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Can Coffee Make You a Better Person?

I love scientific studies, I really do. Empirical evidence makes the world go round—or at least it’s the reason we know the world’s going round. But as somebody who needs a steady-ish supply of coffee to get through the day, I’ve pretty much learned to stop paying attention to most coffee-related studies.

On the one hand, coffee is on the American Institute for Cancer Research’s list of foods that fight cancer and may also reduce the risk of stroke and heart failure. On the other, caffeine is undeniably an addictive, mood-altering drug that has been linked anecdotally to a wide range of health complaints, and in addition to caffeine coffee is one of the many foods containing the potential carcinogen acrylamide. One 2014 Mayo Clinic piece summed up the research in a way that I think most of us would agree with: “The best answer may be that for most people the health benefits outweigh the risks.” In other words: it doesn’t seem to be hurting most of the people who drink it.

More recent studies have focused on the degree to which coffee affects our personalities, and that gets a little trickier. It has long been suggested that coffee can make us more anxious (except when it doesn’t) and subsequently more aggressive, but a new study suggests that it may make us behave more ethically as well—at least if we’re tired:

“Our research shows that sleep deprivation contributes to unethical behavior at work by making you more susceptible to social influences, such as a boss who tells you to do something deceptive or unethical,” said Michael Christian, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. “Caffeine can help you resist by strengthening your self-control and willpower when you’re exhausted.”

It’s worth noting that all of these behavioral changes are slight and haven’t been verified using large-scale, long-term studies. But assuming coffee makes you more anxious, aggressive, and principled, is it making you a better person or a worse one? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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