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More Questions Than Answers About Whistleblowing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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My colleagues, Liane Young and James Dungan, and I recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about whistleblowing based on recent research we also published on the topic.  Very simply, our work demonstrates that people’s willingness to blow the whistle (i.e. report) unethical behaviors they observe rests on the tradeoff they make between two fundamental values, fairness and loyalty.  When fairness is more salient than loyalty, people become inclined to blow the whistle.  When loyalty is more salient then fairness, people become hesitant to blow the whistle.

This work is merely a brick in what will hopefully be a burgeoning architecture of psychological research on whistleblowing.  This work is also response to Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who noted that with regard to the motivational and personality determinants of whistleblowing, “There’s almost no research on any of these questions.” Up to this point, most of the research on whistleblowing has been conducted by economists, management scientists, and organizational behavior scholars studying the organizational causes and consequences of whistleblowing.  Criminologists and legal scholars have done some work on the related phenomenon of “snitching.”  Yet psychologists have done relatively less work in this domain, and whistleblowing seems a topic ripe for social psychologists, in particular, because it speaks to how situational factors interact with dispositional values, to affect perceptions of what is unethical and therefore reportable.  The very act of whistleblowing itself can be seen as either moral or immoral, depending on the sway of situational pressures that shift our fundamental values toward fairness or loyalty.

In addition to being ripe for study,  whistleblowing has never been so newsworthy as it has been in the past five years.  Consider the cases of Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, Jerry Sandusky that prominently featured whistleblowers, the rise of Wikileaks and Wall Street reform intended to enact whistleblower protection policies,  and  the recent cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  Manning, of course, is the U.S. soldier who leaked video feed of U.S. troops killing Iraqi civilians and Snowden is the National Security Agency whistleblower who leaked details of secret NSA surveillance programs.  Controversy swirls around whether whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden should be considered heroes or traitors, or whether they should be referred to as “whistleblowers” in the first place.

As the whistleblowing news cycle has continued to percolate and as my colleagues and I have studied this topic for the last few years , three important questions have emerged for psychologists interested in this topic to answer.  The first is whether extrinsic incentives (i.e. paying people) for whistleblowing are effective.  The second is what makes for a successful whistleblower.  And the third, which we have begun studying, is how group identity shapes perceptions of whistleblowers.

The first question is rather simple.  A number of pro-whistleblowing policies put forth by the U.S. government, including aspects of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, allow whistleblowers to reap significant monetary rewards for providing information about activities such as corporate fraud.   The reasoning behind these policies, presumably, is that offering monetary incentives for whistleblowing should increase whistleblowing.  Yet numerous psychological studies demonstrate that extrinsic incentives such as money can undermine intrinsic motivations, such as, in this case, the desire for justice or standing up for what one believes is right.  What is more, offering monetary incentives for whistleblowing might increase “false alarms,” and could change perceptions of whistleblowers as money-seekers rather than do-gooders.  So far the results of pay-for-whistleblowing programs are decidedly mixed.  More work is needed to know whether these incentives will have the desired effect.

Graffiti of U.S. Army Whistleblower, Bradley Manning

The second question was asked of me when I gave a talk about whistleblowing that showed the famous TIME 2002 “Person of the Year” cover featuring Sherron Watkins, Cynthia Cooper, and Colleen Rowley, prominent whistleblowers.  How did these women become heroes whereas other reports have shown that 82 percent of whistleblowers on corporate fraud face undesirable consequences such as revenge and reassignment?  If positive outcomes for whistleblowers are the exception to the rule, then what is the perfect confluence of factors that causes them?  This question largely remains unanswered.

