Sunday Read: Whistleblower Psychology

This summary of research into what motivates whistleblowers was sent as part of NWC’s “Sunday Read” series that aims to educate supporters about whistleblower stories and whistleblower legislative or policy initiatives and current events. For more information like this, please join our mailing list.

National Whistleblower Center advocates and supports those that expose and report frauds. The minds of the people who choose to blow the whistle on are fascinating.

In this week’s Sunday Reading, we revisit an article published at Whistleblower Network News describing the psychology of whistleblowers. The article discusses Professor Catherine Sanderson’s research on why people speak up, Here are some of the main take aways:

Understanding Whistleblowers:

According to the article, more attention is turning to figuring out why only some people speak up while most others don’t. Whistleblowers are unique, and should be highly valued. Whistleblowers can avert tragedy.

Amherst College psychology Professor Catherine Sanderson began delving into the question after a death at her son’s university. For nearly 20 hours, a group of students stood over a drunken student who had fallen and hit his head. By the time someone called for help, it was too late. She wanted to know why it took so long for someone to speak up.

The Bystander Effect:

Through her research Sanderson uncovered the “Bystander Effect”. Describing the effect, Sanderson found that our neurological systems are so firmly biased against speaking up. The idea of taking action can cause feelings of rejection so intense that they can feel like physical pain. This is especially strong among people who are particularly worried about fitting in and fear being ostracized. People like college students or corporate employees.

It is little wonder that individual employees — especially those who work in large companies or organizations — say nothing when they witness crime or corruption. Sanderson estimates only 5–10 percent of people have the capacity to overcome social pressures and be “moral rebels”: people who have a high level of self esteem and a strong belief that their actions will make a difference in the world. Whistleblowers come from diverse backgrounds and professions but share the confidence and courage it takes to speak up.

Reasoning behind Retaliation:

Sanderson’s findings also help explain the cause of retaliation and rejection that whistleblowers experience. Speaking up scares people. And even family members and close friends cannot comprehend doing the same thing. They cannot understand why someone would blow the whistle because their brains tell them it’s not normal. This is an aspect of popular psychology that needs to change.

Through her research, Sanderson found that people often believe they would take swift action when presented with the opportunity. In their private thoughts, people may tell themselves they would stand up and do the right thing. When a real-life opportunity ate speak up happens, however, many fail to speak up.

NWC Fights to Build Understanding

National Whistleblower Center fights non-stop to protect whistleblowers. This work involves educating the public about how whistleblowers think, and the impact retaliation has on their daily lives. It also includes working to end retaliation. By support NWC you support whistleblowers. The right to speak up without fear of retaliation is under threat and we need your help today. Read the read the rest of the article here.

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