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Morning People Vs. Night Owls: 9 Insights Backed By Science

Night owls are drunker, smarter, and get more booty—but morning types may be happier.

Chances are you already know whether you're a morning person or a night person (and if you don't, just ask your significant other). What you might not know is that social scientists use pretty specific—and, by academic standards, pretty casual—names for these two chronotypes. "Larks" are up and at it early in the morning, and tend to hit the sack at a respectable evening hour; "owls" are most alert at night, and typically turn in long after dark.

These labels are less an either-or than a spectrum; chronotype can shift over a person's lifetime, and recent work suggests adding two more subsets to the list: early to wake and late to bed, and late to wake but early bed. But generally speaking the larks-or-owls construct has stood the rigors of research, with evidence really growing since the development of a 19-part Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire in the late 1970s that sorts folks into chronotypes based on things like when they'd ideally get up, how alert they feel in the morning, when they normally get tired, and so on. More involved than asking a spouse, but effective.

An exhaustive list of lessons to emerge from this line of study isn't possible (or, frankly, something that sounds fun). But we gathered some of our favorite lark-versus-owl studies from recent years and identified nine general insights worth passing along—for your late night, or early morning, pleasure.

1. LARKS AREN'T HEALTHIER, WEALTHIER, OR WISER.

Ben Franklin, that jack-of-all-Founding Fathers, once advocated for a lark lifestyle in a famous saying: "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." But a pair of epidemiologists at Southampton University in England—perhaps still bitter over that whole Revolution thing—directly challenged Franklin's tyranny of the morning people in a 1998 paper for BMJ.

The researchers analyzed a national sample of men and women who'd been surveyed years earlier on sleep patterns as well as measures related to, well, health, wealth, and wisdom. There were 356 larks in the group (in bed before 11 p.m., up before 8 a.m.) and 318 owls (in bed after 11, up after 8). Contrary to Franklin's decree, night owls had larger incomes and more access to cars than did morning larks; the two chronotypes also scored roughly the same on a cognitive test and showed no self- or doctor-reported health differences.

Night owls might be a bit smarter than morning people.

"We found no evidence … that following Franklin’s advice about going to bed and getting up early was associated with any health, socioeconomic, or cognitive advantage," the authors concluded. "If anything, owls were wealthier than larks, though there was no difference in their health or wisdom."

2. IF ANYTHING, OWLS MIGHT BE A BIT SMARTER ON THE WHOLE.

A lark v. owl study published the following year looked more closely at the question of brains. Psychologist Richard D. Roberts of the University of Sydney and Patrick C. Kyllonen of the Air Force Research Lab, measured the chronotype of 420 test participants then gave them two intelligence tests. Together the tasks measured vocational knowledge (e.g. mechanics and engineering), general math and reading comprehension, and working memory and processing speed.

The results, though not overwhelming, did come down slightly on the side of evening types. Night owls outperformed morning larks on most of the intelligence measures—with significant differences on working memory and processing speed. Especially interesting was that the finding seemed to hold up even when the cognitive tests were taken in the morning.

"The results indicate that, contrary to conventional folk wisdom, evening-types are more likely to have higher intelligence scores," Roberts and Kyllonen reported in a 1999 issue of Personality and Individual Differences. Wise old owl, indeed.

3. NIGHT TYPES HAVE MORE GAME.

Evening types weren't just good at scoring on intelligence tests. They also proved to be prolific lovers—at least according to a 2012 paper in the same journal.

The study, led by Christoph Randler of University of Education Heidelberg in Germany, tested 284 male participants for their chronotype and their sexual behavior. While both morning and evening types got busy equally often, the night guys reported more total partners. This held true even when Randler and company controlled for age, extraversion, and a tendency to stay out later. Evening types were also more closely linked to infidelity; to take the bird analogy way too far: it seems owls, and not larks, breed cuckolds.

Evening types were more closely linked to infidelity.

As for why night owls might close more romantic deals, the researchers wonder if "a high activity during evening and night may honestly signal a better performance in sexual activity because most sexual activity in humans takes place around bed time." That's a dubious conclusion, though we'd love to see What's your name, what's your chronotype? catch on at the bar.

