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Friday, August 16, 2013

What Makes A Whistleblower?

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other news organizations, was one of the most famous whistleblowers. (Rory Finneran/Flickr)

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other news organizations, was one of the most famous whistleblowers. (Rory Finneran/Flickr)

Researchers at Northwestern University and Boston College have found that people who value fairness over loyalty are more likely to be whistleblowers. Their research is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

According to Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and a co-author of the study, fairness and loyalty are basic human values that come into conflict when it comes to whether people will blow the whistle.

“On one side, whistleblowing is the ultimate act of justice, standing up for what’s right,” Waytz told Here & Now. “On the other side, it can be seen as the ultimate betrayal. We see this lot in the terms used to describe whistleblowers, like ‘snitch’ or ‘rat’.

In a series of studies, two groups of participants—a whistleblowing group and a non-whistleblowing group—wrote about experiences with unethical behavior.

“We analyzed using both software and human coders, for words pertaining to fairness, and words pertaining to loyalty,” Waytz said. “What we found was people in our whistleblowing group used fairness and justice-related words far more than our non-whistleblowing group, which used words about loyalty.”

However, Waytz’s research found that people’s values could be changed through a concerted cultural effort.

“What we’ve found is that getting people primed with these different messages will actually affect their behavior,” he said. “One of the implications of this work is that we can craft certain messages—honor code, a mission statement, even a legal document. We can choose our words carefully to be in line with the norms for fairness or the norms for loyalty.”


  • Adam Waytz, assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He tweets @AWaytz.



So as we just heard, more leaked documents from Edward Snowden. Do you see that as traitorous or heroic? Researchers say that they can probably guess your answer by how you feel about the words fairness and justice and loyalty. They also say they can change the way you feel about Edward Snowden or other leakers or whistleblowers in general by using those words.

Well, we want to know more. It's new research recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Adam Waytz is one of the authors and an assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He joins us from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Professor, welcome.

ADAM WAYTZ: Thanks, thanks for having me.

YOUNG: So you had this suspicion about these two words. Tell us about these two words, fairness and justice and loyalty.

WAYTZ: So dominant theory in social psychology over the past few years is called moral foundations theory. And this theory states that there are essentially five or six basic moral foundations that are universal. And these include the desire to not see others harmed, the desire to live a pure and sacred life, the need to respect authority and hierarchy and then these two foundations that seem like their intention. One is the foundation for fairness and justice, and the other is the foundation for loyalty, to be loyal to one's group.

And what's interesting about these is that although these two foundations are fundamental - we see them exhibited by babies, as well as chimpanzees - they do seem like they can conflict with each other. So we can't be wholly loyal to our nation or to our family or to our organization while at the same time being fair to everyone.

So, whistleblowing seems to be a case that brings these two values into a fundamental tension. Whereas on one side whistleblowing is the ultimate act of justice, standing up for what's right. And on the other side, whistleblowing can be seen as the ultimate betrayal, and we see this reflected in a lot of the terms used to describe whistleblowers, such as snitch or rat.

YOUNG: Or disloyal. So what you did is you had a series of studies to see how whistleblowers made their decisions, and it's fascinating. Let's start with the first.

WAYTZ: What we did was we asked one group of participants to write about a time when they witnessed something unethical and reported that behavior. So this was our whistleblower group. The other group we asked them to write about a time when they witnessed something unethical and did not report the unethical behavior. So this was our non-whistleblowing group.

And then we analyzed, using both software and human coders, we coded the language that they used for words pertaining to fairness and words pertaining to loyalty. What we found was that people in our whistleblowers group used fairness- and justice-related words far more than our non-whistleblowing group. They used far more words pertaining to loyalty.

So here we've demonstrated that these two values really emerge in these two cases in real life.

YOUNG: And you point out that other studies already show that liberals tend to focus more on fairness, conservatives in America tend to focus more on loyalty. But it's not hard-wired. This is where it gets fascinating because you decided to test whether these decisions about whistleblowing could be manipulated. How did you do that?

