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Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing

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Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing

What does breaking Mahatma Gandhi’s salt law have in common with a typical teenager? If you have ever gone against your parents’ wishes, you probably already know that we do not always follow authority. Disobedience and whistle-blowing are an important concept to explore because, as you will see today, it only takes one person to start a revolution.

Disobedience definition

The definition of disobedience is defying the direct orders of authority, which can often risk punishment.

Many factors can contribute to the decision to disobey, such as your personality type, social pressures, or who one thinks is to blame for the outcome.

Disobedience and personality

Theodor Adorno held that certain people possess an authoritarian personality type that makes them more likely to obey authority.¹ Consequently, some personality types can be less inclined to obey orders and more inclined to challenge authority. His theory is an example of a dispositional explanation of obedience that emphasises the role of individual personality.Individual differences can even be seen in the original Milgram study, in which 35% of participants disobeyed authority despite being exposed to the same social pressures as participants who obeyed.

Could some people have a stronger predisposition to obey?

During his trial, Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official responsible for the ‘Final Solution’ that led to the murder of millions of Jews, claimed that he did not hate Jews but was merely following orders. He believed that following orders must always be the right thing to do.

Social pressures and disobedience

Social influence also plays a role in disobedience. When you see others resisting or challenging authority, you find it easier to follow your own beliefs and disobey. In the variant of the Milgram study in which a disobeying confederate joined a participant, as many as 90% of the participants actively disobeyed.

Disobedience examples

Consider the following disobedience examples in action:

You see a group of young people in a shopping mall who are not wearing masks. Police officers ask them to comply with the mask and social distancing rules. However, some people in the group continue to ignore the police orders.Your teacher asks you to apologise to a classmate after you get into a fight. ‘I have nothing to apologise for’, you think and refuse to apologise. The teacher says that you will not be allowed to participate in the next school trip as a punishment.Even showing up to class without a school uniform can be considered disobedience to the academic institution and its rules.

Milgram was a critic of the results of the conformity studies and wanted to replicate Ash’s experiments. He initially conducted his electroshock studies to determine how likely it was that people would administer electroshocks without any social influence to serve as a control group to study the effects of social pressure. His results did not meet his expectations.He found that even without the influence of social pressure, commands from authority can be enough to make people commit acts of cruelty.

How did Bocchiaro et al. (2012) investigate disobedience and whistle-blowing?

The Bocchiaro et al. (2012) study examined whether context and personality play a role in the decision to disobey and resist an unjust authority. The study was conducted in a controlled laboratory setting. Volunteer undergraduate students were recruited in a university cafeteria in Amsterdam (opportunity sample).

Whistle-blowing refers to an act of informing about unethical or illegal practices of an individual, group, or organisation. Whistle-blowing can be done openly or anonymously (in which case the whistleblower’s name is disclosed or kept a secret).

Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing Whistle StudySmarterWhistle, flaticon.com/Creaty.pe

The procedure of the Bocchiaro study

  • The experimenter presented participants with a clearly unethical and potentially harmful sensory deprivation research scenario that they intended to replicate.
  • Participants had to write a statement to encourage selected students to participate. They had to indicate that they had already participated in the experiment, be enthusiastic about it, use positive adjectives, and not mention any negative effects in their statement.
  • Then they were left alone to write. The room also contained a research committee postbox into which participants could drop a form if they thought conducting sensory deprivation research was unethical (blow the whistle).

Findings of Bocchiaro et al. (2012)

  • When this scenario was presented during an interview, the first group (138 students) of participants stated that they would either be the whistleblower and report their concerns to the committee (64.5%) or disobey and refuse to write the statement (31.9%).
  • However, the results of the second group (149 undergraduate students) in the experimental condition, who were put in this situation, showed that the majority obeyed (76.5%). Only 14.1% disobeyed, and 9.4% reported the study to the committee.
  • When asked why they obeyed, most participants indicated that they did so because they believed the authority figure was in charge. In turn, participants who disobeyed indicated that they felt responsible for the potential harm they would cause if the experiment were conducted. In addition, individual personality differences did not predict participants’ behaviour.

Evaluation of findings of the Bocchiaro study

The study is not without its strengths and weaknesses:

  • Bocchiarro used a controlled laboratory experiment to study disobedience. This method allows for a standardised and reproducible procedure. They conducted eight pilot experiments to standardise the experimenter’s behaviour and ensure the good ethical conduct of the study.

  • Collecting quantitative (numerical) and qualitative (interview) data from participants allowed for richer results and the establishment of a relationship between participant behaviour and attribution of responsibility.

  • In contrast to the imagined scenario condition, the experimental condition avoided demand characteristics through deception. Participants did not know they were being studied, so what they believed the experimenter expected did not influence their behaviour. The use of deception was likely successful because all participants were surprised at the debriefing.