4. NO, LITERALLY, THEY PLAY BASEBALL BETTER.

In a delightful study, a research team that included a representative of the San Francisco Giants issued a morningness-eveningness questionnaire to 16 Major League Baseball players—nine owls, seven larks. The study group then paired this chronotype information with game statistics from nearly 7,500 innings during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. They reported their highly preliminary findings in a 2011 supplemental issue of Sleep.

Baseball players all fared better when game times matched their chronotype—though night owls had better averages than morning larks.American Academy of Sleep Medicine

When morning types played in early games (with start times before 2 p.m.), they batted a respectable .267. But when evening types played in night games (with first pitch after 8 p.m.), they hit a dazzling .306 as a group—nearly 30 points higher. It's worth noting owls suffered more than larks when game-time conflicted with chronotype: morning players hit eight points lower in night games (.259), but evening players hit 54 points lower in day games (.252).

5. OWLS ARE PARTIAL TO BAD HABITS—NAMELY, SMOKING AND DRINKING.

Franklin's adage about morning types being healthy does seem to hold in one regard: larks might be a little less vulnerable than owls to substance abuse.

A number of studies support these connections. One analysis of 676 adults from a Finnish twin cohort found that evening types were much more likely to be current or lifelong smokers, much less likely to stop smoking, and at much higher risk for nicotine dependence as per diagnostic criteria, compared with morning folks. Another study of 537 individuals found that owls consume more alcohol than larks.

That's not a huge surprise when you consider that nightlife is conducive to drinking and smoking. What's less clear to researchers is whether evening people are more inclined to partake because they're already out late, or whether the addictive behaviors—at least in the case of a stimulant like cigarettes—keep them up longer in the first.

6. LARKS ARE PERSISTENT, COOPERATIVE, AGREEABLE, CONSCIENTIOUS, AND PROACTIVE.

The tendency to drink and smoke among evening types is consistent with a broad personality trait that researchers call "novelty-seeking." Multiple studies have connected owls with that characteristic. In a 2011 paper notable for focusing on adolescents, Randler and a Heidelberg colleague discovered a link between night people and novelty-seeking already present among German teenagers (technically, ages 12 to 18).

The same research—which evaluated 346 test participants on both chronotype and a through character inventory—found that larks scored higher than owls (as well people who didn't fit in either category) in terms of persistence and cooperation. These positive traits among morning types built on other personality work from Randler showing that larks tended to be more agreeable and conscientious, and that they tend to be more proactive than owls. Showoffs.

7. THEY ALSO PROCRASTINATE LESS.

Given that larks are generally more compliant and conformist than owls, it comes as little shock to learn that evening types seem to be worse procrastinators. A 1997 study led by veteran delay researcher Joseph Ferrari of DePaul found that trait procrastinators called themselves "night" people. Based on six days of daily task records, Ferrari and company linked procrastination behaviors with a general tendency to partake in evening activities.

That study focused on college students: night types and procrastinators almost by definition. But the finding held true in a 2008 study of an adult sample with a mean age of 50. Once again, being a night owl was associated with avoiding a task that needed to be completed, the study team (which included Ferrari) reported in the Journal of General Psychology.

The researchers also suspect that this general preference to delay tasks until night could create problems at jobs with strong daytime work expectations.

8. MORNING TYPES MAY BE HAPPIER.

This disconnect between conventional daytime expectations and nighttime preference might make life harder for owls in general. Social scientists call this outcome "social jetlag": evening types that force themselves to wake up early and perform at their peak during the day might cause themselves some sleep loss and emotional distress. They might also be less happy as a result.

That's the argument put forth by two University of Toronto psychologists in a 2012 paper. After assessing a sample of 435 young adults (17 to 38) and 297 older adults (59 to 79) on their chronotypes as well as their current moods, the researchers found that morning people had higher positive affect across the board, compared with night people. Mood isn't the same as general happiness, but the findings may speak in part to the challenges owls face on a daily basis.

"Waking up early may indeed make one happy as a lark," the researchers conclude in the journal Emotion.

9. BOTH TYPES MAY BE MORE CREATIVE ON THEIR OFF-HOURS.

So there are clear benefits to matching someone's chronotype with that person's lifestyle, but the occasional mismatch isn't the end of the world. It might even brew some creativity, according to a 2011 study by psychologists Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks.

Wieth and Zacks determined the chronotype of 428 test participants then randomly assigned them to a morning or late afternoon test session. During the session, the participants had to solve six problems. Some were analytical problem, which can be solved with logical thinking, and some were insight problems, which tend to be figured out via "aha" moments or bursts of creative thought.

