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In Theory: When one’s compass starts to turn

Earlier this month, the publication Scientific American reported that a series of studies at both Harvard University and the University of Utah showed that people are more likely to make ethical decisions in the morning than they are as the day wears on.

In one of the studies, subjects were given math problems and told they would be paid a nickel for every solved problem. They were allowed to report their own scores, which afforded them the opportunity to lie and receive more money. Those who participated in the morning sessions were less likely to cheat than those who took part in the afternoon sessions.

Q: Do you feel you are able to keep your moral compass straight all day long, or do you notice that it’s easier to do so in the morning? What tips might you offer others who face difficult ethical decisions when they are facing a perceived weakness in their moral compass?


On the Day of Passover before Good Friday Peter promised Jesus that he would remain obedient even if everyone else fell away. Not very long after that when Jesus asked Peter and the others to keep watch in prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, three times he found all of them, including Peter, sleeping instead of praying. Rather than reacting with anger, Jesus encouraged them: “Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41).

That incident is recorded in the Bible for our instruction and encouragement. We’re not alone in beginning the day with good intentions but ending up with less than ideal results. When the day’s activities have physically worn me out, or when I’m hungry or when I’ve dealt with various frustrations I notice that my thoughts, words and actions aren’t always as pure as I’d like. What to do? Ask God to help you. His spirit gives us wisdom, strength and guidance when we’re “low.” Know your weaknesses and weak times and that the test is coming. Be prepared for it! And if at all possible avoid the circumstances, people and places that you know will be difficult when you’re at your lowest. God loves you and he will help you.


Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church



It had never occurred to be that it was easier in the morning to be more ethical than later in the day. But maybe there’s something to the idea. I personally am more apt to get irritable if I’m tired, and the chances are that one is more rested earlier in the day than later. However, going against that idea is the age-old tradition of prayer and fasting. I am going to surmise that one is tired and somewhat weak after a fast — but I haven’t heard of anyone’s ethics slipping after such a fast. So maybe I don’t put a lot of stock in the findings.

But now, arguing the other side, we have all heard the expression about “sleeping on it first” before making a decision. So maybe deciding right after “sleeping on it” is the best policy.


The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church

La Cañada Flintridge


The results of studies at Harvard demonstrating that people are more likely to make good ethical decisions in the morning when their “moral compass” is strong are hardly surprising. Humanly speaking, I think we can all relate to the experience of our patience wearing thin as the day goes on, or becoming more irritable when we are tired and hungry. We find it more tempting at those times to “cut corners” and compromise our ethics.

As a Christian, I believe that God calls us to maintain our moral compass at all times regardless of our energy level or emotional state. He does not expect us to do this in the strength of our own willpower, but promises that if we choose to remain in his presence, he will fill us with the fruit of his holy spirit. Galatians 5:22–23 describes this fruit as: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” When these attributes are dominant in our character, our moral compass will remain strong.


I personally practice the presence of God by spending time first thing each morning in prayer and Scripture meditation. I find the Lord’s Prayer particularly helpful in refocusing my moral compass each day. Then throughout the day I stay in ongoing conversation with Father God thanking and worshiping him for the events I encounter.

Attending weekly church services and spending time with my family and friends is a great way to refresh and recharge my commitment to Christ’s calling. I am grateful that what God calls me to do, he also is gracious to supply to me. “For I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me and gives me the ability.” (Philippians 4:13)

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church



Personally, I make better decisions of all sorts in the morning. In fact as I’ve gotten older, I’ve sworn off making any important decisions after 4 p.m., when my brain turns to swamp water. (Some days, it’s more like 11 a.m.)

Some of that morning ability may stem from a fairly massive intake of caffeine — which also might be why that early study group could do math problems better. Likewise, some of the afternoon inability to think, or do math, may be due to that famous after-lunch, mental nap-time slump that hits so many of us — monks used to call it acedia, or “the noonday demon.”

But for me, the reason I tend to make decisions — ethical or otherwise — in the morning, is because that’s my best “God-time.” For others, it might be midnight or evening or tea-time; but with me, God’s a pre-dawn kinda guy. Any discernment, any question of purpose or meaning, anything creative, all moral dilemmas — any thought process that I want God to be involved in, it’s gotta happen in the morning.

I think that’s true for most people; that we each have our own spiritual biorhythm, certain times of day when we’re more, or less, inclined to prayer and peace, insight and clarity — all of which lead to better ethical choices.

So that would be the advice I’d give: Faced with an important decision, wait until your God-Time to make it (and also, make it in your God-Place, the place you pray best or feel more spiritual vibes). It will be easier to decide, and you’ll live better with the outcome.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


I have always been a morning person and find it easier to keep everything straight early in the day than in the late afternoon or night.

The study’s authors acknowledge that being ethical takes self-control which demand more energy. They say that getting enough sleep “is crucial to rebuilding moral muscle” and that sleep deprivation makes ethical choices less likely.

