The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What makes whistleblowers speak out while others stay silent about wrongdoing

Sen. Dianne Feinstein greeted 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu before she testified to a committee about sexual, emotional and physical abuse by USA Gymnastics on March 28. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Gold-medal gymnast Dominique Moceanu was once a self-described people pleaser, laser-focused on keeping her coaches, fans and parents happy. But she endured years of abusive coaching on her way to the top, and as an adult, she decided that speaking out about the problems in her sport was more important than securing everyone's approval. “I always told myself if I had an opportunity to help others, then I would,” she said.

So when HBO's “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” asked her to tell her story in 2008, she accepted. In that interview and a subsequent book, “Off Balance,” she revealed abuse she had witnessed and gone through. Top coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi, she said, belittled young gymnasts, harangued them about their diets, and encouraged them to train while injured.

“I forced people in the community to recognize this long-standing problem that they preferred to keep under wraps. You're basically holding a mirror to them, and they really don't appreciate the reflection they see,” Moceanu said in an interview. Ever since, she has been an advocate for athletes' rights, and last month, her claims were vindicated in a wide-ranging report by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels about abuse within USA Gymnastics.

Many people stay quiet when they see injustice or wrongdoing, because they're not used to speaking up or they fear losing their status or livelihood if they do. But a select few become whistleblowers, assuming personal or professional risk to make sure the truth gets out. Former FBI director James B. Comey leaked a memo about his conversations with Donald Trump to the New York Times through a friend. John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, revealed U.S. waterboarding practices. Sherry Medina, a former USDA poultry inspector, alerted the public to dangerous chemicals used in chicken processing. Some have called federal contractor Reality Winner a whistleblower for allegedly leaking a classified NSA document about Russian vote-hacking attempts.

Whistleblowers are relatively rare, however. In a recent experimental study by psychologist Piero Bocchiaro, fewer than 1 in 10 people reported an authority figure who was doing something unethical, and in other studies — such as the famous Milgram experiment in which unwitting experimental subjects were instructed to give others electric shocks — most people are reluctant to defy those in charge.  So how do people like Moceanu or Medina muster the courage to assume the whistleblower mantle?

To begin with, whistleblowers must have a healthy understanding of what they're getting into. The consequences of blowing the whistle shouldn't be underestimated, said Carney Shegerian, a Santa Monica, Calif., lawyer who has represented whistleblower clients in court. He cited one client who spoke out about safety concerns with his company's production process. As a result, Shegerian said, the man went through a long stretch of unemployment, lost his home, and had to move in with friends. “It's just a living hell,” he said.

U.S. gymnasts always knew what would be in store if they aired dirty laundry, Moceanu said. “They could use it against you at a later time. If someone were to speak up, their Olympic dream could be hanging in the balance,” she said. And in fact, when Moceanu went public about the abuse she'd seen and experienced, she was ostracized from the gymnastics community and lost friendships and lucrative endorsement opportunities. “I've kind of been that outlier every time, going to gymnastics events and having people give me the awkward eye,” Moceanu said.

A whistle-blower's belief in the rightness of his or her action must be strong enough to overcome the hazards of speaking out. In a recent Boston College study, researchers asked people questions to gauge their moral priorities. People who valued fairness above loyalty were more likely to say they would blow the whistle on someone who committed a crime. “A lot of it comes down to their ability to hold on to a set of principles in the face of countervailing social information,” said Zeno Franco, a psychologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “That's a very tough call. Most of us don't want to be in the out-group.”

Franco is an expert in the study of heroism. Like others in his field, he regards whistleblowers as members of a category called “social heroes,” who typically make some kind of personal sacrifice on behalf of the greater good. (Other categories include military heroes, who show bravery that surpasses the call of duty, and civilian heroes, everyday people who risk their lives for others — running into a burning house to save a child, for instance.)

Whistleblowers are typically also comfortable with a certain degree of nonconformity. Sometimes that's because they feel secure in their professional roles: Moceanu felt freer to speak out once she had retired from her sport and her income no longer depended on her gymnastics ability. Ohio State University studies have found that whistleblowers are more likely to be male, have high status, and have a long work history — which makes the sacrifices of less powerful whistleblowers even more notable by comparison. Situational factors matter, too. People tend to blow the whistle more when their organization is known for addressing problems effectively.

What most distinguishes whistleblowers from bystanders, though, may be their ability to stick to their principles when they're under extreme pressure in the moment. Most of us think we're up to the task of speaking out: In Bocchiaro's whistleblowing study, more than 90 percent of participants said they would disobey an experimenter's request or blow the whistle if he or she was doing something immoral. “People want to see themselves in the best light and believe that they are generally more moral than the average person,” said Bocchiaro, who has taught at the University of Palermo.

But in a different phase of the study — a realistic setting where subjects learned an experimenter was supposedly conducting cruel sensory-deprivation research — less than 10 percent actually blew the whistle by reporting the experimenter's behavior. The study echoed the findings of the Milgram experiment: When people are put on the spot, conformity and fear of defying authority can overwhelm the impulse to do the right thing.

Still, the more aware would-be whistleblowers are of the powerful social pressure they'll face, the more they can steel themselves to withstand that pressure. “You have to almost have a social relationship with principles and with yourself,” Franco said. “There has to be this internal space where you say, 'I'm okay with these relationships being degraded, because I'm strong enough in myself.'” This is borne out by studies showing that whistleblowers tend to value justice over loyalty to others.

Everyday practice at sticking out in a crowd can bolster people's whistleblowing potential, too. Years ago, psychologist Philip Zimbardo used to assign his Stanford University students to “be a deviant for a day” in whatever way they might choose, whether that meant walking around with a big spot on their faces or shaving off their hair. The idea was to get them comfortable with nonconformity so they'd consider breaking from the pack when an important principle was at stake. “It is very important to nurture or build a 'disobedient' identity from scratch,” Bocchiaro said. Building such an identity, he believes, prepares people to oppose major injustices when they arise.

Those who stay quiet may end up bearing their own heavy burden. “The term 'the sin of omission' is there for a reason: What will I have to live with if I don't take action?” Franco said. “Usually the truth does come to light, and that can be a really powerful guiding principle.”

A focus on positive change can also tip the balance toward whistleblowing. “I love this sport deeply — I have my son in it. I want to make it better for him and all the future generations of children,” Moceanu said. “To know we were part of sparking that change is really fulfilling.”

Elizabeth Svoboda is a writer in San Jose and the author of “What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.”