US National Whistleblower Day — The Psychology of Whistleblowers : How The Accused And Their Accusers Face Off

“Whistleblowers are unlikely to look to others or to aspects of the situation for cues to appropriate behavior. Instead, their behavior is consistent across situations because they rely on their own attitudes and beliefs, which include a strong endorsement of universal moral standards as a guide.”

In Praise Of Difficult People: A Portrait Of The Committed Whistleblower

“When the other side is powerful, the whistleblower hardly stands a chance of surviving the conflict unscathed (…)  Unfortunately, most whistleblowers are naive about the precautions they should take, the amount of evidence they must bring forth, and the fact that virtually no one will be on their side when the case gets underway.”

 Joan E. Sieber  — The Psychology of Whistleblowing

“All too frequently the government claims that publication of certain information will harm national security, when in reality, the government’s real concern is about covering up its own wrongdoing or avoiding embarrassment.”

New York Times reporter James Risen

July 30 is US National Whistleblower Day. In her paper, published in Science and Engineering Ethics in 1998, Joan Sieber — Professor Emerita of Psychology at California State University, Hayward — contends that there are seven “psychological processes involved” in whistleblowing: fundamental attribution error, false consensus, self-serving bias, self-presentational concerns, motivational concerns, need for a sense of control, and the “irrational” belief in a just world. Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today

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On July 30th, 1778, the US Founding Fathers unanimously passed America’s first Whistleblower Protection Law.  

Taken during the height of the American Revolution, this law stands today as a testament to the importance of whistleblowing in a Democracy.

“With their words and actions, leaders have to make clear that whistleblowers are important and retaliation is not tolerated,” says Senator Grassley.

Unfortunately, in the real world, retaliation is the rule. Inevitably, professor Sieber observes, the dynamics of destruction of self and others may get underway as soon as the whistleblowing episode begins.

“By the time the first round of allegations and counter-allegations is finished, a new round of biased attributions probably is being prepared by each side.

Before long, the conflict has taken on a life of its own. If one survives the experience intact, one is forever changed.”

These psychological processes influence both whistleblowers and the alleged perpetrators.

Fundamental attribution error

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error is the claim that, in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behavior.

The effect has been described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”.

Simple example — Alice, a driver, is cut off in traffic by Bob. Alice attributes Bob’s behavior to his fundamental personality, e.g. he thinks only of himself, he is selfish, he is a jerk, he is an unskilled driver; she does not think it is situational, e.g. he is going to miss his flight, his wife is giving birth at the hospital, his daughter is convulsing at school. Considerthe situation where Alice makes the same mistake and excuses herself by saying she was influenced by situational causes, e.g. I am late for my job interview, I must pick up my son for his dentist appointment; she does not think she has a flaw in her internal characteristics, e.g. I am such a jerk, I treat others in contempt, I am bad at driving. [Wikipedia]

The Collateral Murder video —  Wikileaks’ interpretation of events captured on the Collateral Murder video was criticized by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as a  fundamental attribution error. “You are looking at the war through a soda straw, and you have no context or perspective,”  Gates stated.

Factoring context

A context effect is an aspect of cognitive psychology that describes the influence of environmental factors on one’s perception of a stimulus.

Simple example — Research has shown that the comfort level of the floor that shoppers are standing on while reviewing products can affect their assessments of product’s quality, leading to higher assessments if the floor is comfortable and lower ratings if it is uncomfortable. [Wikipedia]

False consensus

The false-consensus effect or false-consensus bias is an attributional type of cognitive bias whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do). This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a “false consensus”. [Wikipedia]

People may wrongly assume that others agree with their interpretation of events without calculating that they may do so out of tact. They may also  attribute their own beliefs to others to maintain a high self-esteem.

 Simple example — Any elements of society affected by public opinion — e.g., elections —are very much influenced by the false-consensus effect.

Government and news media — Editorial distortion is aggravated by the news media’s dependence upon private and governmental news sources. If a given newspaper, television station, magazine, etc., incurs disfavor from the sources, it is subtly excluded from access to information. Consequently, it loses readers or viewers, and ultimately, advertisers. To minimize such financial danger, news media businesses editorially distort their reporting to favor government and corporate policies in order to stay in business. [Manufacturing consent]

Self-serving bias

This process can lead both whistleblower and the accused to take credit for praiseworthy actions but to reject responsibility for blameworthy actions.

A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner. It is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.

When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, or take more responsibility for their group’s work than they give to other members, they are protecting their ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self’s need for esteem

Simple example — A student who attributes earning a good grade on an exam to their own intelligence and preparation but attributes earning a poor grade to the teacher’s poor teaching ability or unfair test questions might be exhibiting the self-serving bias. [Wikipedia]

Related are self-presentational concerns in which an accuser seeks to “recoup lost ground by making claims that favor him, even if the evidence for the accusation turns out to be shaky or nonexistent.”


The motivation must always be considered in whistleblowing.

“It is virtually inevitable … for the whistleblower, the accused, their co-workers and the administration to whom they report, to hold views about the situation that are biased in one direction or the other due to myriad factors such as a need for love, revenge, material advantage, prestige and so on.” — (Sieber)

Belief in a just world

This belief has implications for how people think about whistleblowing.  Both the accuser and the accused most often believe the other deserves to suffer the consequences of the charges.

The perpetrator believes that the whistleblower “who is fired, bankrupted, divorced or commits suicide has proven that he was a troublemaker,” while the accuser believes the perpetrator deserves to be “caught, publicly humiliated, and severely punished” in a just world.

Whistleblowers punished for serving their country – US senator

(2017) — Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have become household names in the era of mass surveillance and omnipresent data.

But whistleblower protection laws date back to 1778. RT America’s Natasha Sweatte sat in on the National Whistleblower Appreciation Day Meeting and brings us the report.


The Government War Against Reporter James Risen — The Nation

What Makes Bradley Manning Tick? The Psychology Of Whistleblowers — Cal State


US National Whistleblower  Day — The Psychology of Whistleblowers : How The Accused And Their Accusers Face Off

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