We would need to know the study’s methodology to judge whether a causal relationship exists between it being morning and less cheating.

Online someone asked whether the test subjects were randomly assigned to morning or afternoon sessions. If not, it could be that less honest people chose the afternoon slots. (And we’d need a controlled study to know why!)

The Scientific American article, in the “Head Line” section of the magazine, is a 263-word summary (similar to an In Theory response length) of an enormous amount of research. At the risk of restating the blindingly obvious, we can’t say based on this that people are more ethical because it is morning.

I do not hold myself out as an ethical paragon to be giving tips. Doing the right thing is less of a challenge when life doesn’t present hard choices. Steal or starve? Lie or lose a job? Not choices I face.

I do think that altruism is aided by self-interest, that we are more likely to be ethical if we believe it has benefits to us, even if only a warm feeling. I believe in karma, that the universe balances things out and what goes around comes around. Paul was communicating similar advice to the Galatians when he expressed that as you sow, so shall you reap.

Roberta Medford


The study’s findings are reflected in professional football coach Vince Lombardi’s saying that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Doing the right thing often involves physical and mental stress and being tired can influence our determination to follow what the conscience dictates. So it isn’t surprising that some people find it more difficult to make ethical decisions in the afternoon, when they may have less energy and will power.

The Scriptures teach that Satan chose to tempt Jesus just as the savior completed his 40-day fast, a period when he would have been at his weakest physically and mentally. Noteworthy, also, is that the first temptation was to turn stones into bread, an appeal to the need for physical relief. Clearly, the Lord’s adversary knew the best time to strike.

In “The Doctrine and Covenants,” a work that the LDS regard as scripture, we are given the counsel “retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary.” This advice is part of a section that has to do with perseverance, faith and the blessings that they bring. It would be interesting to know whether the researchers correlated their participants’ sleeping habits with their choices.

However, we all possess the capacity to choose the right regardless of our physical condition. Christ endured temptations first in the wilderness and later, despite far greater pain and anguish, in Gethsemane and upon the cross. We can empower our own moral resolve. Just as exercise and rest strengthen our bodies, prayer, study and worship strengthen our determination to be good. Those who make these things a part of their lives will fare better when fatigue threatens to push them toward moral cowardice.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

La Crescenta


I don’t believe that morality should be affected by the time of day, and I am not sure that a study with so few participants can be said to support a very reliable outcome. With that caveat in mind, I think the data from this test are more likely to be related to whether the subjects are “morning people” or “night people.” As a person who is more awake at night than I am in the morning, the decisions I make later in the day are usually more carefully examined. However, I would like to think that my morality compass is constant throughout the day.

I base my decisions on values that are rooted in my Unitarian Universalist religious tradition, coming from a set of principles that honors the inherent worth of all people and supports their right to be treated justly, equitably and compassionately. I also believe that each person should be free to make his or her own responsible decisions with regard to spiritual or religious truth, meaning in life, and decisions of conscience. Further, I am convinced that we are all a part of a network of interconnections in which what we do affects other people and our earth and that peace and love should be the goal of all our interactions throughout our local and global communities.

I have to admit that I sometimes fall short of living up to all those values. But it is my goal each day, and I hope that I can be humble enough to admit my mistakes and get up the next day ready to begin again, in either the morning or the evening, with fresh resolve. By the way, I am writing this article in the evening; so, hopefully, it will provide some ideas that are clear and helpful.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


While it doesn’t surprise me that people foul further into the day, the ultimate would be that we remain consistent in our beliefs and not waver like the wind just because a few hours have passed. But we fatigue, and then we get slack, and that’s unfortunate. It’s reflective of our universally shared sin nature. It’s the thing Christians are working to improve; I can’t speak for everyone else.

The test results in question don’t really seem to consider another possibility. While it looks like people abandoned their morals for money, it wasn’t for very much; insignificantly little, so maybe the fudging of numbers was an embarrassment thing, like, “I should know these but I’m going to look stupid if I say I didn’t finish.” Then the lie comes, but its motive is less larcenous. I think that the research is not too far afield however, in that we all know that the more tired we become, the less sharp we are (forgetful even) and unless we stay on our toes we may all succumb. Perhaps the message here is that we must get enough rest, to rest assured of our more moral reactions in life’s tests as the days wear on.

Something that occurs to me though, is that while we might be able to observe one’s moral compass turning south, we agree that it’s a deviation from an ethical direction. Otherwise, who’s to say that lying about anything is a wrong way? Whether or not your fellow man finds you a liar is inconsequential if neither you nor they acknowledge any divine parameters; it would just be survival of the fittest.

So, besides physical rest, my big tip would be to spiritually check in with God throughout the day. It’s hard to mindlessly go off and do evil so soon after engaging true good.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church