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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.”