When Doing Right Feels Wrong

Have you ever been in a position where you had to choose between someone you care about and a value that you hold dear? Maybe you had to decide whether to report a friend who was cheating on an exam, or a co-worker who was stealing from the tip jar. This week, we tell the story of a Detroit police officer who found himself in this sort of dilemma, forced to choose between people he loved and the oath he swore to serve his community. What happens in our minds when we have to decide what is right and what is wrong?

Additional Resources:


The Power of Moral Concerns in Predicting Whistleblowing Decisions, by James A. Dungan, Liane Young, and Adam Waytz, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2019.

The Psychology of Whistleblowing, by James Dungan, Adam Waytz and Liane Young, Current Opinion in Psychology, 2015.

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma and the Fairness–Loyalty Tradeoff, by Adam Waytz, James Dungan, and Liane Young, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013.

Grab Bag: 

Why Do Whistleblowers Risk Speaking Out?, by Adam Waytz, TEDMED, 2018.

The Whistle-Blower’s Quandary, by Adam Waytz, James Dungan and Liane Young, NYT Opinion, August 2013.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Have you ever had one of those conversations where half the people in the room have a very strongly held opinion, and the other half feel just as strongly in the opposite direction? This happened to me a few years ago. I was having dinner with friends in Washington, DC. Everyone was talking about some shocking news that had just come out. Tens of thousands of top secret documents from the national security agency, or NSA, had been leaked to journalists.

Archival tape: TV Announcer: Since at least 2008, the national security agency has been using secret technology to hack into....

Archival tape: TV Announcer: Secret, and far reaching, and it's been going on for years

Archival tape: TV Announcer: ... the government can compel a phone company to provide this metadata, as it's called, from millions of customers.

Shankar Vedantam: The man who released all these documents was Edward Snowden, a computer security consultant at the NSA. The documents detailed extensive secret U.S. surveillance of people and governments across the globe. Edward Snowden believed that what the NSA was doing was wrong, and that the public had a right to know.

Edward Snowden: I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity, or love, or friendship is recorded.

Shankar Vedantam: Fearing, correctly, that he was in the cross hairs of U.S. security agencies, Edwards Snowden fled the United States, and found refuge in Russia. Back at the dinner table with my friends that night, someone asked a simple question. Edward Snowden, hero or traitor? One side of the dinner party was certain. This man was a hero. He had acted in the public interest, alerting Americans to heavy handed surveillance by their government. The rest of the group was equally certain. Edward Snowden was a traitor, who shares national security secrets that embarrass your country, endangers the lives of U.S. intelligence agents and service members, and then finds refuge in Russia. Vladimir Putin's Russia. What fascinated me about this debate was how quickly people came to their conclusions. How certain they were, that they were right. What explained it? Today, we explore what happens when two core moral values are pitted against each other. Loyalty versus honesty. This week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin Roche grew up Detroit, Michigan in the 1970s and '80s. His father was a millwright. He dismantled, repaired, and reassembled huge pieces of machinery in a steel factory. Darwin's mom stayed at home to raise him and a sister. She'd help them with their homework, and give them life advice. She'd also whip up big family dinners. Every Sunday evening.

Darwin Roche: My childhood was pretty good. I can't recall any really adverse childhood experiences that I went through as a kid, and then as well as a young adult and a teenager. So I had a pretty good lifestyle. I really enjoyed being a kid.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin's parents were loving, kind, churchgoing folks. They tried to impress the right values on young Darwin.

Darwin Roche: Doing the right thing for the right reasons. Being a person of honesty and integrity. Doing the best you can, and doing the right the first time, in everything that you do.

Shankar Vedantam: When Darwin was around 12 years old, he violated his parents' moral code. One day, he snuck into a neighbor's yard, and picked some of her flowers. As he was walking home with his freshly assembled bouquet, the neighbor called his mom, and told her what he'd done.

Darwin Roche: My mom really got after me about doing that. And she was telling me how important it is to respect other people's property. So the punishment, or I guess, the reward would be that I had to do yard service for her, for the remaining summer. I had to cut her grass and everything like that.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin said this lesson taught him what kind of person he wanted to be. At home, he became the model son. At school, he got good grades. But when he was 16, he received a different kind of lesson. A lesson that taught him what kind of person he didn't want to be. He was driving to pick up his sister from school. Two friends were in the car with him. All of the boys were Black. Suddenly in his rear view mirror, Darwin saw the flashing lights of a police car.

