Are we less ethical after long travel? Science suggests it’s related to jetlag

There are many articles – even on this site – about how the travel impacts our physical health, cognitive capacities, and even emotions. But how could it make us less ethical?

Moral awareness is not only guiding our behavior in situations where the ethical considerations are important. We also use it to identify those situations where we need to apply moral judgement for both our actions, but also actions of the others.

It could be argued that this is the underlying fabric of our society – our willingness to consider impact of our actions on others, and keep others accountable to do the same. But scientists showed that jetlag – even as little as 1 hour time difference – undermines it.

One of the parts of our brain that gets hijacked when our sleep is disrupted is our prefrontal cortex. This is the self-control center of our brains, responsible for most of the high-order cognitive processing, alertness and attention. It could be also assumed that this is also where our moral compass resides, or at least most of it.[1]

But even modest lack of sleep leads to decline of glucose metabolism in this part of the brain, impacting our decisions in ethical realm.

For example, study in Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found that sleep deprivation impairs the ability to integrate emotion and cognition to guide moral judgments. Participants short on sleep were more willing to agree with solutions that violated their personally held moral beliefs.[2]

Another study among young students in Singapore showed that decrement of 2.1 h of sleep (on average) led to 10% lower levels of moral awareness.[3]

Even such simple test as looking at Google Search statistics on frequency with which Americans search for moral topics shows there is something to this concern. How did the scientists know that people were sleep deprived? Thanks to the country-wide jetlag experiment that happens twice every year – the daylight savings time. On Sunday night following the DST shift Americans sleep about 40 min less than usual. And even such a small change resulted in a decline in Web searches associated with moral words (no decline was observed with the general Google categories).[4]

Of course, the our moral compass does not disappear completely. You will likely not commit murder or major fraud. But some things that we would not normally do, may suddenly look acceptable to our sleep deprived brains.

At that state we are not just more likely to tell those white lies, but more of the lies seem to be “white”.

Different research groups showed that underslept people are much more likely to put blame on others if something goes wrong, take credit for work of others, and even adjust the amount on their travel claim.

While these behaviors may look acceptable to a sleep deprived brain, telling white lies can cost us our reputation, or reputation of our company. Just imagine – if your customer finds out you were exaggerating the product features, it’s a serious dent in the relationship and you may lose the business. And what do you think of an employee who is faking his or her travel claim?

Keeping our moral compass tuned is just one more reason why companies and individuals need to pay attention to sleep, and prevent jetlag as much as possible. If you want to help your employees (or yourself) to be the best version of themselves, you should try using Hecatee on your next trip. You can sign up for the pilot here.

[1] Nature loves to repurpose things when possible. And so it did with the area of our brain called insular cortex, which was responsible for disgust with eg. rotten food. As we evolved complex social structures and rules, this area got repurposed to be also triggered when we feel moral disgust.
[2] Killgore, W. D. S., Killgore, D. B., Day, L. M. et al., 2007
[3] Christopher M. Barnes, 2014
[4] Christopher M. Barnes, 2014

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