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What Makes Bradley Manning Tick? The Psychology Of Whistleblowers

  • June 14, 2010

The study, titled In Praise Of Difficult People: A Portrait Of The Committed Whistleblower, concluded that 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.

Interestingly, whistleblowers also score lower than the norm on a measurement of self-esteem. And the same test measuring self-esteem found that “those with low self-esteem were the least likely to be influenced by a communicated that aroused fear.”

In another study entitled The Psychology of Whistleblowing, author Joan E. Sieber writes that, "When the other side is powerful, the whistleblower hardly stands a chance of surviving the conflict unscathed, unless great sophistication or institutional wisdom and fairness accompany the process.

"Unfortunately,” she continued, "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."

Sieber, Professor Emerita of Psychology at California State University, Hayward, describes whistleblowing as like "moving to a foreign land in that their typically are inexorable forces impelling one to do so, as well as shocks and surprises for which one is unprepared." In her paper, published in Science and Engineering Ethics in 1998, Sieber 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. Let’s quickly look at these.

Fundamental attribution error is when a whistleblower perceives that someone has engaged in a willful act of fraud or harm but fails to factor in context. This is exactly the point that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made regarding Wikileaks’ interpretation of events captured on the Collateral Murder video: "You are looking at the war through a soda straw, and you have no context or perspective,” he complained.

In her paper, Sieber says factoring context is a “less spontaneous, more thoughtful process…[and]…. This is especially true when the behavior to be explained is ambiguous or difficult to comprehend.”

False consensus is when people assume that others agree with their interpretation of events without calculating that they may do so out of tact, or attribute their own beliefs to others to maintain a high self-esteem. This mindset is practiced by both whistleblowers and the alleged perpetrators.

The self-serving bias can lead both whistleblower and the accused to take credit for praiseworthy actions but to reject responsibility for blameworthy actions. 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.” This process seems evident in hacker Adrian Limo’s claim that Manning was a “spy” even though Manning himself tells him that he didn’t sell information to foreign states because the information belongs “in the public domain.”

“Another state would just take advantage of the information…try and get some edge,” Manning wrote. “If it’s [sic] out in the open…it should be a public good…rather than some slimy Intel collector.”

Motivation must also be considered in whistleblowing, says Sieber: "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 director or the other due to myriad factors such as a need for love, revenge, material advantage, prestige and so on.” While Manning’s motives may be more complicated, his professed reason to Lamo was to “hopefully [provoke] worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms. If not…than [sic] we’re doomed as a species.” Lamo, who was convicted for hacking into the New York Times databases, says he turned Manning in "to protect information that's essential for the U.S. to be able to effectively carry out foreign policy abroad." Lamo, who still owes more than $60,000 in fines to the U.S. government stemming from his criminal case, also denies that he had made any deal with the federal government to have the fine waived. “I have received no promise or inducments [sic] of any sort, then or now,’’ he said.

Researcher Sieber writes that belief in a just world "has implications for how people think about whistleblowing," with both accuser and accused believing 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. Illustrating this point, Lamo in defending his actions, told Wired, "I didn't get Manning arrested. He got himself arrested."

Inevitably, Sieber commented, “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,” she wrote, “one is forever changed.”

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