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What Motivates a Whistleblower?

How to understand the complex motivation behind speaking up.

Key points

  • The truth is highly valued by whistleblowers like Frances Haugen, who shared her inside view of Facebook.
  • Whistleblowers often come from the periphery of an organization; their outsider status can shield them from groupthink and pressure to conform.
  • Anyone who finds themselves compelled to speak up for moral reasons will benefit from finding allies.
 bluebudgie/Pixabay
Source: bluebudgie/Pixabay

You’ve probably seen Frances Haugen in the news as the Facebook whistleblower who shared an insider's view of the company. But what motivates a whistleblower, exactly?

In research I’ve done on independent thinking and speaking up, a key driver is often a high value placed on truth. As one person I spoke to who blew the whistle on potential data fabrication says, “Commitment to learning or discovering the truth might be my deepest value—it’s far more important to me than pain-avoidance, popularity, etc.” When asked what made him speak up in contrast to others in his lab, he responded, “Truth, man, truth. It’s science. I’ve been a scientist—OK, I’ve loved science ever since I was a kid. I’ve been a scientist my whole adult life. This cannot happen, and in my experience, it doesn’t.”

This high value placed on “truth” was also part of Haugen’s opening statement to a Senate subcommittee. She said:

“During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world. The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems, and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages. I came forward because I believe that every human being deserves the dignity of the truth.”

Here you see her high value placed on “truth” and her desire to share it with the world. To be sure, her motivation is not singular; she was also driven by a moral concern for the harm Instagram has caused teenagers and broader concerns about how Facebook impacts our democracy. But it’s a combination of motives: People are being harmed, and people don’t know the truth.

Psychologist Keith Stanovich has explored the value individuals place on truth. He discusses the extent to which an individual “finds lack of rational integration aversive and is willing to take steps to rectify it.” 1 For whistleblowers, a high value placed on truth is coupled with an awareness of deception. This creates an aversive experience that motivates action. As Tom Mueller states in his book Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, “[Whisteblowers] take responsibility for seeing with their own eyes and following their individual conscience, cutting through cant and rationalization to comprehend things as they really are.” 2

In addition to having a high value placed on truth, whistleblowers tend to be peripheral members of their organizations, whether by choice or circumstance. This was true of one of the most well-known whistleblowers, Sherron Watkins, who spoke out about Enron in 2001. Jessica Uhl, a mentee of Watkins at Enron, says gender played a role in Watkins's decision: “Look at the management team: There’s not a lot of female faces up there, and there never has been… Sherron’s a vice president, so she’s obviously not an outsider, but there is a dividing line there. If you’re not part of the boys’ club, maybe that makes it a little easier to take a big risk.” 3

You can also see peripheral group membership from Haugen. She joined Facebook in 2019, and from her interviews, you can tell she never fully identified with the organization. This peripheral membership was fostered, in part, by her experience in other organizations, such as Google. This experience allowed her to see Facebook through the broader prism of her experience; she wasn’t beholden to the cultural assumptions that had evolved there. As she told Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes:

“When I would express concerns—like with my own team, like when I was working on civic misinformation—that we were insufficiently staffed. I was told, flat out, ‘At Facebook we accomplish impossible things with far less resources than anyone thought possible.’ I don’t think it was malevolent, but because the leaders there… often, maybe early Facebook employees, they may have never worked anywhere else. They have no context for how inappropriately resourced things are. They just keep repeating the same truisms over and over again.”

Her background allowed her to see the context as if she was an outsider. This status shields one from conformity and groupthink as they have a weakened desire for group acceptance.

Key takeaways

Hopefully, most of us won’t find ourselves in situations where a crisis of conscience dictates that we need to blow the whistle. If we do, here’s one parting piece of advice from Sherron Watkins, one of three women named “persons of the year” in 2002 by Time magazine. She now advises anyone in a similar situation to build peer support: “If folks run into Enron-like behavior, I always suggest finding peers who will join you in your quest to correct things. Never go it alone.” 4 This mirrors what has been found in experimental studies of conformity: that one ally dampens the fear of being independent and strengthens one’s resolve.5 It also makes your point-of-view harder to dismiss.

In sum, whistleblowers seem to be motivated by a high value placed on the “truth”; this is often manifest in a scientific mindset. Hopefully, you won’t find yourself uncovering fraud or realizing that your company is hiding the harm it knows it is causing. If you do, don’t follow rationalizations to explain away mounting evidence: Believe your own eyes, foster a healthy sense of outsiderness, and if you do speak up, find allies.

References

1. (Stanovich (2008) drawing upon Nozick, 1993)

2. (Mueller, 2019, p. 535)

3. (Frey, 2002)

4. (Carozza, 2007)

5. (For an excellent review of research, see Hewstone & Martin, 2010)

Carozza, D. (2007, January/February). Interview with Sherron Watkins. Fraud Magazine. Retrieved https://www.fraud-magazine.com/article.aspx?id=583

Frey, J. (2002, January 25). The woman who saw red; Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins warned of the trouble to come. The Washington Post.

Haugen, F. (2021). Whistleblower says Facebook needs to declare “moral bankruptcy.” 60 Minutes Overtime. Retrieved https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsqvd-DaxU8

Hewstone, M. & R. Martin, R. (Eds.). (2010). Minority influence and innovation: Antecedents, processes, and consequences. Psychology Press.

Mueller, T. (2019). Crisis of conscience: Whistleblowing in an age of fraud. Riverhead Books.

Nozick, R. (1993). The nature of rationality. Princeton University Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (2008). Higher-order preferences and the master rationality motive. Thinking & Reasoning, 14(1), 111-127.

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