Whistleblowers Think Far

Rita Handrich:

The “highly conscientious” … are more likely to work hard to achieve their goals [both personally and on behalf of their organization] and often have organizational abilities that help them succeed. In other words, these are the people actually doing the work to help the organization survive and thrive. Why, you might wonder, would those “organizational darlings” blow the whistle on negative practices or leadership failures in a group they so vigorously support? …

Conscientiousness is much more related to performance and our pursuit of goals than it is to conformity. And sometimes the conscientiousness is a commitment to principles that the hard worker can feel were betrayed by the conduct about which they blow the whistle. … The findings from two separate studies support [this]:

Highly conscientious group members with high-level construal (e.g., abstract or “far”) were more willing to articulate (in Study 1) and to express (in Study 2) criticism of the group, even when others did not.

In other words, they were more likely to not only formulate critical positions but more willing to also express them even when they knew other group members would not want to hear it.

(Those studies are here.) Interestingly, Rita mainly applies this to getting cross-examined witnesses to say what she wants them to say, without discussing if that is actually good for the legal system or world. Seems Rita is firmly in near mode here.

This seems another example of far mode being designed more for making good social impressions than good decisions. We might want other people to be whistle-blowers, especially people in other groups, and admire them abstractly, and so people want to give the impression that they’d be whistleblowers too should the occasion arise, at least to people outside their organization. But most people who actually become whistle-blowers suffer substantially because of it. People who actually do it probably suffer from the smart sincere syndrome, not realizing how much the rest of us are just hypocritically pretending to support them.

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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    This seems another example of far mode being designed more for making good social impressions than good decisions. We might want other people to be whistle-blowers, especially people in other groups, and admire them abstractly, and so people want to give the impression that they’d be whistleblowers too should the occasion arise, at least to people outside their organization. But most people who actually become whistle-blowers suffer substantially because of it.

    If far-mode whistleblowers create social problems for themselves by their conduct, that’s prima facie evidence against homo hypocritus. (Smart-sincere syndrome is an ad hoc convolution to explain away the actual results.)

    Far mode isn’t fundamentally an instrument of hypocrisy: it an instrument of integrity. ( http://tinyurl.com/6mq74zp )

    Whistleblowers do tend to suffer from a form of far-mode illusion: they confuse their opinions with their beliefs, and act on their opinions as though they were beliefs. Whereas, near-mode people confuse their beliefs with their opinions and fail to act on them. (See “Why do we confuse belief and opinion: A construal-level theory analysis” — http://tinyurl.com/cyhnz62 .)

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    “This seems another example of far mode being designed more for making good social impressions than good decisions.”

    Or it’s another example of how near/far can be used to explain any phenomenon in hindsight. I’m sure whistleblowers are making a GREAT social impression on their co-workers and future employers, aren’t they?

    Also, whether blowing the whistle is a good decision depends on your utility function.

    Maybe far mode (if such a thing is even well-defined) makes people more likely to blow the whistle because they see the big picture and realize that what they really want is to fix the situation even if they end up personally hurt themselves, but in near mode people act more like animals: responding to stimuli, avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, grooming, and mating.

    According to MY pet interpretation of near/far, which is based on reading reviews just a little, people do math and chores and pretty much everything we want ourselves to do in far mode, and if some people tend to get loopier in far mode, that’s because they were loopy people to begin with.

    *stops waving hands*

    • Kenny

      I also found the sentence you quoted confusing, but the rest of the paragraph clarifies that it’s expressed support for whistle-blowing that’s designed more for making good social impressions, not whistle-blowing itself. Hence the subsequent sentence “But most people who actually become whistle-blowers suffer substantially because of it.”.

  • Editor Rita Handrich

    Hi Robin–An interesting comment you make that by applying this research to what we do I am firmly in near mode. I think I disagree but I am far from an expert on construal theory. Here’s how I would describe it and please tell me if I am incorrect.

    Our goal is to improve litigation advocacy. We filter research we read through that particular lens and have to look both near and far to do it effectively. So we look ‘near’ to identify strategy to result in jurors (the ultimate triers of fact) looking ‘far’. So I see it as not being stuck in ‘near’ but rather as identifying specific and concrete behavioral strategy (near) to get to the desired goal (far).

    I am curious as to what you think about this interpretation/explanation. –Rita

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      You are “near” in the sense of focusing on your personal and local organizational payoffs, as opposed to focusing on ideals and social norms about what would be good for us all. You are trying to get witnesses to be in far mode in order to focus them on that latter issue over their personal risks, but you yourself don’t ask yourself if succeeding at this is good for the world, you only ask if it is good for you.

      • Editor Rita Handrich

        Actually, we don’t care whether witnesses are near or far. The question is a message meant to send the listener/juror into ‘far’ mode so they allow the question of higher level principles to enter into their mental processes as they deliberate.

        We often hear reactions like, “it may be legal but it sure ain’t right” and that’s what this question (which would be objected to and jurors would be instructed to ignore the question) is meant to elicit in the minds of the listener/observer/juror.

        It’s about persuasion. And no. We aren’t asking ourselves “is this good for the system?”. We are asking ourselves, “given our case facts and what we know about how people think and decide–what strategy/tactic is best suited to elicit the sort of thinking (either near or far depending) we want to elicit in our jurors?”. In other words, how best is this story told? How can we ensure that the most people on that jury actually hear us rather than simply hearing their own preconceived notions based on world view.

        We deal in bias everyday. The question is how to mitigate the bias so jurors can truly ‘hear’ the case narrative. Sometimes that takes a near strategy and sometimes it takes a far strategy but we have to flexibly move back and forth between the two to have a view of the trees and the forest at the same time. It is intellectually fascinating.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        I stand corrected that you care more about the juror’s mode than that of the witness. But you confirm that you are focused more on personal gain than on what is good for the world. That is what I mean by your being in near mode.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The question is how to mitigate the bias so jurors can truly ‘hear’ the case narrative. Sometimes that takes a near strategy and sometimes it takes a far strategy but we have to flexibly move back and forth between the two to have a view of the trees and the forest at the same time.

        I’d say you’re clothing near-mode thinking in far-mode rhetoric. Getting jurors to “hear” the case and “overcome bias” invokes far-mode ideals, but of course what you’re really after is to put the witnesses and jurors in the mode that is useful to your client. You are (quite properly) concerned to elicit the beneficial mode even when it creates biases, when the bias favors your client. This goes without saying (and you might find some useful principles at http://tinyurl.com/7yqe7zp “Construal-level theory: Matching linguistic register to the case’s granularity.”) But it’s not what you say, which illustrates how near-mode exploits far-mode in its self-justification. (Robin has a different account, making far-mode the direct instigator of hypocrisy.)

      • Editor Rita Handrich

        Part of the issue is in the definitions of near and far (which I admit I am uncertain about). I find myself speaking near and far without really understanding construal theory language so I am communicating without elegance. But yes. You are correct in my goals and I will go take a look at your recommended URL.