Clarice Starling as a Prototypical Hero

By Paige Delsa

Amongst the countless heroes who’ve graced the silver screen, few have had both the charisma and ability to captivate an audience like FBI trainee Clarice Starling. Aided by the imprisoned, cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Jon Demme’s psychological thriller Silence of the Lambs explores in gripping detail Starling’s attempts to capture serial killer Buffalo Bill.

Starling exceptionally displays her prowess as a hero, guided by Lecter, and establishes herself as a prototype for not only FBI agents to aspire to, but also other film protagonists. Starling is immediately presented as an underdog of sorts, operating as both a student and a woman in the male-dominated FBI. This status as an underdog does little to limit her desire to succeed and overcome her past trauma. If anything, this status amplifies her exceptional actions.

As a trainee, Starling perpetually exists in a vulnerable state due to her inexperience and lack of agency. Starling, after being approached by FBI Agent Jack Crawford, attempts to receive Lecter’s help in profiling Buffalo Bill, another prolific serial killer. Though just a trainee, she manages to impress the psychopathic, highly intelligent Lecter with her honesty and strength despite her discomfort around the now disgraced psychiatrist.

We see the first glimpse of Starling’s heroic capabilities in her interaction with Lecter; the courage and selflessness it took to honestly engage with the amoral man would again appear in her confrontation with Buffalo Bill. Starling’s actions apprehending Buffalo Bill display exceptionality in both the courage and the general selflessness involved in resolving the precarious situation. Completing an action that is not only morally good but also exceptional is one of the core tenets of heroism.

After accidentally identifying Jame Gumb as Buffalo Bill, even before her amply resourced colleagues at the FBI, she engages in a heated confrontation with both her life and the life of the girl hidden at the bottom of Gumb’s basement on the line. In only a few short minutes, Starling displays immediately recognizable attributes of heroism, namely intelligence, strength, shrewdness, resilience, courage, and selflessness.

It would be in gross neglect to delve into Starling’s heroic performance without mentioning her foil, the distinguished Hannibal Lecter. The characters’ existences are inextricably linked to one another. Lecter, more so than Buffalo Bill, acted as a cultivator and amplifier of Starling’s heroic capabilities by provoking one of the most recognizable and crucial elements of heroism: transformation.

When she first appears before Lecter, Starling was no more than a scared little girl wearing the guise of a full-grown woman. Her traumas haunted her waking hours and nightmares, motivating her to succeed in law enforcement, but leaving her with a perpetual uncertainty in herself. With his pointed questions into her macabre childhood, Lecter strips away Starling’s protective exterior and forces her to confront the traumas of her youth.

In finding and killing Gumb, Starling resolves the primary conflict of the film and fully actualizes her status as a hero. Without Lecter, Starling wouldn’t have transformed into a fully fleshed hero, capable of successfully hunting Buffalo Bill and addressing her traumas. It’s tempting to think the best or most heroic characters are perfect in their strength, intelligence, beauty, ability to lead, and any other traits commonly associated with heroes.

Clarice Starling is not perfect. She is scared. She is traumatized. She is weaker physically than Jame Gumb and lacks Hannibal Lecter’s sharp wit. But these traits, these imperfections do not take away Starling’s status as a hero. Rather, they elevate her to the upper echelon of cinematic heroes. Her imperfections make her accomplishments all the more extraordinary and let the audience engage deeply with her. She is like us. She is imperfect and pained but capable of great strength.

Bringing down Gumb and enticing Lecter to assist her manhunt displayed the elements of courage and morality fundamentally necessary to distinguish oneself as a hero. Starling has transcended the mere classification of protagonist, proving she deserves to be called “hero.”

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Paige Delsa is an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond.  She is enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes & Villains course and composed this essay as part of her course requirement

Ashton Kutcher: One of Hollywood’s Heroes

By Brooke Gibson

Hollywood has facilitated a plethora of cultural influences over the past century. America places high earning actors/actresses on a social pedestal where they are often respected for their work strictly in the industry. These entertainers, often with net worth trending into the millions, use their platforms to broadcast personal beliefs and debut their successes. This is because the media allows this opportunity to be taken. Of course, people in the spotlight want as many supporters as possible to benefit their fanbase; however, does this mean their actions are authentic?