Darwin Roche: And so I didn't think anything of it, because I've never had any negative encounters with law enforcement at all.

Shankar Vedantam: There were four officers in the squad car. All of them got out. One approached Darwin.

Darwin Roche: So the officer approached the driver's side door, and he asked me for my driver's license.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin knew his license was in the car, probably in the side pocket of the door. Something told him not to reach for it.

Darwin Roche: So I said, "My driver's license is here, but I just don't know where it's located." And so at that point he ordered all three of us out of the car. And then he told us to put our hands on the trunk of the car, of my car, while they searched the interior of the vehicle. And then the officer walked back to me and said, "Hey, I found your driver's license," and he held it in his left hand, and he showed it to me. And I smiled, because I was happy, because I didn't know where it was. And then he slapped me in the face very hard, and told me to wipe that smile off my face. He took his hand, and did like a clamp around my throat, squeezing my Adam's apple.

Shankar Vedantam: At one point, Darwin looked at the other three officers.

Darwin Roche: And the other officers, they were Black males, and they just shrugged away. And I was looking at them like, "Are you going to allow this to happen? Are you going to allow someone to assault me?" And I'm 16 years old, and I haven't done anything wrong. And so at that point, they just went along to get along, and didn't do anything to intervene. And then, the encounter lasted for about five minutes, but that five minutes, I thought that they were actually going to kill me, because he told me when he choked me, "The only reason I won't kill you out here is because it's daylight."

Shankar Vedantam: After the incident, Darwin thought about what had happened. He thought about the officer who had choked him, but he also thought about the other three officers who had watched, and done nothing. Why did they hesitate to speak up? Did they not want to break ranks with their fellow officers?

Darwin Roche: I was hoping and thinking maybe one of those officers would have the courage to stand forth and say, "Okay, this officer's out here assaulting teenagers broad daylight, for no crime whatsoever."

Shankar Vedantam: The encounter left Darwin with a concussion. But the injustice of what had happened stayed with him long after the physical pain had eased. He sometimes asked himself what he would've done if he had been one of the three officers who had witnessed the assault. If a situation arose where he had to choose between loyalty and honesty, would he hesitate to speak up? He was soon to find out the answer. After a stint in the air force, Darwin eventually became a police officer in Detroit himself. He rose in the ranks, and gained the respect of his fellow officers. Soon work and life began to blur together. Colleagues became friends. Darwin felt especially close to one of his scout partners. They'd go out and patrol together almost every day.

Darwin Roche: I considered him a friend. He was at my house. I was at his house, and he really taught me how to be a street officer. He taught me how to detect crime, drugs, narcotics, trafficking, those sorts of things. He was a street cop and he was very good at his craft.

Shankar Vedantam: On weekends, they'd watch sports together. They celebrated milestones with their families.

Darwin Roche: He was just a good guy. And when he would come over to my house, I had a young child at that time, he would ask me about the kid. And ask me did I need anything? Because he knew I was a newer officer, and he just took on a big brother role for me in certain aspects.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin had another scout partner he was close to. For reasons that will become clear later in the story, we are not naming Darwin's fellow cops. Darwin felt he had a real bond with the second partner.

Darwin Roche: He was more quiet, soft-spoken, a good partner. We were more adventurous. When we worked together, we would go and investigate things on a deep level. Because we were anxious to get out there on the streets and we wanted just to patrol and have fun.

Shankar Vedantam: There was a third colleague Darwin respected enormously. When they worked together, Darwin always felt he came away with a better understanding of what it meant to be a Detroit police officer.

Darwin Roche: Me being a new officer, they tell you, "Write a lot of tickets, get a lot of citations, get some stats." And he explained to me that these tickets that you write these people have a monetary impact, adverse impact on them. He said, "You know, it's okay to give out a warning, at certain times." So it was those intangibles that you didn't learn in the academy on how to be a patrol officer for the city of Detroit.

