Characteristics correlated with an individual’s predisposition to making a computer related ethical judgement

Cheryl Welch


As computer technology is assimilated more and more into society and the business environment the issues of computer fraud, sabotage, illegal software copying, viruses, and hacking will become more empirically measurable. Until that time, these issues must not be shunned just because they do not easily lend themselves to empirical testing. Through the use of the ethical decision making model in identifying the enduring characteristics correlated with decision making we may be able to understand the thought processes of the computer abuser.

The purpose of this study was to identify the inherent characteristics that are correlated with an individual’s predisposition to making a computer-related ethical judgment in accordance with a behavioral model of ethical and unethical decision making developed by Harrington (1992). The inherent characteristics identified were negative-affectivity, other-directedness, moral perspective, locus-of-control, and denial-of-responsibility. Data for this study were gathered using questionnaires. The questionnaires were administered to undergraduate and graduate business students enrolled in a computer course.

They study was helpful in understanding the computer abuser. The data analyzed seemed to suggest the enduring characteristics of other-directedness, negative-affectivity, locus-of-control, moral perspective, and denial-of-responsibility are significant factors in determining ethical and unethical decision making. The scenarios used on the questionnaire presented situations that were clearly moral in nature, yet participants responded favorably to questions where it would be acceptable to alter behavior. It would seem that individuals place personal wealth and security values above honesty and property rights.

Demographics, in general, had little relationship to the responses in the instrument. Education and job tenure were correlated with locus-of-control and denial-of-responsibility. Higher levels of education would prepare an individual to take control of a situation by devising solutions and evaluating the outcome of each one before implementing. The longer an individual is on a job, the greater the likelihood that he will experience a situation where he could use the organizations resources to his benefit and rationalize the act. These findings suggest continued education programs for employees over the term of employment.

According to the responses to this survey, nearly 93% of the respondents reported never taking a course in computer ethics. Any instructor who wants to install a sense of ethical use of computers in students might address the topics of spreading viruses, sabotage, hacking, fraud, and illegal software copying. The ethical decision making model and its corresponding individual characteristics will prove helpful in getting everyone to see a situation from the same perspective.

Overall, analysis of the data indicated an individual’s intent to perform the computer abuse was found to be a function of negative-affectivity and the interaction of the individual factors of other-directedness, moral perspective and denial-of-responsibility. Negative-affectivity was significant to understanding decision making in different kinds of situations and the degree to which individuals are likely to attribute personal control in the same situation.