Understanding the cognitive and affective underpinnings of whistleblowing




Buhrmester, Michael Duane

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Enron, Pfizer, UBS, Halliburton: In recent years, organizational wrongdoing has cost taxpayers and stakeholders billions of dollars. Whistleblowers, organizational insiders who witness and report wrongdoing with the intent of effecting an organizational response, play a major role as combatants to such corruption. What motivates whistleblowers versus silent witnesses of wrongdoing? And what cognitive and emotional patterns underlie their actions? Here I construe whistleblowing as a personally costly but pro-organizational action (Miceli, Near, & Dworkin, 2008). As such, whistleblowing represents a novel type of extreme pro-group behavior that identity fusion theory seeks to explain (Swann, Jetten, Gomez, Whitehouse, & Bastian, 2012). The identity fusion approach posits that some people experience a visceral feeling of "oneness" with a group, a feeling that motivates a range of extreme pro-group actions. Across four preliminary studies, I first establish that fusion with one's organization (i.e., work or university) parallels fusion with other groups (e.g., country, political party). In addition, Preliminary Study 4 shows that fusion and whistleblowing are associated in retrospective accounts of workplace behavior. Given this initial support, a controlled lab experiment was conducted to address two major questions. First, to what extent is identity fusion with one's university associated with initial and formal whistleblowing behaviors? Second, in what ways, if any, do strongly vs. weakly fused individuals' cognitive and emotional experiences differ in response to witnessing organizational wrongdoing? As hypothesized, fusion with one's university predicted spontaneous reporting of an in-group transgressor. Strongly fused students' actions were associated with several cognitive and emotional factors, and cross-method evidence indicated that active negative emotions (e.g., anger) coupled with a heightened sense of personal responsibility drove strongly fused persons to spontaneously blow the whistle. Furthermore, strongly fused students were also especially likely to formally (as compared to spontaneously) report the transgressor. Evidence from participants' debriefing responses suggested that while weakly fused students diffused formal reporting responsibility to others, strongly fused students felt personally responsible to follow-through with a formal report. Overall, these results suggest that identity fusion is a promising perspective for understanding motives underlying personally costly pro-group behaviors.




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