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Back To Blog > Larks and Owls- What Do Those Chronotypes Tell You About Your Cognition & Mental Health?


This post is by guest blogger Anna Fialkowska

You are probably familiar with two chronotypes based on people’s sleeping habits known as larks and owls. Larks are those who gets up early, feel energised, are highly productive in the morning and retire to bed early. In contrast, owls have a preference to get up late, are more efficient in the evening and go to bed at a relatively late time. According to the research there is an average two-hour difference between the wake and sleep cycle of the  two chronotypes (1). As expected, belonging to one of the aforementioned groups affects an individual’s adoptability to the modern society, which still functions in a way that is biased against those marked by higher productivity in the evenings. However, what is the effect of the chronotype on our functioning and mental well-being? Let’s look at some evidence.

Chronotypes & academic performance

Our chronotype can have a significant impact on our academic performance. Franzis Preckel and her colleagues (2) completed a very interesting experiment into this correlation. They controlled for gender, motivation, cognitive ability and conscientiousness and their results still showed that students who were more evening-oriented “owls” had lower grades across maths, science and languages.  Surprisingly, the effect of the late-chronotype on school performance was similar to the association between absenteeism from school and poorer grades (3). The findings are highly alarming, especially when we consider the impact of early education and academic achievements on future prospects and further development.

One of the potential explanations for these findings is level of sleepiness during the day. However, according to the findings, there was no significant impact of this factor on academic performance. Additionally, it has been shown that owls get as much sleep as larks, but still have a tendency to receive poorer grades. Others suggested that owls tend to be less conscientious, less motivated and more likely to consume more drugs. However, those suggestions were also ruled out by the aforementioned study (2).

Therefore, the most plausible explanation of poorer performance amongst owls in comparison to larks is the result of the synchrony effect, which is a tendency to excel at the specific time of the day that is the most optimal for the individual. So, if we compare the two chronotypes, larks study mostly during their optimal level, where owls get only a few hours of learning during their preferable time. Therefore, if we consider the time when we acquire knowledge and when we are tested, owls seemed to be at the higher risk of less knowledge being retained, but also a lower chance to retrieve the information during the test. As a result of this disadvantaged position, owls are more likely to have lower grades and poorer academic performance. Support for the synchrony effect has been provided by Zerbini and her colleagues (3). According to their findings, the marks of owls can be significantly improved just by changing the time of their exams. Owls who were given the opportunity to take a test nearer to their optimal time of the day (in the afternoon) performed as well as larks in the morning hours. Experts believe that we should learn more about chronotypes and take steps to support the most disadvantaged students, who may struggle to excel during early hours.

Chronotypes & mental health

Beyond academic performance, chronotypes can also have an impact on our psychological well-being. The research carried out by Juan Manuel Antúnez (4) has revealed an impact of chronotype on the way we process our emotions, reflect on our thoughts and feelings, and on our level of assertiveness. As shown by the study, owls did significantly worse on all of those measurements in comparison to larks. Specifically, they were more likely to use suppression to regulate their emotions, in contrast to larks who were more prone to using more positive coping strategies. Emotional regulation by suppression predisposed individuals to suffer from depression, anxiety and poorer social functioning (5,6,7). Owls also have more dysfunctional ways of thinking about their thoughts and feelings. For instance, they were more likely to think that by worrying they can avoid problems, or that they should have control over their thoughts. Those negative patterns of thinking have been shown to be linked to an increased risk of depression (8), eating disorders (9) and gambling (10). Lastly, owls scored significantly lower on the level of assertiveness test, which is closely linked to poorer psychological well-being (11, 12). All of the noted factors put owls at an increased risk of poor functioning and of developing mental health complications. Therefore, we should not underestimate the effect of chronotypes on psychological well-being and should provide appropriate support to those who are at an increased risk of poor mental health.

Are there only two chronotypes?

