An investigation into the assessment of auditors' professional moral abilities and their improvement through the use of task-properties feedback

Date of Completion

January 1997


Business Administration, Accounting|Psychology, Developmental|Psychology, Cognitive




The purposes of this study are: (1) to investigate whether auditors' ethical abilities determined using a generic instrument (the Defining Issues Test) differ from those determined using a context-specific instrument; and (2) to investigate whether auditors' generic ethical abilities can be improved through the use of task-properties feedback (TPF). TPF provides a decision-maker with an explanation of what s/he should be doing in coming to a "correct" decision. TPF will be used in this study because it has gained both theoretical and empirical support as a means for improving performance when facing complex problems (Balzer 1989; Early, et al. 1990; Hogarth 1988; Kavathatzopoulos 1993; and Rosman 1994).^ This dissertation uses generic and audit-based ethical dilemmas to assess auditors' ethical abilities as professionals as well as the impact of TPF on those abilities.^ Results of the experiment administered to sixty subjects indicate first that differences result from assessing auditors' moral abilities using generic versus domain-specific instruments. Second, using TPF to improve auditors' generic ethical abilities is not fully supported in the study. However, there is evidence that the short TPF intervention (lasting over four trials and about 20 minutes) shows promise for future ethical training programs. Finally, the study is the first to empirically link ethical judgment and behavior.^ The results of this dissertation have both theoretical and practical implications. Theoretically, they imply first that because context matters, researchers should cautiously interpret results obtained using generic instruments to assess auditors' professional moral abilities. Second, because behavior and judgment have been empirically linked, inducing improvements in ethical judgment should be sufficient to produce similar improvements in behavior.^ From a practical perspective, auditors exhibit higher stages of MRD and come to more ethical judgments after receiving TPF, albeit not statistically significantly. Thus, it is possible that while TPF shows promise as a learning technique in the ethical domain, more frequent and/or longer-term exposures to TPF might yield more powerful results. Audit firms, therefore, can use this information when devising ethics training programs. ^