(Brief pause for an example insight problem: An antique coin dealer gets an offer to buy a bronze coin with the date 544 B.C. stamped on one side, but instead of buying it he calls the police. Why? We'll give you a moment. No coin truly made in B.C. would label itself B.C.—that's an A.D. construct)

Test participants were better at analytical problems, but had a higher success rate for insight problems at non-optimal times.via Thinking and Reasoning.

In the journal Thinking and Reasoning, Wieth and Zacks report that, overall, people were more successful at the analytical problems. But participants had a higher solution rate for insight problems when doing them at their non-optimal time of the day—say, an owl doing the test in morning—than at the time that aligned with their chornotype. The results lend support to the incubation theory of creativity: taking a break from a problem, often out of mental fatigue, can produce unexpected insights.

Maybe even insights about morning and night people.

How to be a Morning Person

I Tried to Be a Morning Person for 30 Days. Here's What Worked (and What Didn't)

If you spend any time online, you'll inevitably come across an article (or 15) spelling out steps to reach the near-mythical status of becoming a morning person.

It all sounds so simple: Stop hitting snooze. Set a positive intention for the day. Open the drapes and let the sunlight stream in. Easy enough, right?

For me, not so much. I’m not a morning person and never have been. I could sleep until noon in college. Class at 8 a.m.? No chance. Now I’m fortunate to work in an industry where work doesn’t really begin until 9 or 10 a.m., so I usually wake up around 8 a.m. (save for the rare morning workout).

Still, the idea of becoming an early bird has always intrigued me. As I attempted to fit more into my days—work, a social life, exercise, and some necessary alone time—I realized there was only one way to keep up with all my obligations without losing my mind: wake up earlier. Plus, research shows morning people tend to be happier and more agreeable.

One month ago I set a goal to wake up at 6:30 a.m. every weekday (I let myself sleep utill 8 a.m. on weekends). I did my research, read countless articles, and sourced advice from early-bird friends. Here are the tips that worked—and the ones that didn't.

1. Make a schedule.

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing: “I can’t possibly get up earlier because I have zero willpower.” But it turns out morning people aren’t using willpower to rise and shine; they’re using habits.

“Habits eliminate the need for self-control,” writes Gretchen Rubin in her book Better Than Before. “Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision-making.”

In other words, early risers don't think about getting up—they just do it. A friend echoed this idea when I asked him how the hell he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to work out. "It's not a question; I just do it," he told me.

The most effective way to wake up early is to go to bed early.

To help establish this new habit, I followed the advice of Jeff Sanders, a productivity coach and author of The 5 A.M. Miracle: Dominate Your Day Before Breakfast. He suggests creating a nightly schedule. After all, “the most effective way to wake up early is to go to bed early,” Sanders says.

Sanders's "stop time" is 8 p.m., when he turns off all technology (to avoid melatonin-suppressing blue light) and starts preparing for bed. Since I wasn't trying to wake up at 5 a.m. (!), I designated 9:30 p.m as mine. I entered my new routine into my calendar and set alerts on my phone to pop up at each increment. (Another tip from productivity pros? If it's on the calendar, it happens.)

9:30 p.m.: Start getting ready for bed.

10 p.m.: Get in bed.

10-10:30 p.m.: Read! (Something I'd never made time to do—a nice benefit of going to sleep early.)

10:30 p.m.: Turn lights off.

6:30 a.m.: Wake up after eight hours of sleep!

The Verdict: Giving myself a bedtime was surprisingly tough. (I don't think I've had one since age 10, and man, did I hate it back then.) That said, I really liked following a schedule. The alerts helped me remember to get ready for bed when I'd otherwise continue watching TV or messing around online.

However I'm a 27 year old living in New York City, so a few nights per week I'd still be out at drinks or dinner with friends at 9:30 p.m. and simply ignored the alerts. Other nights I couldn't fall asleep at 10:30 p.m., so I'd just keep reading or break the no-screen rule and scroll through Instagram. In these cases, I let myself sleep in the next morning.

This is OK. Life happens. Plus, much of the advice suggests making the shift gradually. So after one week, I moved my bedtime back to 11 p.m. and my wake-up time to 7 a.m. See ya one day, 6:30 a.m.

