Would-be whistleblowers almost always face giant risks when they choose to challenge authority, break loyalties, and call out wrongdoing. According to one recent psychological study, more than 90 percent of participants in a social experiment said they would disobey authority and blow the whistle on an experimenter they observed doing something immoral. Yet in another phase of the same study, less than 10 percent of the participants actually blew the whistle when they discovered an experimenter’s cruel and immoral behavior during the realistic situational experiment. This finding echoed previous whistleblower studies that determined conformity and fear of defying authority can overwhelm a person’s impulse to do the right thing. So what makes some whistleblowers choose to put their personal and professional lives in jeopardy while others who witness wrongdoing stay silent?
A report published by the Washington Post on July 13 delved into that question and found that there is no black-and-white answer in many cases but a variety of influencing factors. First, a whistleblower’s belief in the rightness of his or her action must be strong enough to overcome the hazards of speaking out, the Washington Post found, citing recent studies. The Washington Post cited a study conducted by Boston College recently that found “people who valued fairness above loyalty were more likely to say they would blow the whistle on someone who committed a crime.”
“A lot of it comes down to their ability to hold on to a set of principles in the face of countervailing social information,” Zeno Franco, a psychologist and expert in the study of heroism at the Medical College of Wisconsin, told the Washington Post. “That’s a very tough call. Most of us don’t want to be in the out-group.”
According to the Washington Post, Dr. Franco classifies whistleblowers as “social heroes” because they are apt to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the greater good, much like military heroes who go beyond the call of duty or risk their lives to help others.
Whistleblowers also are comfortable with a degree of nonconformity, which is usually tied to security in their professional roles, the Post reports. Situational factors also make a difference in whistleblowing.
For instance, if a company or organization has a reputation for handling problems honestly and effectively, its employees will be more likely to voice concerns about wrongdoing. And, while many would-be whistleblowers can be discouraged by the potential costs, knowing the risks can help some whistleblowers better prepare. “The more aware would-be whistleblowers are of the powerful social pressure they’ll face, the more they can steel themselves to withstand that pressure,” the Washington Post reports.
Pressure to blow the whistle may also come from considering the price of staying silent, especially if something the whistleblower values and loves is threatened by misconduct, be it a company, a mission, a cause, a sport, a principle, and so on. “The term ‘the sin of omission’ is there for a reason: What will I have to live with if I don’t take action?” Dr. Franco told the Washington Post. “Usually the truth does come to light, and that can be a really powerful guiding principle.”
Sources: Washington Post, Boston College – ScienceDirect and Ohio State University
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