03/26/2009 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CyberThink: How Technology is Subverting Our Ethics

Recently, I came across the disturbing results of a new study. According to a workplace insights survey conducted by Adecco North America Group, 28% of respondents said they would commit a dishonest act (including blaming co-workers for mistakes) in order to keep their jobs.


This first piece of information is disheartening, but unfortunately not entirely surprising. People are scared, and a severe recession can make individuals do things they might otherwise not.

But the most surprising statistic in the survey related to the attitudes of younger workers. Of the Generation Y portion that was polled, 41% said they would be dishonest! That is almost 50% higher than for all other groups.

How could this be, I wondered? This is the technology generation. They live their lives in a fishbowl. Nearly everything they do is transparent. Texting, social networking - everyone can see, and the internet has quite a long memory. This is the generation who understands the power (good and bad) of technology, and the very long and powerful tail of decisions (good and bad). And yet, they are the most willing to behave unethically?

It just didn't make sense.

So I started doing a bit of research into the psychology of technology. We all have seen examples of people doing things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily do. They feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect" of technology - many of our inhibitions simply fade away.

But there is a dark side to disinhibition - it also makes us more willing to engage in unethical behavior. Researchers have found several reasons for this. First, even with everyone's identity visible, we are physically invisible, and the opportunity to be physically invisible "amplifies the disinhibition effect."

Secondly, communication is asynchronous - the interaction does not occur in real time. A response may come in minutes, hours, days or months. You can act now, and deal with peoples reactions later, further lowering our inhibitions.

Finally, cyberspace is a great equalizer - there is very little status on facebook. Psychologically, this has the effect of minimizing authority. In this way, people feel empowered to act as they wish.

For a generation that has grown up in a technology bubble, I guess herein lies some explanation about their willingness to act dishonestly and unethically at work. When spreading inaccurate and/or negative rumors about coworkers, you are not standing in front of them (invisible), the impact does not occur immediately (asynchronous), and your status is meaningless (minimize authority). Gen Y is already quite comfortable with disinhibition.

As managers, parents and mentors, it is critical that we teach the importance of ethical behavior. Technology may dampen our inhibition to act unethically, but this very same technology creates long term consequences that are much more severe and unforgiving.

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