Shankar Vedantam: The brotherhood he formed with these officers gave Darwin a sense of security. The cops knew each other's families. When they were out on dangerous calls, Darwin felt like he could trust these men to watch his back, to keep him safe. And of course, he knew he would do the same for them. One night in 1998, the four men got together for a beer at a dive bar on the eastside of Detroit.

Darwin Roche: We had drinks, we talked about sports. We talked about police work. We talked about women, and things that people do at that age group.

Shankar Vedantam: And then the conversation went in a new direction. One of his scout partners asked Darwin a question.

Darwin Roche: "Do you want to make some money?" And I said, "Well, of course. What do you want to do?" And he said, "Well, I got an idea."

Shankar Vedantam: The officer told Darwin about a bookie who had just been released from prison for tax evasion and illegal gambling. The bookie had stashed a million dollars in a safe, at his house.

Darwin Roche: "And we're going to go in there, and we're going to get it. And I know that you're a young officer, and they don't pay well, and you have a young child. And you can put some coins in your pocket. And it's just a one time shot. We go in, we go out. It's a one day thing, and then we can be set for a very long time to come."

Shankar Vedantam: It was like the plot of a movie. Darwin sat there, stupefied.

Darwin Roche: And at first I thought it was a joke. I thought it was, "Ha-ha, very, very funny." But as the conversation continued, he started to draw a diagram of the target house, and how we would approach this house. And I remember, Shankar, I remember drinking the alcohol, but not getting the desired effect. It was just, I was so shocked, and so numb.

Shankar Vedantam: The plan his friends laid out went like this. The four cops would dress up as FBI agents, and conduct a fake raid on the home. It wasn't like the bookie he was going to call the police. He'd have to explain how a million dollars came to be sitting in a safe. Unspoken was the idea that even though breaking into the bookie's house was obviously illegal, it could also be the right thing to do. The money they'd be stealing was from a crook. In a way, they'd be righting a wrong. Darwin's friends told him the first step was to stake out the house. Then, on the day of the raid, they'd call 911 and report there was an officer in trouble far away from the house.

Darwin Roche: And that would distract all the local units to that location.

Shankar Vedantam: Free and clear of any interruptions, the cops would break in, tie up the bookie, spray him with mace, and force him to reveal the code to the safe.

Darwin Roche: And if he refused, or in any way didn't allow us to get the money out, then we would take any means necessary, up to and including death.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow, so they actually talked about killing the guy if he didn't cooperate?

Darwin Roche: Yes, absolutely.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin felt a battle start to rage inside his brain. The scheme felt wrong, but he also felt a deep loyalty to these men.

Darwin Roche: These are the people that I work with every day. I put my life in their hands, and hopefully they put their lives in my hands. These were people that I looked up to for aspiration, and what kind of cop I wanted to be with the Detroit police department.

Shankar Vedantam: After they laid out the plan, Darwin's friends looked at him, and asked him a question that would shape the rest of his life. "Are you in, or are you out?" You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain I'm Shankar Vedantam. At Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, psychologist Adam Waytz has long been fascinated by the kind of dilemma Darwin Roche experienced at that bar in Detroit. What happens in the mind when someone has to make a choice between two competing ethical priorities?

Adam Waytz: My first interest in the topic of whistle-blowing came from hearing about a news story in Chicago. It's a terrible story. Something about someone getting shot, and as they were dying, the police actually approached the person who got shot, and said, "Can you help us? Do you know who did this?" And the person essentially said something along the lines of, "I know who did this, but I'll never tell you."

Shankar Vedantam: I know who did this, but I'll never tell you. Adam was struck by the story. Here was a man who was dying, and he was trying to protect the person who'd shot him.

Adam Waytz: Out of a code of silence, a code of don't snitch. And I remember talking to someone who was leading an anti-gun violence organization. And this person had worked with communities as well as the police, and this person who I really relayed the story to said, "Well this is very interesting, because there's a similar code of silence within police departments, as well."

Shankar Vedantam: As a psychologist, Adam asked himself what the connection could be. Why would the victims of crimes, and the people trying to catch the perpetrators of crimes, follow the same code?

Adam Waytz: There seemed to be something about a code of loyalty. And so, I started talking about that with Liane Young, and James Dungan. And we said, "Well, this could be something interesting to study, from a psychological perspective."