  • Regarding ethics, participants had the right to withdraw at any time and were debriefed after the experiment. However, the study put participants in a distressing situation.

Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing Lady Justice StudySmarterLady justice, Flaticon

What is civil disobedience?

According to APA, civil disobedience is defined as public, nonviolent resistance to government or its policies by disobeying laws.

People usually participate in civil disobedience actions as a matter of conscience. They believe that the government’s actions or policies are unjust and decide to protest.

The Civil Disobedience Movement

The Civil Disobedience Movement began in India in 1930 when Mahatma Gandhi and 78 of his followers walked 240 miles to the seashore and extracted salt from the sea in protest against the British government.This may not seem rebellious to you today, but at the time, the government had a monopoly on salt, so it was against the law to manufacture it. Gandhi was arrested, but his action sparked a series of civil disobedience actions and became a symbol of the movement.The civil disobedience movement played a crucial role in India’s independence.

What does whistle-blowing mean?

As mentioned above, whistle-blowing refers to an act of informing about unethical or illegal practices of an individual, group or organisation.

Conscience usually motivates whistle-blowing, which can protect and benefit other employees or the public. Taking action against your co-worker, your boss, or the organisation as a whole often requires disobedience and defiance of company policy or your superior (authority).It requires an individual to betray the trust of their organisation and take responsibility for doing what is right, even when others want to follow unjust orders.

Internal whistle-blowing

A whistleblower may report the misconduct of their colleague or superior within an organisation (internal whistle-blowing). In this case, the misconduct report is often made anonymously so that the employee who comes forward is not discriminatory, and is forwarded to the top of the organisation.

An employee discloses discriminatory practises by their superior against individuals at higher levels of the organisation.

External whistle-blowing

If the whistleblower is concerned that this is not enough to resolve the issue, they may turn to the public, law enforcement or outside organisations.

An employee who informs law enforcement of a fraud committed by an organisation.

Cybersecurity whistle-blowing

Cybersecurity whistle-blowing involves an illegal breach of the organisation’s cybersecurity systems or hacking into the personal correspondence of influential people within the organisation to obtain evidence of misconduct.

In this case, whistleblowers can often remain anonymous or avoid having to testify and still bring a problem to the public’s attention.

Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing Cybersecurity StudySmarterHacker behind a computer code, Pixabay

A team of hackers obtains secret reports suggesting that a pharmaceutical company has concealed harmful side effects of a popular drug and shares that evidence with the public.

Whistle-blowing as civil disobedience

Whistle-blowing can be an act of protest against wrongful practices by the government or government officials. People who know of wrongdoing, such as government employees, can oppose the government by coming forward and publicly exposing the government. In the case of the private sector, whistle-blowing, like civil disobedience, often requires a person to violate company laws in order to come forward.

Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing - Key takeaways

  • Disobedience means defying the direct orders of an authority.
  • Adorno argued the authoritarian personality type is more inclined to obey authority.
  • Witnessing someone else disobey makes it easier to resist authority.
  • Bocchiaro et al. (2012) demonstrated that only a minority disobeyed an unjust authority under experimental conditions, and an even smaller minority resisted the authority by reporting the unethical study. Initially, people believed they would disobey or report the study, but the experimental conditions revealed this was not the case.
  • Obedience to unjust orders is related to attributing responsibility to authority, while disobedient people take responsibility for doing the right thing.
  • The civil disobedience movement played a significant role in India's struggle for independence.
  • Whistle-blowing refers to an act of informing about unethical or illegal practises of a person or organisation.

¹Theodor Adorno et al., The authoritarian personality, 2019

Frequently Asked Questions about Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing

Although protesting is a group behaviour and whistle-blowing refers to an individual’s behaviour, there are important similarities between the two. Both acts of resistance to authority are directed toward change, motivated by conscience, and benefit a larger group. Both also involve risk to the individual, as they require breaking laws or rules. Like protests, whistle-blowing requires taking responsibility for doing the right thing and stopping harmful practices, policies, or behaviours.

Types of whistle-blowing include internal, external or cyber security whistle-blowing.

Whistle-blowing brings to conflict loyalty to an organisation and the moral value of fairness. Whistle-blowers might have to go against their superiors or the rules of an organisation to expose wrongdoing. On the other hand, whistle-blowing is motivated by the public good and willingness to protect others. In terms of fairness, disobeying unjust authority and revealing misconduct is a moral duty. However, in the case of cybersecurity whistle-blowing, breaking the law adds to the dilemma.

