Make It a Venti, You Liar

Science claims that caffeine—and other life hacks—can make you a more honest employee

Illustration by Paul Windle

Good news, java heads: Your addiction may make you a more ethical worker. That’s what a group of scientists from the University of Arizona and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discovered in a study published in the March Journal of Applied Psychology. The researchers kept 229 college students awake for 24 hours and then told them being honest would earn them $2 and a partner $5. If they lied to their partner, they got the $5, and the partner got $2. “One instructor would gently suggest they lie, and we found people were more likely to follow that unethical instruction when they were sleep-deprived,” says Michael Christian, a co-author of the study. The reason, he says, is that the prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain that regulates emotions and behavior) is impaired by a lack of sleep. “Basically, we’re more likely to do bad stuff when we’re tired,” he adds. Christian says that in thousands of sleep-deprivation studies, this one is the first to link exhaustion to malevolence.

Illustration by Paul Windle

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the number of Americans who get fewer than six hours of sleep nightly increased from 13 percent in 1999 to 20 percent a decade later. “So we thought, how can we make this better for people? Maybe coffee will work,” says David Welsh, another co-author. When he gave participants a dose of caffeine, “it helped them resist temptation to be unethical,” and they told the truth a third more often than the uncaffeinated, exhausted kids. The same logic applies in an office setting, so feel no guilt about those endless Starbucks runs. Below, seven more vaguely scientific strategies to make you less of a jerk at work.

Communicate via e-mail
Cornell University professor Jeffrey Hancock tracked the communications of 30 undergraduates in 2004 and found they lied in 37 percent of phone calls, 25 percent of face-to-face conversations, and only 14 percent of e-mails. He says this is because conversations are ephemeral, but e-mails leave a permanent trail, which you already know if you’ve fired someone.

Illustration by Paul Windle
Take back your lunch break
A 2014 Academy of Management Journal article argues that lunch breaks are a genuine pick-me-up only when employees are allowed to leave and do whatever they want. Forced social interaction with co-workers isn’t going to take your mind off deadlines, but calling your best friend will likely boost your mood. Note: This only applies to people who actually take lunch breaks.

Learn to scuba dive on vacation
Or hike, or kayak, or do something active that keeps you from thinking about the office. This will make you feel more rested than lying on the beach with a daiquiri. “If you sit around, that won’t help you recuperate,” Christian says. The more refreshed you feel, the less burned out you become, making you less likely to cut corners back at work.

Illustration by Paul Windle
Turn those lights up
According to a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, people are more likely to cheat in dark rooms than ones with bright lights. The difference—61 percent of subjects lied in a dim room vs. 24 percent in a fully lit one—has to do with the impression of anonymity and the feeling of not being watched. Sorry, but the fluorescents are here to stay.

Tidy your desk, and write neatly
People cheat more in messy environments. It tricks us into thinking that social norms are more easily ignored, according to a 2008 study published in Science. Similarly, reading bad handwriting causes people to be less forthcoming.

Stop and catch your breath
Welsh also studied employees who jump from one big project to another, and he found that a constant stream of goals encouraged people to cheat: “You don’t have the energy, so you’re more likely to engage in unethical behavior to make sure they’re all done.” Goal-based compensation structures have been shown to have the same effect.

And actually get eight hours
Caffeine can’t beat rest. “A cup of coffee can only help remedy the effects of one night of too little sleep,” Welsh says. Besides, he adds, his study doesn’t speak to chronic coffee drinkers who develop a caffeine tolerance. For all Welsh knows, too much espresso might make you evil again.

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