Chronotype: Owls vs Larks

Owls have generally been looked down on as lazy and unmotivated. Is that stereotype accurate? Why does it persist?

Would you rather go to the gym in the morning or evening? If you have tomorrow off, when would you prefer to go to sleep tonight? If you had to stay up for much of the night, would you decide to get some sleep before, or after, or not at all?
Larks vs. Owls
Not surprisingly, the majority of adults are hummingbirds. They generally wake up around 7 AM and go to sleep around 11PM. During the day and evening, they manage to stay relatively alert and efficient, though they may feel a brief slump in the early afternoon. In our society, work schedules, store hours, mass transit schedules, and other social functions are generally organized around the habits of hummingbirds.
However, not everyone fits so neatly into this majority group, or into a world based on its needs and preferences.

  • Larks wake up bright and early, before most people’s alarms go off, and may start to fizzle out by early evening.
  • Owls find waking up in time for work or school a constant struggle. Their day finally starts to get rolling in the afternoon, and if they try to go to bed at a “civilized” hour, they are likely to face insomnia.

A Prejudice in Favor of Larks

Larks have enjoyed an excellent reputation for at least three thousand years. At the A Prejudice in Favor of Larkssame time, owls have been generally looked down on as lazy and unmotivated. One of the few quotations in praise of owlishness is from that well-known contrarian, Mark Twain (1835-1910): “Wisdom teaches us that none but birds should go out early, and that not even birds should do it unless they are out of worms.”
This prejudice in favor of larks and against owls is deeply embedded in our culture. Read one of those admiring profiles of some successful entrepreneur. The first thing you learn is that he or she always gets up early enough to go for a five-mile run and put in some time with free weights. This is followed by showering, dressing, scanning the news, checking the European markets, and being the first to show up at the office. Oh, and did we mention that he or she has been using the morning commute to write an autobiography?

The Advantage of Being an Owl
As far as we know, researchers have not yet tried to directly compare the job efficiency of larks versus owls. However, owls probably do not deserve their bad reputation.

One study looked at reaction time, a measure of alertness, across the nine-to-five workday. The results showed that larks took steadily longer to respond to a signal, indicating that their alertness went down between morning and late afternoon. In contrast, the performance of owls and hummingbirds was slightly better at 5 PM than it had been at 9 AM.

In another study, everyone’s sense of alertness increased from morning to noon, but from that point into early evening, larks and hummingbirds became less alert, while owls continued to become still more alert.

Why Larks Have Better PR
So why have people who get up early gained such a positive reputation? We can imagine a lot of reasons, such as:

  • Historically, in agricultural economies, some farmyard chores had to be done early. Dairy cows don’t care what your chronotype is—they need to be milked first thing in the morning. Farm hands who did not get up soon enough to help were seen as not pulling their weight.
  • Medieval monks thought of sleep as a sinful luxury and believed getting up to pray long before dawn was a sign of unusual devotion.
  • Early risers reach their peak efficiency during the first part of the traditional nine-to-five workday. So the majority, including their bosses, are more likely to notice and admire their productivity.
  • We generally think of the evening hours as a time for recreation. Someone whose daily schedule provides more of these leisure hours obviously must be devoting less effort to more “productive” activities.

More generally, somebody who is asleep is clearly not up and working. And the fact that someone is asleep is more noticeable, public, and unusual during the day than during the evening. Two people may spend exactly the same amount of time asleep and awake, but the one who is always up and about at 6 AM will end up with a very different reputation from the one who usually gets up at 9 AM.
Irish writer Robert Lynd was on to something when he said, “No human being believes that any other human being has a right to be in bed when he himself is up.”