2. Wake up to natural sunlight.

Most morning-person articles stress how important it is to have natural sunlight. But I live in a small studio apartment with a windowless nook for sleeping. I know this sounds cozy, and it is—until you want to wake up (there’s basically zero morning light). To solve this problem, I tried the Philips Wake-Up Light, which claims to mimic a natural sunrise and gradually wake you up in a natural, refreshing way.

The Verdict: I wish I could say this worked, but the light from this lamp looked weird and artificial. And for some reason, it was accompanied by the sound of squawking seagulls. I couldn't figure out how to turn off the sound, so I just unplugged the whole thing. Hopefully one day I'll simply be able to open my blinds.

3. Stop hitting snooze.

I know, it’s basically un-American to not hit snooze. (One survey found more than half of us do it every day.) But hitting snooze to get more sleep actually has the opposite effect: It makes you groggier by interrupting your body’s natural sleep cycles. Plus, it’s just not a great way to start your day: “Snoozing inadvertently becomes a reactive choice, which leads to further reactivity,” Sanders says. “When you begin the day reacting to your environment instead of proactively shaping it, you find yourself on the defensive.”

Snoozing inadvertently becomes a reactive choice, which leads to further reactivity.

I also read you should choose a pleasant alarm noise—something soothing or fun, not a blaring beep. So I programmed my alarm to play Taylor Swift’s "Blank Space" every morning at 7 a.m. (yes, for me that's fun).

The Verdict: Swearing off the snooze button was hard, and even though I really enjoyed waking up to T. Swift singing about Starbucks lovers, most mornings I'd still hit snooze once or twice. What did help: placing my phone farther away on a bookshelf at the end of my bed. If I had to get out of bed to turn off my alarm, I was more likely to actually stay up.

4. Work out first thing.

One productivity guru suggests doing the one thing you dread most right after you wake up. That’s because research shows willpower is strongest in the early a.m., then steadily depletes over the course of a day. This manifests itself in that “ugh, it’s 6 p.m., and I don’t feel like going to the gym” feeling.

I aimed to exercise at least four mornings per week. I like to keep my evenings open for working, relaxing, or seeing friends, and I knew how much better and more accomplished I'd feel after getting my workout out of the way.

The Verdict: No. Just no. Forcing myself to go to the gym for a grueling workout right after waking up didn't make it any easier. But a 30-minute home workout was a lot more doable. (I did this video a few mornings and felt awesome—and sweaty—after.) I also learned that I really like having about 30 minutes before exercising to get my mind and body right—have a cup of coffee, wander around my apartment, even check my email.

After a couple weeks of at-home workouts, I was even able to catch a 7:30 a.m. class at my gym. Definitely beats rushing out the door five minutes after I wake up.

5. Do something positive and productive.

Getting out of bed on the right foot can impact your mood for the entire day, research shows. That's why experts suggest planning a healthy and positive activity. For some, this may be a workout, but I liked other simpler suggestions: meditating, writing down three things I'm grateful for, reading an uplifting article, or listening to an inspirational podcast. It could even be something as simple as enjoying a delicious cup of coffee or breakfast.

The Verdict: This actually worked! I started by simply spending some time thinking positively about what I had to look forward to that day—finishing a project at work, a fun workout class, or date night.

Looking forward to these things helped boost my mood on mornings I was dragging.

After one week, I spent 15 or 30 minutes per morning reading a chapter of a self-help book; playing some uplifting music while cleaning my apartment; or, if I worked out, listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast on the way to work. Looking forward to these things helped boost my mood on mornings I was dragging. A few times I even stopped by a coffee shop before work to read and savor a latte. A great cup of coffee + a great book = a great way to start the day.

Something else that worked? Having something to look forward to in the evening. If I had an obligation that prevented me from working out after work—dinner with a friend, happy hour with coworkers, a concert—that became far and away the biggest incentive to get up and get things done in the morning.

The Takeaway

Becoming a morning person was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. I am definitely not there yet, and I'd say I've stuck to my plan maybe three or four nights per week (max).

But I’m OK with that. Studies suggest that only around 18 percent of people are truly "morning types," while 27 percent are "evening types." The majority of us fall somewhere in between.

Credits:

Created with images by crimsontideguy - "Biloxi By Morning II" • quangle - "sunrise phu quoc island" • hansbenn - "landscape fog morning sun" • hang_in_there - "Sad man holding pillow" • Muffet - "morning"

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