ADVERTISEMENT
The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe

Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong

More Questions Than Answers About Whistleblowing

|

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

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

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Celebrate Pi Approximation Day
with us!

Get 3 of our best-selling Pi topic issues
Plus a FREE Bonus Issue!

Add to your cart now for just $9.99 >

X

Email this Article

X