According to some experts there are more than two chronotypes. It has been observed that some individuals do not fit any of the two most common types, and they feel highly energetic most of the time, or in contrast, even in good health, they feel lethargic and dozy throughout the day. This observation has been supported by the study published by Arcady Putilov and his colleagues (1), who identified two additional chronotypes. However, in contrast to larks and owls, there were no differences between the two groups in their time of waking up and their bedtime. Their sleep and wake cycles were shown to lie mid-way between the larks and owls, which may seem to be a balanced approach to our sleeping habits and potentially could be promoted by modern society. Shift in working hours, from very early mornings to a starting time of ten/eleven o’clock seems to be a promising compromise. As observed in the UK and a number of other countries, the educational establishment is waking up to the significance of chronopsychology and its effect on learning and everyday functioning. Monkseaton High School was first to introduce late starts (10am) and according to the data, grades had significantly improved within a year, while absenteeism had also fallen. Additionally, lectures at most of the universities start about 10-10.30 am. This however has not been introduced across the globe, with some countries, such as Poland, still promoting a 7.30-8am start, which puts owls at a highly disadvantaged position as noted previously. Although, the aforementioned shift seemed highly promising and could improve owl’s general performance and productivity, not all of us will be happy to stay in the office/school till 7-8pm. Potentially, the performance of individuals who are more efficient in the morning will significantly decrease about 5-6pm, putting larks at risk of increased fatigue and exhaustion. Additionally, when would we have time to relax, to go the gym or attend music classes? Will this shift compromise our leisure and relaxation time? Could this promote a society of fatigued workaholics, who have no time to rest and enjoy themselves? Or could we see a shift to morning leisure activities?

This is the big dilemma. Optimal working and schooling times to suit all chronotypes is a big ask and a significant time shift could do more damage to the rest of the society, causing further issues. With that in mind, it seems that the 9am start time supported by the UK government appears optimal. I strongly believe that, through education and the introduction of behaviour change interventions, we can support individuals to adapt their sleeping patterns and help them adjust to the current system. In some of the cases, simply by making changes to our sleeping routine, diet and physical activity levels, we can change and manage our detrimental sleeping habits. Therefore, why not try to invest in education and support resources, instead of introducing drastic changes that can bring detrimental consequences to the society?

About Anna Fialkowska

Anna Fialkowska is a Trainee Health Psychologist, is completing her doctoral training at the University of the West of England and currently works as a Heath Improvement Practitioner. She has worked within the field of mental health dysfunction and cognitive rehabilitation over the last six years. Her main areas of research include the development of behaviour change interventions, the impact of stress on individuals’ physical health and the effect of chronic conditions on psychological well-being.

References:

  1. Putilov, A., Donskaya, O., & Verevkin, E. (2015). How many diurnal types are there? A search for two further “bird species”. Personality and Individual Differences, 72(1), 12-17. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.08.003
  2. Preckel, F., Lipnevich, A., Boehme, K., Brandner, L., Georgi, K., Könen, T., Mursin, K., and Roberts, R. (2013). Morningness-eveningness and educational outcomes: the lark has an advantage over the owl at high school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 83 (1), 114-134. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.2011.02059.x
  3. Zerbini, G., van der Vinne, V., Otto, L.K.M., Kantermann, T., Krijnen, W.P., Roenneberg, T., & Merrow, M. (2017). Lower school performance in late chronotypes: underlying factors and mechanisms. Scientific Reports,7(4385), 1-10. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-04076-y
  4. Antúnez, J.M. Circadian typology is related to emotion regulation, metacognitive beliefs and assertiveness in healthy adults. PLoS ONE, 15(3), 1-14. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0230169
  5. De France, K., Hollenstein, T. (2019). Emotion regulation and relations to well-being across the lifespan. Developmental Psychology, 55(8), 1768–1774. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000744
  6. Gross J.J., & John, O.P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 348–362. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.2.348
  7. Gross, J.J. (1998). Antecedent- and emotion regulation: divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 224–237. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.224
  8. Faissner, M., Kriston, L., Moritz, S., Jelinek, L. (2018) Course and stability of cognitive and metacognitive beliefs in depression. Depression and Anxiety, 35(12), 1239–1246. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22834
  9. Olstad, S., Solem, S., Hjemdal, O., & Hagen, R. (2015). Metacognition in eating disorders: comparison of women with eating disorders, self-reported history of eating disorders or psychiatric problems, and healthy controls. Eating Behaviours, 16(1), 17–22. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2014.10.019
  10. Lindberg, A, Fernie BA, Spada MM. Metacognitions in problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 27(1), 73– 81. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10899-010-9193-1
  11. Sarkova, M., Bacikova-Sleskova, M., Orosova, O., Madarasova Geckova, A., Katreniakova, Z., Klein, D., et al. (2013). Associations between assertiveness, psychological well-being, and self-esteem in adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology,43(1), 147–154. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/j
  12. Garaigordobil, M. (2015). Predictor variables of happiness and its connection with risk and protective factors for health. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(176), 1-10. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01176
Owls

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