WAYTZ: So although these values tend to vary based on culture or based on political ideology, because they are still fundamental, we can sort of push them around a little bit. And so what we did was we recruited individuals from an online population using amazon.com's Mechanical Turk marketplace, where people willingly complete our studies for a small amount of money, and what we did was we simply primed them with the idea that fairness is important, or we primed them with the idea that loyalty is important.

And we did this through having them write very short essays on either the importance of fairness or on the importance of loyalty. After sort of getting them in just a brief fairness mindset or a loyalty mindset, in one study we asked them about their willingness to blow the whistle on friends, family members, acquaintances and strangers for a variety of offenses, ranging from petty theft to murder.

And we calculated people's scores on these various items that asked them how willing they would be to blow the whistle on these various targets, and what we found was that, consistent with our hypotheses, people who had been primed with fairness reported a greater willingness to report even their family members for a variety of unethical behaviors.

YOUNG: This is just fascinating because, you know, what you're saying is no matter what somebody felt going into something, maybe, you know, whether they consider themselves liberal or conservative and had a view about whistleblowing, once you got them as you say primed by talking about one or the other, they sort of would lean towards that in making their decision about whether to whistleblow, which means that you can - I mean, it's kind of potentially insidious because it means that companies, the government, if they want their people to go in one direction or another - to whistleblow or not whistleblow - you could kind of prime them for that by having them sloganeer about either fairness or loyalty.

WAYTZ: Exactly, exactly, and that's one of the implications of this work, that we can craft certain messages, whether it's an honor code or a company's mission statement or even a legal document or a government document. We can choose our words carefully to be more in line with the norm for fairness or the norm for loyalty.

YOUNG: That's Professor Adam Waytz of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. By the way, he and fellow researchers also did a more real-life situation with that online group that they were working with. They planted a bad participant in the group answering their questions. In other words, he did a lousy job. Then later they asked the other participants if they'd blow the whistle on his bad research. Respondents writing about fairness said yes, those writing about loyalty said no.

So what do we do with this? We'll have more after the break.


It's fascinating.

YOUNG: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, some other stories we're following today, Islamist protesters in Egypt clashed with security forces in several parts of Cairo, as well as other cities. On Friday dozens were killed or wounded. The Egyptian government warned that security forces would use live ammunition to protect state institutions.

Also, the Justice Department has called for prison sentencing reform in the United States, but it's really Congress that would have to carry it out. And the time may be ripe. Crime is down, and even conservatives favor sentencing reform to save money. These and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's pick up now our conversation with Professor Adam Waytz of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, one of the authors of a study on how people feel about whistleblowing. Now as we just heard, generally, generally, liberals feel it represents justice and fairness. Conservatives see it as disloyal.

But Professor Waytz found that he could manipulate that thinking. We want to hear more about that. But professor, Adam, first what prompted you to even look into this?

WAYTZ: So, I initially became interested in the topic of whistleblowing because I read story in the Chicago Sun Times that was very striking. And this was a story about a young kid that was involved in some sort of gang-related violence who was shot. And as he was dying, he was approached by a police officer, who asked him if he knew who did the shooting, and the kid said something along the lines of I know who did this, but I'm not telling you. And then the kid sadly died.

And I thought, wow, this is the strength of norms against whistleblowing. This is a particular person who's involved in a particular culture that is so strongly against whistleblowing that you wouldn't even blow the whistle as you were dying. You wouldn't even blow the whistle on your own murderer. So that got me thinking, what is it that creates these pro- or anti-whistleblowing cultures?

And my co-authors, James Dungan and Liane Young, were thinking about this question as well from a perspective of what are our basic moral foundations that drive anti-whistleblowing norms or pro-whistleblowing norms.

YOUNG: Well, what did you find in your research that might be useful for inner-city communities that are trying to get rid of that snitch mentality? And in some cases it's protecting people's lives. That young boy might have been being fiercely loyal, but he almost might have been afraid that somebody would be killed if he did tell.

So we don't know that, but from what you've learned, what would you recommend that people do to start to change that thinking about loyalty?

