have to go one floor, and close your email before getting through the last few items in your Inbox. We’ve all experienced that feeling of running out of gas.

It turns out that the tendency to make bad decisions for our health and our productivity aren’t the only risks in the afternoon—we also make poor moral choices as our energy is depleted. In the strength model of self-regulation, psychologists hypothesize that self-control is like a muscle that becomes exhausted with use. We are able to make future-focused, productive choices that delay gratification—but only for so long.

At some point, we tire and start giving in to temptation. In the study cited above, participants actually lied so that they would be paid more money. In one experiment, they were 50 percent more likely to lie in the afternoon than in the morning! Interestingly, the study suggested that this effect was related to participants’ tendency to morally disengage—to stop thinking about the morality of the situation.    


Use mornings wisely: If you require sensitive discussions with your team, schedule the discussion in the morning. Instead of using mornings for the morally innocuous information sharing and updates, shift those to the afternoon and use precious morning time for the contentious stuff.

Keep your values front and center: The study showed that immoral behavior only happened as people distanced themselves from their own values and ethics. To prevent this on your team, be explicit about the importance of honesty, candor, and adherence to the values. “This discussion is going to be difficult and we need to approach it with integrity.”

Ask open-ended questions: Your teammates will be more likely to lie and deceive if they feel backed into a corner. Use open-ended questions and give space to explore and discuss rather than defend their position. Avoid asking “why,” which triggers rationalizations even in the best of circumstances.

One interesting finding is that there are people who just seem to be less moral no matter the time of day. These morally detached people don’t seem to show the depletion effect: they are significantly more dishonest than others in the morning, but very similar to everyone else in the afternoon. All the more important then to avoid these people late in the day--you just might stoop to their level!