Shankar Vedantam: Adam and his colleagues decided a good place to start their analysis was in the field of what's called, Moral Foundations Theory.

Adam Waytz: There are these five or six basic moral intuitions, or moral foundations, or moral modules that people use intuitively to determine whether something was right and wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: When we ask ourselves what's right and wrong, we usually don't realize that beneath the surface of our reasoning, we're actually drawing on a deeper set of moral feelings. These feelings form the foundations of our moral reasoning. Moral foundation's theory was first put forward by the psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, and Jesse Graham, who hypothesized that people don't realize they're unconsciously drawing on different moral foundations. This, in turn, is a central reason why people are bewildered when others reach different moral conclusions. The people who thought Edward Snowden was a traitor may have felt that those who called Edward Snowden a hero needed to have their heads examined, and vice versa.

Adam Waytz: What was so interesting to us, was that two of those foundations can very easily come into conflict with each other.

Shankar Vedantam: Cultures around the world understand that one way to be a good person is to stand by those who stand with you. We defend our families, communities, and nations. And we expect our families, communities, and nations to defend us. Even when the going gets tough. Flaking out doesn't just make you a coward, it makes you unreliable, disloyal, a bad person. Simultaneously, however, many of us also intuitively feel that being a good person means standing up for fairness and justice. Stealing from someone is unjust. Hurting someone is unfair. One place these two moral foundations come into conflict ...

Adam Waytz: It just so happens, that these core intuitions, that is the desire for loyalty, and simultaneously the desire for justice, really come into conflict with each other when people are put in situations where they have to decide whether to blow the whistle or not.

Shankar Vedantam: When we think about Darwin Roche, it's easy to think his choice was either to be loyal to his colleagues, or to do the right thing. But this is a mistake. The moral foundation of justice is not superior to the moral foundation of loyalty. It's just that different situations can make different people lean in one direction or the other. We all face balancing acts between honesty and loyalty. Let's say you see a colleague stealing toilet paper from the office supply closet. Do you report it? What if they were embezzling money from the company? Or, let's say you have a very kind neighbor who brings you soup when you're sick, but this person also posts fake news on social media. Do you call him out? What if you see him abusing a dog, how does the gravity of the act change the equation?

Adam Waytz: It's not clear what the right thing is, and this is where we landed in our hypothesizing. That many people, and many cultures feel like the most right thing you can do is be a loyal citizen to your community, whatever that is. Whether that's a police department, whether that's a neighborhood, whether that's a place where you work. That is the ultimate in morality, is being loyal. On the other hand, you have this competing moral intuition, where you want to do what's just, and what's fair, and what prevents the greatest amount of harm to others more broadly. And so, if you look at it one way, whistle-blowing is the most moral thing you can do. But if you look at it another way, it feels like the ultimate betrayal.

Shankar Vedantam: Adam and his colleagues have shown that our inner moral calculations can be tipped in one direction or another. In one study, they recruited two groups of volunteers. The first was asked to write an essay on the importance of fairness and honesty. The other was asked to write about the value of loyalty. All the volunteers were then told to evaluate the work of previous participants in the study. In reality, however, there were no previous participants, and the research team was asking the volunteers to evaluate poorly done work that they themselves had fabricated. The researchers asked the volunteers to blow the whistle about poorly done work. Here's researcher James Dungan from The University of Chicago.

James Dungan: And the question for the participants in our task was, would they report this shoddy work or not?

Shankar Vedantam: The researchers told the volunteers that if they reported shoddy work, the previous participant would be banned from working on any future studies.

James Dungan: And what we see is that whistle-blowing behavior was affected by the essay prompt that they wrote. So people writing about the importance of fairness, who were made to remind themselves of how important it is to be fair, were more likely to report the participants' shoddy work. People who were focused on loyalty were less likely to report the participant.

Shankar Vedantam: What this shows is that our internal moral compass is not static. It's also not just about what happens inside our own minds. Social factors, and the context can alter how we feel about profoundly important moral decisions. So when some of us think Edward Snowden is a hero, and some of us think he's a villain, it may be useful to ask how different social norms and social ties are shaping those conclusions. At a larger level, the cultures in which we find ourselves can also play a powerful role in nudging us to prioritize honesty or loyalty. Researchers have found that different cultures prioritize different moral foundations, perhaps because of their unique historical circumstances. Here's Adam, on that topic.

