Coffee Affects Ethical Behavior? Take a Sip of This Study

According to a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, sleepy employees have weak ethical judgment, but a cup of coffee perks them up—and encourages better decision making.

This may be the oddest study you’ll ever read about in the online pages of Associations Now, so grab a cup of joe and read on.

According to research by business professors at three major universities—the University of Washington, the University of Arizona, and the University of North Carolina—coffee affects the ethical decisions we make at the office. Really.

Here’s the thinking in the Journal of Applied Psychology study: When employees are lacking in sleep, they tend to make poor decisions. But a good salve for that is the perking effect of a little java.

We found that caffeine can give sleep-deprived individuals the extra energy needed to resist unethical behavior.

“When you’re sleep deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down,” University of Washington researcher David Welsh said in a statement. “However, we found that caffeine can give sleep-deprived individuals the extra energy needed to resist unethical behavior.”

The research builds on a 2011 study, by some of the researchers behind the new study, that focused less on the perking effects of coffee and more on the effects of sleep deprivation on decision-making.

“It’s almost like a badge of honor when you’re sleep deprived,” UNC organizational behavior professor Michael Christian, a coauthor of both studies, told ROI Magazine last year. “People who work in high-pressure, high-intensity environments brag about how they haven’t slept, and managers often encourage that.”

And with unethical behavior costing organizations huge sums each year—ROI puts the estimate at $200 billion—a little coffee might be a good way to save some money, not to mention helping hardworking employees exercise good, ethical judgment.

But we’d recommend, if you’re making coffee at the office, offering up something gourmet, or possibly a K-Cup machine. We hear those are popular.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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