By uncovering misconduct, whistle-blowers can protect other employees, customers or the public from harm and, in doing so, benefit society. Acting in line with their conscience can also help them resolve any feelings of moral conflict. However, whistle-blowers are often threatened with job termination. They can become a target of prejudice from colleagues, public defamation attempts or lawsuits, hence the need for whistle-blower protection laws.

Responsible disobedience is the act of opposing unjust laws, rules and societal norms for the benefit of the public. It comes from the idea that we are responsible for challenging harmful policies and addressing any wrongdoing as individuals. It also highlights the importance of being critical of authorities and checking in with our conscience.

Final Disobedience and Whistle-Blowing Quiz

Question

What are the different explanations of disobedience?

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Answer

  • Personality: some personalities might have a stronger tendency to comply with authority.
  • Situational pressures: seeing others oppose an authority can impact your decision to disobey.
  • Attribution of responsibility: individuals that attribute the responsibility to the authority giving unjust orders are less likely to challenge them. When individuals feel responsible for the action themselves, they are more likely to disobey immoral orders.

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Question

According to the Bocchiaro (2012) study of disobedience and whistle-blowing, why did people obey in the experimental condition?

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Answer

People obeyed unjust orders when they attributed the responsibility for the action to the authority instead of to themselves.

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Question

How did the results differ between the imagined and experimental scenarios in the Bocchiaro (2012) study of disobedience and whistle-blowing?

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Answer

In the imagined scenario, participants reported how they thought they would act; in this case, the majority declared they would blow the whistle (64.5%) or disobey (31.9%).


In the experimental scenario, when the deception was used, and participants’ behaviour was recorded, the majority (76.5%) obeyed unjust orders, only 14.1% disobeyed, and the smallest percentage (9.4%) blew the whistle.

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Question

What’s the difference between internal and external whistle-blowing?

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Answer

In the case of internal whistle-blowing, the wrongdoing is reported within an organisation, to people higher up in the company’s hierarchy, the issue is then dealt with internally. External whistle-blowing involves informing on the wrongdoing to outside institutions, the public or law enforcement.

Show question

Question

What is cybersecurity whistle-blowing?

Show answer

Answer

Cybersecurity whistle-blowing involves an illegal breach of the organisation’s cybersecurity systems or hacking into the personal correspondence of influential people within the organisation to obtain evidence of misconduct.

Show question

Question

When is civil disobedience the responsible choice?

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Answer

When we are aware of unjust laws, norms or behaviours, it can be considered a moral duty to oppose them for the benefit of the public. The idea of responsible whistle-blowing highlights that we must act of conscience to challenge harmful practices and address wrongdoings.

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Question

What is civil disobedience?


Show answer

Answer

According to APA, civil disobedience is public, nonviolent resistance to government or its policies by disobeying laws.

Show question

Question

Which of these statements about the results of the Bocchiaro study of disobedience and whistle-blowing is true? 

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Answer

The majority of participants obeyed unjust orders from authority.

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Question

Explain what ethical conflict arises in relation to whistle-blowing.

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Answer

Whistle-blowing brings to conflict the moral values of loyalty versus fairness. On the one hand, you feel loyal to your organisation, superior and colleagues, and blowing the whistle would mean violating their trust. On the other hand, you have the responsibility to act on what you consider just and therefore have a moral duty to expose wrongdoing. Whistle-blowing tends to be motivated by the public good and a willingness to protect customers, employees or the public. 

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Question

How did Adorno explain obedience?

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Answer

Theodor Adorno held that certain people possess an authoritarian personality type that makes them more likely to obey authority.

Show question

Question

How does seeing another person refuse to obey impact your decision to obey?

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Answer

Seeing another person refuse to obey can make you more likely to disobey when you disagree that the orders of the authority are just.

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Question

Why some people might decide not to blow the whistle?

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Answer

Whistle-blowers are often threatened with job termination; they can become a target of prejudice from colleagues, public defamation or lawsuits, hence the need for whistle-blower protection laws and regulations.

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Question

Describe an example of civil disobedience.


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Answer

Mahatma Gandhi breaking the salt law: Gandhi manufactured salt from the sea, which was against the law as the government had a monopoly for salt.

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Question

What are the strengths of the Bocchiaro study of disobedience and whistle-blowing?

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Answer

  • Bocchiarro used a controlled laboratory experiment to study disobedience. This method allows for a standardised and reproducible procedure.

  • Collecting quantitative (numerical) and qualitative (interview) data from participants allowed for richer results and the establishment of a relationship between participant behaviour and attribution of responsibility.

  • The deception was used to avoid demand characteristics; participants did not know they were being studied, so their behaviour was not influenced by what they thought the experimenter expected. 

  • In terms of ethics, participants had the right to withdraw at any time and were debriefed after the experiment.

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