Adam Waytz: Work by Michelle Gelfand and others have suggested that when countries experience crises, whether due to war, or famine, or natural disaster, they tighten up. And to the extent that tightening up or promoting tighter social norms is going to weaken whistle-blowing. I think in the aftermath of crises, people are going to be less likely to break with their fellow country people.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if you or anyone else has done research looking at organizations that believe they're doing the right thing. So police departments, or the army, or medical workers. You have a sense that partly what motivates you to join this profession is a sense of mission, a sense of duty, a sense of responsibility to higher things. And I'm wondering if there's been any research looking at the likelihood of whistle-blowing in those contexts. Partly because I'm wondering if the conflict in some ways becomes more acute. So in other words, if I'm working for, let's say, Doctors Without Borders, and I think that I'm working for a humanitarian organization that's doing really wonderful things. Now, if I blow the whistle, I'm not just potentially hurting the organization, or hurting the people within the organization, I'm hurting all the people that the organization could have helped. And now, that makes the moral dilemma, at least the way I'm seeing it, even more acute.

Adam Waytz: Well, you gave me just the perfect testable hypothesis. I want to run out and do this research tomorrow. And I think you're really on to something. Where, to the extent to which you believe that your organization has a bigger social mission, and this could be true of police departments, the military. Again, other examples I have used Boy Scouts of America, or the Catholic Church. And indeed, these are mission driven organizations. The conflict might be lessened for you, because you might say, "Well, the reason why I'm not going to report wrongdoing is that it would weaken our organization. And so, really, what the greater good is for me, is that our organization thrives so we can do the good work that we do." And so, that might explain why, within those organizations, you're saying that your purpose is partially socially driven. And that then gives you license to engage in potentially less ethical behavior. It's a phenomenon called moral licensing. The idea developed by psychologists, Benoit Monin and Dale Miller. Where if you think of yourself as having a certain level of morality, then it licenses you to be less moral on other dimensions. And so that might also occur in the whistle-blowing context.

Shankar Vedantam: In some ways, the idea is that if you're basically already putting money in your moral piggy bank by doing a good thing, by being part of a mission driven organization, or a humanitarian organization, it now becomes a little easier to take money out of that piggy bank when you're called upon to do so. Because you say, "Well, my piggy bank is already pretty full with all of these moral coins."

Adam Waytz: Absolutely. You're still morally wealthy, even if you take more coins out.

Shankar Vedantam: Adam can think of a moment in his own life when he was torn between the moral impulse of loyalty, and the moral impulse of honesty. He was a senior in high school, and his brother David was a sophomore, and they had gone to a classic high school party. Think cheap plastic cups filled with bad beer. At some point in the night, one of the party goers took a picture of the scene, and the next week the photograph started making its way around the school.

Adam Waytz: And in our public school system there's nothing you can do to a student who is drinking alcohol off campus. But there was some rule in place that if you're an athlete, a high school athlete, you could be suspended if you're found consuming alcohol, even if it was outside of school grounds.

Shankar Vedantam: Adam was on the basketball team. David did cross country. They were going to be called in for questioning. Adam had a choice. Lie, and protect his brother and his teammates, or tell the truth, and get everyone in trouble. Of course, Adam was not the only one confronting this choice.

Adam Waytz: Everyone who knew they were going to get called in for questioning had this decision to make. "Do we all basically lie and say, 'I wasn't drinking at the party' or, 'What you see in my cup is apple juice, and not beer.' Do we maintain that code of silence, or do we tell the truth?"

Shankar Vedantam: Before Adam or David got called into the office, they rendezvoused, and came up with a plan.

Adam Waytz: Let's just say we were drinking apple juice, if anyone asks.

Shankar Vedantam: Slowly, each of his teammates was brought in. Eventually it was Adam's turn.

Adam Waytz: And I was asked was I drinking at the party? And I said, "I was not."

Shankar Vedantam: Adam chose the moral foundation of loyalty over the moral foundation of justice, of honesty. But then, in an almost comical demonstration of what happens when moral foundations come into conflict with each other, he immediately felt torn about his decision.

