Time and Money

Published: January 8, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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Two stories from The Wall Street Journal caught my attention that I thought I’d pass along.

The first comes from, The Morning Morality Effect: The Influence of Time of Day on Unethical Behavior, by Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac H. Smith, (Nov. 8, 2013).

Research from scientists at Harvard and the University of Utah conclude that “If you’re shopping for a used car – or deposing a witness – try to do it in the morning.” The study finds that people are, somehow, more honest in the morning than in the afternoon.

“In one experiment, volunteers assigned a simple visual perception task were given a financial incentive to cheat. Sure enough, afternoon participants cheated 20% more than did their morning counterparts.

“In a second trial, afternoon volunteers not only cheated more on the perception task but showed lower moral awareness. Given four word fragments to complete, including “_ _ R A L” and “E_ _ _ C_ _ ,” morning participants were nearly three times likelier to complete the words as “moral” and “ethical” (versus “coral” and “effects”).

“To eliminate self-selection bias – people morning people are just more ethical – and the possibility that mood played a role, the researchers tried yet another experiment, this time giving participants an incentive to lie about something. Volunteers were assigned randomly to a morning or afternoon slot and, predictably, afternoon participants lied more. Mood didn’t matter.

“In a fourth experiment, the scientists found that the time-of-day effect was especially strong among participants who were least prone to modifying their ethical beliefs to reduce guilt or self-flagellation.

“What accounts for all this,” scientists ask? “Consistent with earlier studies of self-control, the researchers found evidence that, as the day wears on, mental fatigue sets in from hours of decision-making and self-regulation, raising the odds of transgression.

‘Unremarkable daily activities,’ the researchers write, can produce depletion that leads them ‘to act in ethically questionable ways.’ ”

My first reaction: does this open the flood-gates on the “I-was-too-tired-to-make-a-moral-decision” defense?

To correct this, the report proposes that “Since so many of us are fed up with our better angels by afternoon, the findings suggest that ‘morally relevant tasks should be deliberately ordered throughout the day.’ ”

Easier said than done.

The second story comes from Time, Money, and Morality by Francesca Gino and Cassie Mogilner, (Dec. 31, 2013).

“The New Year makes many of us think about time passing, and research shows that such thoughts often spur us to act more ethically. If we were to brood instead about the cash we’re likely to blow on Dec. 31, our actions might be less upright.

“Two business professors from Harvard University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania conducted experiments in which some people were primed to think about money and others about time. Then the participants were given the opportunity to cheat anonymously.

“The results? Thinking about time led to much more honest behavior. That is in line with previous research showing that a focus on money raises self-interest, while a focus on time boosts generosity. But the new research also suggests that it isn’t necessarily money – or the love of it – that is the root of unethical behavior; the culprit, instead, seems to be the way thoughts of money suppress reflection.

“In one experiment, 98 volunteers were asked to make a sentence out of some scrambled words. Some had been given words related to money, others time, still others a neutral word-set. Then all of them reported, on the honor system, about how they performed some numerical tasks; succeeding meant a payment of as much as $20. The percentages of subjects who cheated were 42 percent of those primed about time, 67 percent of the neutral group—and 87 percent of those primed about money.

“In a second experiment, half the subjects were told that they were taking an intelligence test and the rest a personality test. In the former group, 50 percent of the money-primed subjects cheated versus 30 percent of the time-primed group. All participants who were told they were taking a personality test cheated at the same rate, about 28 percent. Taking such a test seems to make people more reflective, the researchers said.

“A third experiment again primed volunteers about either time or money, and then gave them a chance to cheat. More or less as expected, 67 percent of the money-primed subjects did so versus 36 percent of the time-primed. But when the groups had to cheat in front of a mirror – a context for self-reflection – the money-primed group was only slightly more likely to cheat.”

My question for the researchers: what about individuals working on the New York Stock Exchange where both timeand money can be driven by self-interest?

Beneath both stories lie, what ethicist Michael Josephson calls, the four enemies of integrity:

Self-Interest – things we want.

Self-protection – things we don’t want.

Self-deception – it’s not an ethical issue.

Self-righteousness – the end justifies the means.

Making ethical decisions calls for more than a belief in the importance of ethics. It requires the commitment, consciousness and competency to make decisions that take into account the affect of that decision on all stakeholders involved.



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