WAYTZ: That's a really difficult question. I think - you know, one thing I want to say, think about the types of messages that we put in these communities. So right now I think we have a lot of opportunities to enforce certain norms in all of our communities. And again, if you can think about whistleblowing or snitching or whatever term you want to use as an act of larger loyalty, whereby reporting to the proper authorities you're actually protecting individuals in your community in the long run, I think that would be a positive message to send.

Now, the problem is there isn't a lot of trust of formal authorities in many of these communities and probably for good reason. To go further into this, I think there's the sense that telling formal authorities isn't going to benefit one's community in the long run.

YOUNG: Well, but it sounds like, too, somebody could come up with a campaign about going to a religious leader or going to an adult or some campaign that's sort of made - that sort of say rebranded loyalty.

WAYTZ: I did get started on this work because I was thinking about, you know, what is it about this particular community, when I read the news story. What is it about this community and other communities where there are strong anti-whistleblowing norms? So you can think about corporations where there are strong anti-whistleblowing norms or the military where there are strong anti-whistleblowing norms.

What do they have in common? Well, they're very loyalty-driven. So perhaps rebranding loyalty is what's needed to facilitate whistleblowing.

YOUNG: Well, and entire cultures have done this. You talk about Iceland, for instance.

WAYTZ: Right, so Iceland, through their government, developed a pro-whistleblowing organization. They've been very supportive of groups like WikiLeaks. And when you think about cultural differences between places like Western Europe and the rest of the world, Western Europe is a place that really prizes individualism and individual rights and independent values.

So it's not surprising that a place like Iceland would be sort of leading the charge on this. Now I think some of this also came out of the fact that they were particularly crushed by the financial crisis over the past few years and wanted to get a little more citizen regulation of the various industries that perhaps led to their financial demise.

But to get back to this idea of norms, I think when we think about norms that are prominent Europe, they're the types of norms that would promote whistleblowing, whereas when you go to more collectivist countries, countries that really prize interdependence and solidarity toward the group, these are the countries and cultures that might prize loyalty to a greater extent and therefore be less inclined to promote whistleblowing.

YOUNG: Well, where do political leanings factor into this? Because as you said, studies show that liberals may be more likely to choose the fairness, while conservatives may be more likely to choose loyalty. But you could say that it sort of depends. Let's say government whistleblowing, it might depend on whom the whistle's being blown. And you might applaud whistleblowing against an administration you don't like but decry it against one you do support.

WAYTZ: Right. So this is where the Edward Snowden gets really interesting because if you were to ask me, just based on what I know about moral foundations and political ideology, I would say, well, conservatives tend to care about loyalty a little bit more than liberals. Liberals and conservatives both care about fairness; liberals care a little more about fairness.

And so, at a baseline level, I would say well, perhaps liberals are more likely to be whistleblowers. But then you get a case of Edward Snowden, who is decrying policies ostensibly overseen by President Obama. And so here's where it gets very interesting because although conservatives at a baseline level might be more likely to see acts of whistleblowing as a betrayal, in this case, when the whistle is blown on - at a political liberal such as Barack Obama and the NSA that he governs, then perhaps you could see some conservative support for Edward Snowden.

And so this is something that we're very interested in exploring in future studies, which is whether people like whistleblowing the same for their own group versus for other groups. This is the interesting thing about whistleblowing; it's this moral Necker cube, where on one side we can see it as the ultimate act of fairness, and on the other side we shift our perspective and see it as a disloyalty.

YOUNG: That's Adam Waytz, assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He co-authored a paper with Liane Young and James Dungan, both at Boston College, on whistleblowing, and it's published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. We'll link you to some information at hereandnow.org. Professor, Adam, thanks so much.

WAYTZ: Thank you.

YOUNG: So your thoughts. Do you think someone can change your mind on whistleblowing? Do you see it as fair or disloyal, or do you think you're more nuanced than that?

CHAKRABARTI: Or are you a business owner thinking, huh, time to get those memos out on loyalty to avoid whistleblowing? Let us hear your thoughts at hereandnow.org or on Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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