Night Owls vs. Early Birds: 9 Science-Backed Differences
Time to read 7 min
Time to read 7 min
There’s a pretty good chance that you already know if you’re a morning or night person, and even if you don’t, dollars to donuts your significant other does! But what you might still be in the dark about are the names social scientists give to these two groups. “Larks” are folks that turn in early each night and arise with the sun, while “owls” are the people that tend to be more alert in the evenings and don’t hit the hay until long after their favorite late show is off the air. Both morning larks and night owls tend to fit into more of a spectrum than into a hard and fast grouping, and people can even shift between being a lark or an owl throughout the different stages of their lives. But for the most part, the lark and owl groups have withstood the scrutiny of research studies since the 1970s. If you’re curious about how to define which group you fall into, you can examine things such as when you naturally like to get up each day, when you begin to feel tired, or you can go ahead and ask your spouse’s opinion, of course. Another option is to take a look at the info we’ve gathered from multiple early bird vs. night owl studies that have taken place over the years, and gain some extra insight into what group you fall into, and just what makes you thrive at sunrise (or sunset).
Although Ben Franklin was quick to advise all to follow a morning lark lifestyle by reporting that “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” researchers have challenged that old adage. Amongst a group of both men and women that were observed in a 1998 study at Southampton University in England, it was found that night owls (those that went to bed after 11 p.m. and woke up after 8 a.m.) had higher salaries than early birds, although both groups placed roughly the same on cognitive and general health scales. This effectively debunked Franklin’s long-held claim that early risers were healthier and wealthier, and shows that if anything, night owls were in better economic standings than morning larks, and there was no evidence of them being in any poorer health than their early-rising counterparts.
Another study that focused on the differences between early and late risers was undertaken at the University of Sydney. This study measured the intelligence levels of over 400 male and female participants. Vocational, math, reading, and other cognitive processing abilities were measured, and it was found that evening types outperformed morning larks on almost every test, with significant differences in memory speeds. What was especially interesting to researchers was the fact that night owls did better on the cognitive tests than early birds, even when the assignments were undertaken in the morning hours, indicating that night types are more likely to have overall higher IQs.
It turns out that night owls not only score higher on intelligence tests, they also have been proven to be prolific romantic partners, as well, according to one study done at the University of Education Heidelberg in Germany. Nearly 300 male participants were tested to see if they were a night owl or early bird, along with their typical sexual behavior, and it was found that the night types were found to get busy more often than the morning larks. This held true even when participant age was taken into consideration, as well as the usual time the men headed out to look for romantic companionship. It was also found that guys that fell into the night owl category were also more likely to have relationships on the side, linking them much more closely to the possibility of infidelity.
It’s also been found that late risers have a leg up on athletics, especially in baseball, thanks to an intriguing questionnaire given to a group of Major League Baseball players during the 2009 season. It was discovered that night owls had better batting averages on a whole than morning larks, although not surprisingly, it seems as if vigorous exercise is linked to better sleep in both groups. During the study, it was noted that early birds batted quite well during morning games, but night owls hit it out of the park much more often during night games, leading researchers to believe that they had a natural advantage when it came to playing the sport of baseball.
Although Ben Franklin’s adage regarding early birds being healthier and wealthier has been proven inaccurate for the most part, there is one area where it just might hold true, and that’s in susceptibility to substance abuse. Quite a few studies have supported the connection between night types and addictive behavior, and it was found they were much less likely to quit smoking, at a higher risk for developing a dependency upon illegal drugs, and tended to be affected much more by alcoholic beverages, especially when it comes to using it to get to sleep. Although this might not come as a massive surprise, considering nightlife is linked much more to smoking and drinking than daytime social activities, researchers are still puzzled as to why night owls tend to develop dependencies on substances, and they continue to look into the true cause of the issue.
The inclination to smoke and drink amongst night owls has been linked to a personality trait called “novelty seeking,” and multiple studies have connected night types with the characteristic, including a study that focused on German teenagers and their increased novelty seeking behavior when they fell into the night owl group. This same study also found that early birds scored higher when it came to the personality traits that included cooperation and persistence. These positive characteristics among morning types showed that they tend to be more conscientious and agreeable than night owls, making them naturally more proactive than reactive. This could mean that early birds really do catch the worm when it comes to higher levels of productivity, although they still score lower in overall income levels than their late-rising counterparts.
Now that you know morning larks are more compliant and agreeable than night owls, it should come as little surprise to learn that they also tend to procrastinate less than those that burn the midnight oil. Studies have linked procrastination behaviors with an overall propensity to take part in evening activities, meaning that night types are natural procrastinators in almost every case and have been associated with task avoidance at any time of the day. While a good night’s sleep inspires productivity, no matter when you turn in, researchers have reported in the Journal of General Psychology that the typical preference to delay tasks until the evening hours could create some serious issues with most of the world’s daytime working hour expectations, and night owls would do well to keep that in mind!
The disconnect between what society deems as acceptable and the typical evening hour preferences of the night owl can create quite the conundrum for late risers, and even cause an outcome that’s been named “social jetlag,” creating even more issues. Social jetlag occurs when night types force themselves to perform at off-peak hours, due to professional expectations, creating sleep loss and even emotional distress, which in turn increases stress levels. One study that took place at the University of Toronto in 2012 assessed over 400 young adults, taking into account whether they were night owls or early birds, as well as their current moods, and researchers discovered that morning people tended to be more positive in general, while night types struggled with higher levels of stress and anxiety. Simply put, although more research needs to take place, and it has to be taken into account that mood isn’t the same as happiness in general, these findings are leaning toward the fact that people that wake up earlier tend to be more on the chipper side. Guess that’s why they’re identified as larks!
You’re probably starting to see that there are some pretty clear benefits to matching an early bird with a daytime lifestyle, and vice versa, but an occasional mismatch won’t wreak too much havoc. In fact, when people were forced to perform during their “off hours,” it’s actually been found to generate some added creativity, according to a 2011 study that was published in the journal, Thinking and Reasoning. It was found that amongst nearly 450 participants that were assigned tasks at random times, creatively-driven assignments were nailed by those that were in either the night owl or early bird group. On the flip side, analytical tasks that required problem-solving abilities were tackled much more efficiently and effectively during the day by morning larks, and in the evening by night types. These findings lead researchers to believe that the “aha moment” comes for many of us when we are forced to work outside of our comfort zone, and really let our minds wander free to be open to creative thought, even when we don’t feel as if we’re working at our most optimal time of day.
Now that you’ve learned a bit more about the differences between early and late risers, you might want to take a look at some of these related articles, and pick up some helpful tips on how to master your days, no matter which group you happen to fall into. 3 Easy-Breezy Steps to Becoming a Morning Person 5 Quick & Easy Ways to Get Over Your Post-Lunch Slump How to Start Hacking Your Sleep and Master Your Energy Levels