For some of Hollywood’s stars, philanthropic actions may be genuine. Foundations, organizations, and other institutions are often begun for the greater good of society. These stars have the ability to make this happen. One star in particular, Ashton Kutcher, has taken time to work outside of Hollywood’s light to advocate for a social injustice he is passionate about.

Ashton Kutcher is a happy-go-lucky actor with a handful of notable roles, one being Michael Kelso in “That 70’s Show”. Kutcher’s character is a funny, “bad-boy” who pokes fun at many other characters throughout the series. In real life, he is married to his “That 70’s Show” costar Mila Kunis. I consider this to be somewhat heroic because historically Hollywood couples are not able to facilitate a successful marriage in the spotlight; however, this is not why I think he is one of Hollywood’s heroes. I believe that his work to combat the sexual exploitation of girls globally is one of the most noble and selfless actions Hollywood has seen.

In 2012, Kutcher (along with other American actress Demi Moore) co-founded the organization “Thorn” which has been working to develop and perfect technology to identify victims of trafficking. Their goal is to locate and prevent child victims of sexual exploitation while simultaneously educating the public on this global issue. One may wonder, what makes this action so heroic and worthy of attention? Well, one reason is that Kutcher simply does NOT receive attention for this. He does all of his work voluntarily outside of the Hollywood spotlight, making this contribution to society truly genuine and selfless. Kutcher did not start this organization to benefit his own platform, but for the benefit of children globally.

Some people consider heroes to be “risk takers”. In this case, I do believe that Kutcher has taken many risks and sacrifices to be a part of this program. He has taken the time to fund this technology (which was offered to law enforcement for free, meaning there was no personal gain), testify in courts, and balance his family and career life. This level of personal sacrifice is something that I believe to be incredibly heroic.

The transparency of Kutcher in this project is another trait I believe qualifies Kutcher as a hero. While he clearly advocates for the eradication of child trafficking, he does not pride himself on his success so far and is continuing to work to combat this issue. When one types “Ashton Kutcher” into a search engine, his filmography, family life, and social media is presented. He does not try to let the whole world know what he is doing so they are on his side. He avoids the press in order to prevent the abuse of his power as a star in Hollywood, which is not something other colleagues have followed.

Ashton Kutcher can be considered a hero inside and out of Hollywood’s spotlight. His voluntary and selfless actions as a celebrity are made for the exceptional good of society are incredibly heroic. Thorn aims to find the solution to eradicate all child sex trafficking and has saved numerous amounts of children with its technology. Stars in Hollywood should aim to follow in the footsteps of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher who aim to make a difference not only in America’s entertainment industry, but globally.

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Brooke Gibson is an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond.  She is enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes & Villains course and composed this essay as part of her course requirement

Heroism Science: The Field, the Journal, the Conference

By Scott T. Allison

Although the field of heroism science is roughly two decades old, many people still wonder what the science is, and what it seeks to accomplish.

So here’s a brief description:

Since the year 2000, roughly, there has been a new (or renewed) scientific interest in topics such as morality, cooperation, altruism, wisdom, meaning, purpose, resilience, hope, flow, human growth, courage, empathy, spirituality, health, public service, self-control, emotional intelligence, and character strengths. The past decade especially has witnessed a surge in research on exceptional individuals who best exemplify these positive qualities: heroes and heroic leaders.

Heroism science is a multiple disciplinary field which seeks to understand heroism, the hero’s journey and heroic leadership through three lenses. First, scholars seek to understand the origins of heroism. Second, they aim to identify the many different types of heroism. Third, they seek to illuminate the many processes associated with heroism. These processes can be biological, psychological, sociocultural, and more.

Heroism scientists use of a mix of traditional and new approaches in a wide variety of settings — pedagogy, crisis management, healthcare, counseling, workforce, community development, popular media, online activism, human rights, international relations, digital humanities, to name a few. Heroism science is part of a broader movement that aims to foster holistic well-being, promote heroic awareness and action, civic responsibility and engagement, and build resilient individuals and communities.

As Editor of the field’s flagship journal, Heroism Science, I’m happy to report that the growing multidiscipline of heroism science is doing quite well.

The journal has published dozens of articles authored by the top scholars in the field. In the past two years, there have been over 25,000 downloads of articles published in the journal.  In addition, three special issues in the journal have enjoyed great success. The latest, our special issue on whistleblowers as heroes, has just gotten off the ground and is proving to be especially interesting.

