RightPeople in the News – Sydney Morning Herald Article

It’s official: the early bird doesn’t necessarily catch the worm.

A new and accurate measure of whether a person is a so-called ‘early bird’ or’ night owl’ could be useful in selecting people for jobs involving shift work, according to Dr Richard Roberts from RightPeople.

People making a mistake on an overnight shift have been implicated in a number of serious accidents, such as the Exxon Valdez Ocean tanker oil spill.

Research and lecturer Dr Richard Roberts says “there is good reason to suggest people should be able to follow their natural circadian rhythm where possible”.

RightPeople’s Lark Owl Chronotype Indicator, which serves as a test for circadian rhythms, was developed whilst Dr Roberts was in the United States on a prestigious post doctoral national academies and science fellowship, for the US National research Council.  He has data from 10,000 people, having had access to a large pool of US air force recruits.

“As we move towards a 24-hour society, I think the potential market for the instrument will grow. The research has some amazing ramifications,” he said.

Dr Roberts was in the US to research emotional intelligence, speed of processing and IQ, and began asking questions about circadian type as a hobby at the end of other tests.

He asked his 30 University of Sydney students to sit the test, and then had their parents sit the same test.  He also asked these groups to rate each other on whether they thought the other person was a ‘night owl’ or ‘evening lark’.

“We found that the reports correlated very strongly with the self report measure, which is unusual in psychology,” he said.

Dr Roberts is liaising with Dr Robert Hughes, at Harvard Medical School, whose research into the levels of the hormone melatonin in people’s saliva at different times of the day could provide a biological marker for circadian type.

One of the findings of Dr Roberts’ preliminary study, which analysed material from 420 research participants and which was widely reported in the media, was that ‘night owls’ were more intelligent than ‘early birds’. “We found this to be a fairly robust finding, consistent across disparate tasks,” he said. “However we are only talking two or three IQ points.”

The research was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

Dr Roberts also looked at links between circadian rhythms and personality traits, and found that morning people were generally very conscientious.

Research by some of his students found that morning people were also good time managers. However, they were also more neurotic and prone to worrying and stress.

“It’s not really a negative thing to be neurotic, is quite an appropriate thing on some occasions to be anxious about things and to be a bit stressed out,” Dr Roberts said.

His research also found that evening people were generally more extroverted, and more open to experience, which has been linked to higher intelligence in other studies.

While some people were very fixed in their night owl/early bird tendencies, others were more flexible and varied in their sleeping times, and some were neither owls nor larks.

“In the past everyone thought that larks and owls were opposite ends of the same continuum, but we’ve subsequently designed new scales, and have found that they are in fact two different dimensions that are almost orthogonal to one another,” he said.