Despite the common saying, the early bird may not get the worm.
The phrase ‘the early bird gets the worm’ suggests there is an advantage for doing something before anyone else. It’s so familiar that it’s often shortened to early bird; a term which can be used in the sense of getting up early (She’s an early bird who is already working at 7am) or for arriving early to an event (Restaurants have early-bird specials for people who come when they first open).
We like to categorize people into early birds and night owls, and to use this over-simplification to explain a wide range of behavior. Research has shown early birds are more punctual, perform better in school, are happier, and have increased morality. By contrast, other research demonstrated night owls have unhealthy dietary habits, are angrier and more impulsive, and more likely to be cyberbullies.
The bias for early birds is rooted deeply in our business psychology, even in organizations with flexible work schedules. To demonstrate this bias, one research experiment arbitrarily selected participants to be managers or employees. Even when told that schedule shifting was permitted, managers viewed participants who asked to come in late unfavorably. Furthermore, if the employee making the request self-identified as a night owl, the managers viewed them more negatively than early birds who made the same request.
But is the link between waking up early and more positive experimental outcomes based on correlation or causation?
A recent experiment has shown the long-accepted link between being an early riser and being conscientious might in fact be explained by a third variable: religiousness. People who woke up earlier tended to score higher on all dimensions of religiosity. Since many religions encourage early morning prayers, the researchers concluded being religious might better explain why they are more conscientious.
It’s likely there are many other unexamined variables which might better explain the early bird research results. In fact, there is likely a flaw in the design of many of these studies – the time of day the research itself was conducted. Studies have shown time of day influences results of research; for example, one study showed people perceived as early birds are most ethical in the morning and late owls are most ethical in the evening.
Characterizing people solely based on their preference for getting up early or staying up late likely doesn’t really work. So, follow whichever model you prefer – there are plenty of worms to go around.