I hesitate to say too much on the final question, as we are currently hard at work trying to answer it, but I will pose it anyway: Do we see whistleblowing as more unethical when it comes from a member of another group versus our own? For me, this question arose from a conversation I had with a contact connected to the worlds of Chicago juvenile street crime and the Chicago Police Department.  When Chicago teenager, Hadiya Pendleton, was shot and killed, initially police claimed that slow progress on the case resulted from the community failing to provide help, and I asked my contact how much truth there is to the idea that the “no-snitching culture” was responsible for a lack of good leads on the killer.  This person responded that the irony of the situation was that the police frequently blame these neighborhoods for an anti-snitch mentality, but the police department itself has a strong and important no-snitching culture of its own.  This makes sense.  I’m perfectly happy to know that whistleblowers are out there, but how happy would if my closest colleagues are prone to blowing the whistle?  In a pilot study on this idea, we asked a group of people to evaluate a player on their favorite baseball team who reports a teammate for steroid use whereas we asked another group of people to evaluate a player on their least favorite baseball team who does the same thing?  Interestingly, people found the rival player more ethical than the home team player.

We hope to have provided a jumping off point for these and other topics about whistleblowing to be addressed.  For now we sit puzzled and interested, with far more questions than answers.

Image Courtesy of Thierry Ehrmann via Wikimedia Commons

Adam Waytz About the Author: Adam Waytz is a psychologist who studies the attribution and denial of mental states to other agents, and the moral and ethical implications of these processes. Follow on twitter: @awaytz

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Versability 5:23 pm 08/20/2013

    Whistleblowers everywhere are treated like criminals for doing the right thing. I know this from firsthand experience. You can read about the retaliation I’ve experienced as a bank whistleblower here:

    Link to this
  2. 2. aek2013 7:57 pm 08/21/2013

    What Versatility said. Many whistleblowers don’t even fit within the legal definition of it. However, in the course of simply doing the job I was hired to do, I unearthed illegal and unethical ongoing problems. I was fired and blacklisted. In the course of trying to find help and support, I discovered C Fred Alford’s work on the permanent condition of whistleblowers like myself (unseen, unheard, and forgotten by everyone), Kipling Williams work on ostracism, and the paltry reseach on the health effects of WB on whistleblowers (over 50% suicidality, >10%suicides, 100% health impairments), plus destitution.

    It doesn’t make for anything other than wishing for death – a permanent end to a permanent societal induced nightmare.

    I blogged a bit about it at Incompatible With Life – on WordPress – but as expected, very few people engaged in discussion. No one wants to get the taint of whistleblowers on them, and that applies to cyber contact, too. Whistleblowing results in social death – social murder by those who can – and do – get away with perfect crimes.

    Link to this
  3. 3. RavuthLam 12:58 am 02/5/2014

    Dear Adam,

    Please excuse me for the amount of words and if any inappropriate wordings used, as English is my second language and my comment below is part of the requirement of Assignment 2: Business Ethics Course at The Open Polytechnic, Wellington, New Zealand.

    The purpose of this comment is to provide critical response to your article. I will begin the discussion with the trade-off between fairness and loyalty, then the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, and finally I will try to provide answer on the second question of your three questions mentioned.

    I agree that the people with fairness and justice personality do contribute to some sorts of extent to the tendency of blowing the whistle on employers on some serious occasions. However, I believe that people value the fairness to some extent as their fundamental morality, but the complexity and conflict of their perception on fairness provide different view on one’s action being fair or unfair. According to your short example in the New York Times article “The Whistle-Blower’s Quandary”, you mentioned two different actions regarding “promoting an employee”. The first one you referred to is “doing what is fair or just” and that is to promote an employee “based on talent alone”. The second one you referred to is “showing loyalty” and that is to promote an employee who is “longstanding but unskilled”. For the purpose of fairness, I would argue that the first group may take “talent” as their basis in judging the fairness of promoting an employee, whereas the second group would challenge this judgment by basing it on the term “loyalty” which includes a longstanding member. It can be argued further that given a situation it is already unfair for those who born with “untalented” compares to those with “talent”, the organisation should value “loyalty” which is an intrinsic value of our personality and therefore should giving those “longstanding but unskilled” an opportunity to be developed with the support from the organisation. The conflict on the principle of fairness can be seen from this example and illustration.