Here are the stated aims of the journal:

Heroism Science is a peer-reviewed open source research journal that aims to advance heroism science theory, research, and application from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives to researchers and the broader community. Contributions from all disciplines are welcome, and cross-disciplinary work, student contributions, non-Western perspectives, and approaches that address racial, ethnic and gender disparities and issues are especially welcome. Heroism Science is the official journal of the Heroic Imagination Project.

I am especially grateful to our Associate Editor, Elaine Kinsella, and to our Production Editor, Smaragda Spyrou. We’d be in dire straights without the contributions of these two outstanding colleagues.

Elaine, in particular, is to be commended for successfully co-hosting (with Eric Igou) the latest biennial Heroism Science conference. The meeting was intended to be in Ireland in 2020, but with the pandemic Elaine and Eric had to postpone until 2021. They wisely decided to make the conference a virtual one, and the entire event was a rousing triumph.

The next heroism science conference will be hosted by Peter Bray in New Zealand in 2023.

Heroism scientists have recently started a Listserve that communicates the latest activities in the field and allows for an open discussion of topics of interest to devotees of heroes and heroism. If you’d like to be included in this Listserve, please contact Golan Shahar at Ben-Gurion University.

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Cognitive Biases That Can Undermine Good Leadership

By Scott T. Allison

People are known to distort reality and show bias in their judgments in systematic ways. Leaders themselves are all-too human in demonstrating these cognitive biases.  Steven J. Stroessner and Brett N. Hu at Barnard College have recently written about these biases in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies, co-edited by George R. Goethals, Scott T. Allison, and Georgia J. Sorenson, which will be published in 2023.

According to Stroessner and Hu, there are three classes of cognitive biases that leadership must be especially careful in navigating. These biases are: (1) conservative biases; (2) information processing biases; and (3) egocentric biases.

1. Conservative Biases

Write Stroessner and Hu: “People tend to be excessively conservative regarding information processing, regularly forming premature conclusions, holding them too firmly given new information, and defending them even when they are no longer tenable given changing conditions. Therefore, leaders regularly demonstrate a status quo bias, a preference to maintain current states.”

One tragic example is when political leaders justify the continuation of a war based on the number of lives already lost rather than on the prospects for a successful outcome. In the early 1970s, the US remained in the Vietnam conflict despite knowing that the war was unwinnable. Leaders’ excuse at the time was that “honor” needed to preserved.

Leaders also show a confirmatory bias, looking for information that confirms their opinions while simultaneously ignoring contradictory information. Confirmatory bias at a group level can lead to groupthink, a diseased form of group decision making in which group members suppress arguments that challenge a leader’s expressed preference.

2. Information Processing Biases

Leaders must gather information to make decisions, and at times leaders are over-reliant on simple rules of thumb called heuristics. The availability heuristic involves the ease with which information can be accessed from memory. For example, people tend to erroneously judge that dying from a tornado is more common than dying from stomach cancer. More people die from the latter but media coverage focuses on the former.

The representativeness heuristic refers to an over-reliance on the similarity of an event to a typical instance of that event. For example, people erroneously believe that six coin-tosses heads-tails-tails-heads-tails-heads are more “random” than six tosses of heads-heads-heads-tails-tails-tails.

A leader’s judgments can also be biased by how a problem is framed. Psychologists have found that the pain associated with loss is greater than the pleasure associated with gain. Thus, a decision problem framed as a loss will lead to different judgments — often a more conservative judgment — than the same problem framed as a gain.

3. Egocentric Biases

The egocentric bias refers the tendency to view oneself or one’s group as superior to others.

The false consensus bias leads people to think that their own preferences and views are widely shared. When this bias is challenged by people expressing opposing views, they tend to be criticized or dismissed.

The self-serving bias refers to the tendency of people to view themselves in a favorable light, exaggerating positive attributes and minimizing negative ones. For example, people view themselves as more moral and competent than others. This bias explains the all too common tendency of leaders to take responsibility for successes but avoid blame for failures.

Ingroup biases involve the belief that one’s own group is better than other groups. While ingroup bias can facilitate ingroup cohesion and self-esteem within the group, it leads to prejudice and discrimination directed toward outgroup members.

