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Loyalty versus Fairness
The Psychological Dimension of Whistleblowing

Protesters with a whistle-like costume at a Demonstration against the Munich Security Conference
At many demonstrations, like here at the protest against the Munich Security Conference 2020, support for whistleblowers like Julian Assange and freedom of the press is an integral part. | Photo (detail): Sachelle Babbar © picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com

Whistleblowers seem to have a strong sense of justice and freedom. But what motivates them to turn in their employers or state officials? Psychologist Mark Travers presents four insights that tap into government secrecy, transparency and whistleblowing.

By Mark Travers

In recent years, a number of high¬ profile government information leaks have sparked a lively debate over issues of secrecy, transparency, and whistleblowing in government. One of the key provocateurs of this debate has been the controversial online publisher of leaked government information, Wikileaks. Since 2007, Wikileaks has released millions of classified government documents.

The debate intensified in 2013 after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked over 15,000 classified documents pertaining to mass surveillance programs administered by the NSA. The revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden sparked outrage in some, who perceived NSA activities to be tantamount to illegal government spying. Others defended the actions of the NSA, citing the programs as a necessary measure to protect U.S. national security. 

The actions of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and others pose an interesting dilemma for society: do such information leaks, when they occur, protect or endanger the public good? 

On one hand, an argument can be made that government transparency is a necessary precondition to support a well-¬functioning democracy. On the other hand, a certain degree of secrecy in government is undoubtedly necessary.

Mixed public opinion regarding the revelatory actions of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden points to the complexity of these issues. One Pew Research Center poll conducted in response to Wikileaks’ release of classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan showed that 47 percent of Americans believed Wikileaks’ actions harmed public interest while 42 percent believed Wikileaks’ actions served the public interest. Regarding the revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden, one poll revealed that 35 percent of U.S. respondents believed Snowden should not be prosecuted for leaking classified documents, 25 percent believed he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and 40 percent indicated that they did not know what should happen to Snowden.

What does psychological research have to say about this complex phenomenon? Here are four insights that speak to the psychological dimension of government secrecy, transparency, and whistleblowing.

Insight #1: Just because something is secret does not mean it is inherently valuable

Whistleblowers bring to light information that exposes a transgression within an organization with the goal of putting an end to the wrongdoing. Often, the information being exposed is classified or protected, which promotes the belief that all secret information is inherently valuable.

But this is not always the case. The U.S. government, for instance, classifies millions of documents each year. Many of these documents are no more important, interesting, or revelatory than unclassified government documents. 

A 2014 study uncovered a “secrecy bias,” or a tendency to believe that secret information is of higher quality than public information and that decisions based on secret information are better informed than decisions based on public information — even in cases where there is no actual difference between secret and public information.

Insight #2: Research suggests that whistleblowers fit a certain mould

One study found patterns in the demographic characteristics of whistleblowers. For instance, whistleblowers tended to have a higher tenure and rank within their organization. They were also more likely to be male and possessed a higher level of education.

Another study found that whistleblowers were more likely to have an extroverted personality. They scored lower on agreeableness and were more likely to possess domineering/controlling personality traits.

One way to interpret this is to assume that whistleblowers have a penchant for controversy and attention. Another would be to theorize on the number of unethical behaviours that are overlooked due to people not possessing the requisite personality traits or not having the stature within their organization to take up a whistleblowing crusade. 

Insight #3: Culture matters when deciding whether or not to blow the whistle

Whistleblowing represents a trade-off between the competing moral values of fairness and loyalty. And, research suggests that it is easier to take the side of fairness in some cultures than in others. People who live in “collectivistic” cultures such as Japan, China, and Taiwan view whistleblowing less favourably than people in “individualistic” cultures such as the United States. This is because collectivistic cultures place more emphasis on group harmony, loyalty, and deference than individualistic cultures.

Psychological “closeness” has also been shown to influence decisions on whether or not to blow the whistle. One study found that participants’ willingness to call attention to a transgression decreases as a function of the closeness between the participant and transgressor. In other words, it is easier to blow the whistle on an unknown member of an organization than on a boss or another trusted member of an organization.

Insight #4: Just because someone says they will blow the whistle does not mean they will actually do it

Psychologists are quick to point out that saying you will do something and doing it are two different things. This maxim is no different when it comes to whistleblowing. A 2012 study found that a majority of participants predicted they would blow the whistle on an unethical study involving sensory deprivation but only a small minority actually blew the whistle when put to the test.

A 2009 study identified another important wrinkle in people’s decisions to call out unethical behaviour: participants were more likely to speak out against unethical acts when the violation was blatant and abrupt instead of slow and gradual. Researchers call this the slippery-slope effect and they suggest that it is in part caused by people simply not noticing unethical behaviour when it occurs gradually.


Scientific consensus maintains that whistleblowing, though not without its pitfalls, advances the public good and should be legislatively protected. Unfortunately, current procedures are falling short. For instance, one study calculated that over 80 percent of employees who brought corporate fraud to light felt marginalized in their career as a result of their behaviour. Establishing safe and effective channels through which whistleblowers can report what they view to be unethical behaviour should be prioritized in democratic societies around the world.