    It is foreseeable to me that when asked, the majority of people would prioritize fairness over loyalty, that because the prima facie perception that fairness is morally righter than loyalty, especially when it comes to blowing the whistle. Therefore, I am not totally convinced about the trade-off or conflict between fairness and loyalty with regards to whistle blowing and I think factor such as retaliation is a better cause of refraining whistle blowing rather than loyalty.

    I rather just limit my discussion on the debate of loyalty and whether we oblige to blow the whistle. Firstly, I agree with Duska (1990) that in the business of profit making organisations context we should not owe a duty of loyalty to those organisations because they are the tools of making profit and the concept of owing loyalty should be vice versa which will never happen between employee and the organisation, rather it is a contractual relationship to provide responsible work for fair wages. Secondly, in society, every one of us has some sort of obligation being a member of the society and at least as every one may agree with, “an obligation to avoid harming anyone” (Duska, 1990, p. 146). From these points, I would briefly conclude that we owed each other a duty of care, and we do not have to commit to loyalty for the organisation we work for; thus whistleblowing would firstly come from these two views.

    What about the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden? I think these two cases, however, are beyond the definition of whistleblowing: “the act by an employee of informing the public on the immoral or illegal behaviour of an employer or supervisor.” (Norman Bowie, as cited in Duska, 1990, p. 142). For Manning, if he were to provide only the documents that essentially proof the wrong doing of US troops, I think that would be morally right. But he so far provide hundreds of thousands confidential files to Wikileaks. Similarly, Snowden’s revelation about the US’s spying on other countries has caused controversy and requires moral justification of his action. Some of his opposition such as Lucas (2014) blaming him for serving the enemies and alerting back that the US are also being spied by its enemies. The ethical judgement on these two whistle-blowers is in a “grey” area of whistle blowing. While some view them as a hero, some accuse them as a traitor whose action can cause some sort of destructions on his own country. This probably the main cause of controversial judgments of morality, because the perception of a country is not the same as profit making organisation, some people may refer it as a home.

    McMillan, in his blog, claims that majority of whistle-blowers experienced retaliation (with the number continues to increase from the past) against them including physical attack. However, McMillan mentioned that where the organisations with its comprehensive ethics and compliance program in place, the increase in the retaliation is relatively low (2%). With this clue, together with the definition of whistle-blowing I mention above, although we may not find an answer to make for a successful whistle-blower, the following points worth considering:

    • Carefully evaluate the seriousness of the matter and the harm it has on society
    • Consider the organisation context (profit or non-profit, government department etc.) we are in as it could create morality conflict with people outside the organisation
    • Check whether you have enough proof or evident.
    • Check whether the organisation has its comprehensive ethics and compliance program in place and whether the complaint process protect confidentiality and anonym
    • Follow the internal process ethical complaint procedure and investigate whether there is any morality conflict with whom you report to. If it does exist, bring your complaint up to the higher ranking.
    • If no action from the organisation, re-assess the situation, its matter, its harm and how serious it is to the society
    • Decide whether you need to go for public

    The open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2013). Module two. 71203 Business Ethics. Lower Hutt, NZ: Author.

    Duska, R.F. (1990). Whistleblowing and employee loyalty. In J. R. Desjardins & J. J. McCall (Eds.), Contemporary issues in business ethics (2nd ed., pp. 142 – 147). Belmont CA: Wadsworth

    Walsh M. (2005, No.6). Whistleblowing: Betrayal or Public Duty? Retrieved January 26, 2014, from

    Waytz A., Dungan J., Young L. (2013, August 2). The Whistle-Blower’s Quandary. Retrieved January 27, 2014, from

    Lucas E., (2014, January 24). Edward Snowden: Did the American whistleblower act alone? Retrieved January 27, 2014 from
    Page C., (2013, August 21). Wikileaks Whistleblower Bradley Manning gets 35 years. Retrieved January 26, 2014 from

    McMillan M., (2012, October 24). Retaliation against Whistle-Blowers: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Retrieved January 26, 2014 from

    Link to this

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