What the public doesn’t understand about whistleblowers

The psychological motivations of people like Frances Haugen are widely misunderstood

Last week, as former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified in Congress about the company’s knowledge of its harmful effects, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Silence No More Act. The legislation makes it illegal for California firms to prevent employees from disclosing wrongdoing, even if they signed a non-disclosure agreement.

While whistleblowers may increasingly have a voice in Silicon Valley, they are often publicly misunderstood. As a San Francisco-based psychiatrist, I have had the opportunity to work with a few whistleblowers at large companies in the time leading up to their public actions. What I’ve learned about the mindset and inner conflict of the whistleblower, along with the psychological stress they endure, may not always be evident in news coverage.

Most people assume that whistleblowers are either heroes or untrustworthy traitors who are motivated by self-aggrandizement. But the motivation of a whistleblower rarely centers on attention-seeking or monetary reward. David Colapinto, general counsel for the National Whistleblower Center, observed that the No. 1 motivation for whistleblowers is the desire to fix an ethical problem; and that even though their actions may seem driven by other rewards — be it altruism or a desire to be heroic — those outcomes are by no means certain. Instead, they often face backlash and harassment, along with devastating and career-ending consequences. Think of Edward Snowden.

Aside from risking future employment, most will suffer from intermittent symptoms of anxiety and depression. Panic attacks, nightmares and insomnia can follow the act of whistleblowing, and symptoms may persist for months to years. Blue Shield whistleblower Michael Johnson described it to me as “an awful experience. There was always a looming threat.”

Studies have revealed characteristic whistleblower personality traits. First, whistleblowers are less susceptible to conformity and more likely to dissent. This is reflected by lower scores on the agreeableness scale of the Big Five personality test, one of the most scientifically validated and reliable psychological models to measure personality. Agreeableness can be broken down into compassion, respectfulness and trust in others. People high in agreeableness tend to be cooperative, helpful, nurturing and are peace-keepers, but being somewhat lower in agreeableness can also confer some advantages. These individuals find it easier to make difficult decisions, and are better at setting boundaries for themselves and others.

Whistleblowers have also demonstrated, in one study, a greater sense of internal control. They generally feel more able to control their own environment and act with agency. Haugen joined Facebook to work on the civic integrity team, she explained in her “60 Minutes” interview, because she wanted to address the spread of misinformation. After receiving the news that her team was being dissolved, she actively reached out to a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, rather than take a backseat approach to her perception of Facebook’s shift in priorities.

Having served as the on-site psychiatrist at the Facebook headquarters, I treated countless employees who struggled internally with the cognitive dissonance that arose from their company’s public and mission statements versus the media’s portrayal of Facebook’s more nefarious features. The act of having to defend Facebook’s integrity both to friends and to themselves came with angst and sometimes bitter self-examination.

As last week’s news unfolded, current and former employees responded to me variously with recognition (“The story is scary, scary true”) to revelation (“In some sense, working for Facebook has always been a struggle”) to resignation (“I don’t see any viable regulatory solutions actually solving the broad issues”) to rationalization (“Some of the problems are exacerbated by social media but many others are just represented there”) to relief (“I’m quite glad it’s not my problem anymore”).

All employees, whistleblowers included, can find themselves caught in a tradeoff between fairness and loyalty; and for those who choose the path of blowing the whistle, the sense of fairness wins.

What do the neuroscientific studies about fairness reveal? For one, the sense of fairness is not uniquely human. Other species, including monkeys and dogs, have demonstrated inequity aversion. For our animal counterparts, this is likely coded deep in the mammalian brain and may be a key feature in the evolution of cooperation.

But for humans, the cognitive sense of reciprocal fairness is regulated in a discreet area of our brains: the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, situated in the executive, and uniquely human, region of our brain. Stimulate this area, and subjects are more likely to reject unfair offers, even at their own personal cost, suggesting that the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex controls negative emotional reactions to perceived unfairness. For instance, in an experimental game setting, in which one participant must offer to divide a sum with another, and the responder must accept the proposal in order for each to keep any amount, stimulation of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the responder reduced the subject’s willingness to accept unfair offers. There is seemingly a relationship between this region’s activity and perceptions of fairness.

My experience in working with whistleblowers is that they have a highly developed sense of fairness and social justice, and that while they may feel strong loyalty to their employer, they have also experienced “institutional betrayal” — the belief that wrongdoing has been perpetrated by their institution upon people dependent on it. Attempts to expose the problem typically begin internally, and are motivated by a sense of doing what is right and by upholding their own professional responsibility.

Despite attempts to bring the wrongdoing to light within the company, budding whistleblowers may have been spurned, or ignored, which triggers visceral feelings of distrust and even paranoia. As such, the budding whistleblowers may experience a fair amount of psychological stress and even crisis. By the time they make the decision to blow the whistle, it can be less of a choice and more of a psychological necessity.

Johnson, who blew the whistle on Blue Shield, described realizing, “This could bankrupt me… and it will certainly implode my career. And to what effect?… It would be easy to look back and say it was a bad decision, but if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have taken the opportunity I had to reform the organization. Not doing it wasn’t an option. I didn’t see an alternative.”

There may be an internal awareness and even admission of self-destructiveness, but considering a more self-preserving path becomes less possible. As one whistleblower explained it to me, “You lose perspective. You become obsessed with the wrongdoing.”

In other words, the quest for fairness becomes all consuming.

Whistleblowers are atypical people in this way, which is why they are exceptional within powerful institutions. Few people are willing to risk that much to expose perceived unethical behavior and then face the psychological consequences of their reporting. Whistleblowers’ single-minded commitment to their values is almost antithetical to a sense of survival. While many of us think we would be willing to expose injustice if presented with the right circumstances, few have the fixation and endurance required to follow through. It’s no surprise that most people choose to look away.

Dr. Mimi Winsberg is a Stanford University-trained board certified psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Brightside.

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