The more leaders are made aware of these biases, the better their decision making can be. Awareness does not always eliminate cognitive biases, but they can reduce them. Here is the reference/citation for the encyclopedia:

Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., & Sorenson, G. J. (Eds.) (2023). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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The Fame and Heroism of Sherlock Holmes

By George R. Goethals and Scott T. Allison

Can a nerdy detective become a hero? The answer is yes. There are many examples – Columbo, Ellery Queen, and Jessica Fletcher come to mind. But perhaps the greatest of these nerdy heroes was Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes in the 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet.  That mystery, and most of the subsequent ones, are told through the eyes of Holmes’ roommate and companion, Dr. John Watson.  The second novel, The Sign of Four, followed three years later.  Then in 1892 the first set of twelve short stories appeared, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 

But shortly after those were published Conan Doyle had had enough of his consulting detective and tried to kill him off in the last story of an 1894 collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  That episode was called “The Final Problem.”

However, Conan Doyle couldn’t keep Holmes down.  There was too much popular demand.  His hero returned in “The Empty House,” the first adventure in the 1905 volume The Return of Sherlock Holmes. 

Many of Holmes sayings from those early works are still famous today.  From The Sign of Four, “when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  From the story “Silver Blaze” in The Memoirs comes Holmes’s unforgettable exchange with Inspector Gregory:

Gregory:  “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes:  “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory:  “The dog did nothing in the night-time”

Holmes:  “That was the curious incident.” 

The back and forth with Gregory was the basis for the prize-winning mystery novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Haddon 2003) and the play by the same name that opened at the National Theatre in London in 2012.

Tracing the evolution of presentations of the fictional detective reveals much about changes in how heroes have been constructed over the past one hundred years.  As we shall see, there is much more attention to their inner lives.  In the last decade of the nineteenth century Holmes was depicted in drawings in The Strand magazine by Sidney Paget.  A tall, aquiline Holmes image took hold, one largely consistent with Conan Doyle’s words.

Then the American actor William Gillette portrayed Holmes on the stage, in the famous deer-stalker hat first introduced by Paget, and his distinctive pipe.  Gillette even presented Holmes in a 1916 silent film that was only rediscovered in 2014.  Gillette continued the tall, lean and obviously cerebral presentation of Holmes.

Various other actors, notably Basil Rathbone, were cast as Holmes in film and on television during the mid-twentieth century.  Each actor shaped an evolving image, largely consistent with the original.  If the detective faded somewhat in mid-century he was brought back to life by Jeremy Brett in the Granada television series running from 1984-1984, and then by Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes. 

The most recent renditions have been two television series, Sherlock on BBC with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (2010-2017) and the CBS series Elementary (2012-2019) with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.  They reveal through the character of Sherlock Holmes and his companion John Watson the general evolution of recent treatments of famous fictional heroes, particularly with respect to issues of gender and sexuality.

In the Conan Doyle canon, Holmes left the “fairer sex” to Watson.  He never wanted emotion to disturb his detached rationality.  There is one fascinating exception however.  The first Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia” begins with the famous sentence “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.”  Clearly Holmes is smitten with her, one Irene Adler, and admires the fact that in the end she actually thwarts his plans.  Otherwise Holmes eschews attraction, eroticism, or any other emotion.

In contrast, issues of sexuality come up quickly in the BBC Sherlock series.  The character Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper straight out of Conan Doyle, explicitly raises the possibility, even likelihood, that Holmes and Watson are a gay couple.  The Watson character, acted by Martin Freeman, laughs at such insinuations, but the issue never dies.

At least LBGTQ issues are acknowledged in the series.  Gender and sexuality play a larger role in Elementary.  First, Dr. Watson is a woman, Dr. Joan Watson, played to critical acclaim by Lucy Liu.  As a result, one feature of the whole series is tension as to whether the male Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) and the female Watson will ever make a romantic, sexual connection (they don’t).

Furthermore, Miller’s Holmes has frequent trysts with one or more prostitutes.  His sexuality is highlighted.  For Conan Doyle, Holmes views sex and other emotions “as abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”  His work depends on avoiding or repressing feelings.  For Elementary, discharging libidinal drives serves to clear Holmes’ mind for the operation of his “cold, precise but admirably balanced” logic.

The many variations on the presentation and representation of Holmes all work as long as at the heart of the portrayal is the cool, precise logic, with a distinct dose of narcissism and even obliviousness bordering on the autistic.  The latter actually lends him an unconventional but clearly “good” morality.  He is good as well as strong and active.  Clearly the most recent adaptations reflect today’s current cultural concerns and conversations.  But the enduring elements have to fit as well.