Adam Waytz: I walked out of that office and I just felt bad. It did not feel good to tell a lie. After walking about 50 feet, I turned around, and I recanted my statement.

Shankar Vedantam: This is the thing about our moral foundations. We don't notice them most of the time because they're hidden beneath the surface. Yet, when we ignore them, we experience what Adam calls moral stress.

Adam Waytz: Which is the stress brought on by having to stretch the truth or do something that feels immoral. And that's what I felt. It was momentarily debilitating. It was very stressful to know that I had lied. And not only that, but yeah, I could get away with it, but I think plenty of people in the school knew the actual story, and that was going to be embarrassing.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, moral stress in a situation with the highest of stakes. We return to that bar in Detroit, and Darwin Roche's dilemma. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. The events that change our lives, don't always look monumental from the outside. To a stranger who might have seen Darwin and his colleagues in that dive bar, they probably looked like four friends drinking beer, talking about life. But as his fellow police officers asked him to help them carry out a crime, break into a house, and steal a million dollars, Darwin felt his head spin.

Darwin Roche: It. It was just one of those things, that regardless if I said yes or no, now I still have to have a relationship with these officers. I got to get in the scout car with them two days from now.

Shankar Vedantam: As he made his way home, Darwin thought about the decision he had to make. No answer he landed on felt good. If he went along with a plan, he'd be helping perpetrate an injustice. The kind of injustice he had sworn an oath to prevent. But if he turned on his buddies, turned them in, Darwin knew he would feel like he had betrayed them. If he got them convicted, he would feel responsible for taking their lives away, for creating that empty chair at the dinner table that their wives, girlfriends and kids would have to look at each night. When he got home, Darwin was distraught. He called someone he trusted, and asked her to come over.

Darwin Roche: And so I told her what happened. And she said, "Well, what are you going to do?" She advised me, "Well, just don't say anything." And I said, "Well, no, I can't do that, because I have to put myself in the situation of that person in that house." And allowing something bad to happen to him, for something that I had prior knowledge of, it just couldn't resonate with me. I just could not wrap my head around doing that.

Shankar Vedantam: As they talked, it became clear to Darwin which moral choice felt better to him, and which one felt worse. As much as loyalty to his friends mattered, as much as it broke his heart to turn away from them, he knew he could not take part in the crime, and he could not sit idly by as the bookie was robbed, and maybe killed.

Darwin Roche: I reached out to the chief of police. The only person that I knew that I felt that I could have trusted with this information. Told him what happened, told him what I knew. And he said, "Okay, well, stand by the phone. Someone will be calling you."

Shankar Vedantam: A short while later, Darwin got a call from the FBI. They arranged to meet at a park the next day.

Darwin Roche: They brought me in and they said, "Okay, well, walk us through what happened."

Shankar Vedantam: With a knot in his stomach, Darwin told them everything. When he was done, they gave him a choice.

Darwin Roche: They pretty much directly said, "Hey, do you want to participate in helping catching these guys? Or do you just want to give us the information, and go about your life?"

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin felt that if he had made the choice to come down on the side of justice, he had to take the plunge. If he didn't, and his fellow officers got off scot-free showing up at work as usual, he would have to quit.

Darwin Roche: If I don't participate in this, if I don't see it through, if I don't get this to conviction, they may walk. They may be found not guilty. So all my dreams and aspirations are gone. Everything I went to college for, everything I believed in. Serving the community, serving the citizens of Detroit, that is done if they don't go to jail. And at this point, I had to go where the odds were more favorable for me and my career, my name, my family, my belief systems. And I said, "Well, I'm here to help."

Shankar Vedantam: So the thing that I just want to spend a moment talking about, is that I feel like for many people, this would've been a difficult decision. Because, again, you're not just reporting on something that you saw happen. You're reporting on people who you work with. People who are your friends. People who know your kid. People who've looked out for you. People who you look up to. I would think for most people there would be at least a moment of emotional conflict, where you're deciding what the right thing is to do.

Darwin Roche: Emotional conflict is an understatement. This was gut wrenching. It was very painful to make that decision. And I love these guys. I mean, we really shared a lot of time together. It was very emotionally draining, and very traumatic for me to go through that. Those days after that initial contact with them, and subsequent contact with the FBI and internal affairs were probably one of the darkest days that I can recall in my entire life.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin kept going to work each day, except now he was consumed with anxiety.

Darwin Roche: I had to actually work with the authorities, and continue my day-to-day activities as nothing's changed, because if I changed anything, a day off, or left work early, or anything like that, it could have possibly alerted them that something is a foot. So on the outside I appeared normal, but on the inside I was really shattered in pieces, and conflicted.

Shankar Vedantam: Instead of blurting out that he'd betrayed them, that the FBI was following their every move, Darwin met up with his colleagues. He told them he was in, fully in. They would do drive-bys of the house, trying to figure out the best way to get in. They started gathering supplies and weapons. Throughout all of this, Darwin either wore a wire, or wrote extensive notes that he'd pass along to the FBI. Now, besides the conflict he felt as a whistle blower, Darwin realized how terrifying it was to be an informant.

Darwin Roche: I was in an altered state. I was in one of those where I had to really step outside myself. Who I was, and get into almost a role-play. Where I had to pretend that I was an active participant. I had to pretend that I was enthusiastic about conducting this criminal activity. While at the same time, always paranoid, always emotionally on edge.

Shankar Vedantam: He became hypervigilant, and suffered frequent panic attacks. And then one cold afternoon, Darwin had just come off a lunch break, when a coworker showed him the Detroit Free Press. Plastered across the front page was this headline, Cops Planned Heist. Three Detroit Police Officers Charged with Plot.

Darwin Roche: And so, that's how I found out that they had actually made their arrest earlier that morning.

Shankar Vedantam: It's typical for the FBI to withhold information from informants about the progress of an investigation. They don't want informants to get cold feet, and warn the group they've been investigating. Darwin knew this, and he tried to prepare himself for the moment it all came out. It was still a shock, but nothing compared to what came in the weeks and months that followed. That's because the tension between loyalty and honesty was not just a question to be resolved in Darwin's heart. His community was weighing the very same questions. Was Darwin Roche a hero or a traitor?

Darwin Roche: I would get calls. "We're going to kill you. You're not going to make it to trial." And the calls were frequent throughout the day or night. I actually had a security detail assigned to my home, just based upon those threats. After a while, the death threats became so prevalent. It was just like, "Just do it. Stop calling, just do it." And one thing I always said is just, I would not want to be shot in the face or the head, so I could have an open casket funeral. And that was my only thing. And so, it was very trying, very traumatic.

Shankar Vedantam: The pressure slowly mounted on everyone in Darwin's life. At one point, the house where his ex-girlfriend and 12-year-old daughter lived was fire bombed. Thankfully, Darwin's ex and daughter came away from the incident physically unharmed. But knowing that his decision to blow the whistle had put his child in jeopardy, pushed Darwin over the edge.

Darwin Roche: I had reached my emotional bottom. I was isolated. I don't have the ability to go to the store without worrying if someone's going to come up on me and take my life away, or answer the phone without fearing that someone's going to put me in that emotional state or fear and discomfort. Or the ability just to have friends over, and just to say hi, because if someone's trying to kill you, or someone has threatened to kill you, there's not a lot of people that want to be around you.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin was transferred to desk duty. While many of his colleagues supported him, and held him up as a model of good policing, others were angry about his decision. This is a common experience for many whistleblowers. The people for whom the moral foundation of honesty and justice is paramount will view your actions in one way. The people for whom loyalty is a core moral foundation will see the same actions very differently. As the trial grew nearer, Darwin felt like he was in a race. A race for his life.

Darwin Roche: We always talk about crossing the finish line, but very seldom do we talk about the work that goes after you cross the finish line. And in this situation, the hard work was just to survive. Emotionally survive this, and hopefully stand alive to participate in trial, and testify against the actions that they did. And so I just got up every day, and treated each day as it was my last. And that was the mindset I had to have in order just to stay sane for lack of a better word.

Shankar Vedantam: Darwin made it to the trial alive. He testified against his former friends in court, and told the truth about what he'd heard and witnessed. The three men were found guilty. Although, the conviction of one officer was overturned on appeal. All served some prison time. Given that the events in the story happened decades ago, and the other cops either served their time, or in one case had his conviction overturned, we have chosen not to name them in the story. After the trial, Darwin's life moved on. The threats subsided. He was taken off desk duty, and went back to patrolling the streets of Detroit. He retired in early 2022 as a Lieutenant. There are people who still disagree with the choice he made. He still occasionally hears people refer to him as a snitch. But Darwin says he'd make the same decision again if he had to, even with all the pain it caused.

Darwin Roche: If you don't stand up for what is right, and what is just, and your own moral beliefs, now, how do we change society? And we have a society right now that's so willing to duck into the shadows, and hope that someone else will handle it. And that problem causes a lot of issues in our lives.

Shankar Vedantam: When we are forced to choose between loyalty and honesty, it can feel agonizing. Yet, psychologist Adam Waytz says there is a way to reduce the agony, at least in an organizational context. The way to do that is by reframing the underlying tension between loyalty and honesty.

Adam Waytz: When we talk about how to overcome the tension between, well, doing the just thing, versus being loyal to my group, the answer we don't try to put forth is, well, you should just forget about loyalty. First of all, it's impossible. Loyalty is baked in all of us. It's part of human nature to want to be loyal. But loyalty is something that I think can be reframed, as loyalty to your fellow human beings, or loyalty to the greater good, or loyalty to society. And so there's a way to, I think, blow the whistle, which might be calling out someone in your circle, or your organization for wrongdoing, while still feeling a sense of loyalty. For some people, the most loyal thing you can do for your organizations is call out bad behavior when you see it. And I wish more organizations and CEOs put forth that message. Which would be something along the lines of, "Part of what it means to be a good citizen is we call each other out. You don't take it personally, but we call out bad behavior." And I think that's a way to communicate a loyalistic message without curbing people's desire to do the right thing, and blow the whistle.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridgid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. This week, we turn over our unsung hero segment to a listener with an episode from our sister podcast, My Unsung Hero. Today's story comes from Vige Barrie. Vige has mild cerebral palsy. Because of the disease, she occasionally trips and falls. One day, in 2017, she was in Washington DC for an important meeting.

Vige Barrie: That morning in June, it was bright and beautiful. I felt very confident in what I was wearing. I was walking along L Street toward my meeting. And without warning, I fell. I fell badly. I fell on my face. My glasses cut into my eyelid. My cheeks were torn up. I was bleeding. All I wanted to do was jump up and grab my glasses, and avoid any further embarrassment. I heard a voice from the man I had noticed earlier, standing in a garage. I thought he was a garage attendant. He ran over to me, and picked me off the sidewalk. And he walked me, rushed me actually, into a building, and down an office hallway. And I heard him yelling, "Mary, Mary, come. It's an emergency."

Shankar Vedantam: Vige later found out the man's name was Kevin.

Vige Barrie: And he rushed me into a bathroom. And Mary appeared, and Mary was the building concierge. Mary took over, and Kevin ran for a first aid kit. And Mary just automatically, even though I had left a trail of blood, she took over washing me. Washing my face, washing my hair, trying to get the blood off my clothes, soothing me. I was babbling. I was so embarrassed. But more than that, I was deeply demoralized, that this had happened to me yet again. And at what an awful moment. I needed to be somewhere very important. And yet, here I was, a mess. What would've happened had they not picked me off the sidewalk? And here she was, trying to bandage me, to make me look somewhat presentable, and encourage me that it was going to be right. Between the two of them, Kevin and Mary, they put me together. And I was mildly presentable. They didn't think about cleaning up the hallway first. They thought about me.

Shankar Vedantam: In the end, Vige made it to her meeting. Afterwards, she wrote a letter about Kevin and Mary's actions, and sent it to Mary's boss, a woman named Linda.

Vige Barrie: She told me I made her day. But it was uplifting to me just to write that letter as it is to make this recording right now, and remember the kindness, and the real care, and the love that was expressed by those two people. Linda told me that she put my letter in the top concierge annual employee awards file for Mary. And I certainly hope Mary got that award that year, 2017.

Shankar Vedantam: Episodes like the one we brought you today, take months of research, writing, and fact checking. If you enjoy today's episode, please consider making a contribution to support our work. You can do so at support.hiddenbrain.org. Again, that's support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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