In sum, audiences over the past century have found Holmes to be a convincing hero.  His acute mental abilities, his irreverent but dashing style, and his independence in judging the perpetrators of crime make him a compelling figure.  He doesn’t always follow the letter of the law, but he does act justly and humanely.  Our admiration for Holmes’ morality and talents, along with his unique and appealing personality quirks, ensure his long-term fame and heroism.

The Heroism of Whistleblowers

By Nick Inge

Who knows what it takes to tell the truth? The only people that really know are those that have done it and have spoken up — those that have spoken up about the wrongdoings of others. It takes a few to stand up for the many. Whistle-blowers do whatever it takes for them to reveal those who commit wrongdoing, for if they didn’t then the wrong-doing would continue. Unfortunately, in some cases, it has.

Whistle-blowers take the complicated and often very difficult decision to speak up whilst the vast majority of others, having wrestled with the decision, decide not to. Speaking up takes courage, tenacity and a clear sense of right and wrong to stand up for integrity in a world where it is easier to turn a blind eye. Whistle-blowers expose themselves to extreme scrutiny and invite forensic examination of their character and motivation.

Organisations that promote a healthy speak-up culture of openness and honesty not only improve the way they operate but develop a culture of trust and belief in all of their stakeholders. This culture has meant that those issues that have been highlighted by those who speak up have increasingly led to positive change in governments and in the behaviour of large corporations. They have exposed the unlawful behaviour of high-profile individuals in the fields of commerce, entertainment, politics and sport.

However, the vast majority of whistle-blowers have concerns relating to their work and their surroundings. For many the concept of whistle-blowing may sound daunting, terrifying, disloyal and for some, difficult to accept. It puts many people in a position that makes them feel extremely vulnerable. Vulnerable to losing their livelihoods and all that entails. They go through a rollercoaster of emotions and many challenging situations.

Whistle-blowers are those of us that possess dignity, respect and a sense of doing something rather than nothing. Whistleblowing at any level is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage, resolve, passion, belief, faith and perseverance. It involves using every ounce of one’s integrity as well as a great deal of support from friends and family to do the right thing. This is dependent on someone’s morals, ethics, age, support network, and experience. Providing information about bullying, harassment, corrupt practices, poor leadership and back-handers takes a lot of backbone.

Whistle-blowers are brave. It takes guts and a fundamental belief in justice to stand up and be counted. To see right prevail over wrong. Those who blatantly flout the rules and think they can get away with it, because of their position, need to be held accountable. There are those that make the system work for themselves at the expense of others and this is what drives people to speak up. It takes resolve and perseverance. It takes an unwielding belief by those that report wrongdoing that they are 100% correct in what they witness.

‘It takes the few to stand up for the many’

This article highlights the issues that people face when confronted with the dilemma of whether to speak up or not, what then motivates them to do so, the personality traits of those that do and the lessons that we can learn from them, both from an individual perspective as well as from society as a whole.

The Difficulties Facing Potential Whistle-Blowers

How does it feel to speak up and how do people do it? Do they mainly do it overtly or covertly? That’s to say do they do it not worrying about being in the spotlight or do they do it, for example, via an anonymous hotline? If they do it this way what would happen if they were identified? How do people feel if they are labelled as a ‘grass’ or a ‘snitch’? What is it like to be labelled as someone who cannot be trusted with a secret?

When is the exact time and moment that people tell someone what they know? Will they be believed and will they be taken seriously? Would whoever speaks up become paranoid? Will they be ready for any backlash from friends, colleagues and potentially their employer? How will they cope and what will be the long-term effects?

Below are a few emotions that people who speak up experience and questions which they may want answers to. The following ones are those highlighted as being the feelings that they are most likely to experience:


Telling the truth to someone about another person may make them feel terribly isolated, disloyal, angry, in despair and vulnerable.

Why Me?

People may wonder how they ever found themselves in that position. Those that speak up at work probably complied with all the policies and procedures that were put in place to protect them but they find themselves in a position that they had no other option other than to speak up. It may feel to them  like they are on the outside of the situation looking in on someone else’s. It can be a strange place being caught up in the middle of a situation which they cannot control other than to ‘do the right thing’ and then make a disclosure. It is normally an invidious position to be in.


People may approve, disapprove, support or not support those that speak up. Those that speak up may find that they themselves have an adverse effect on their family as well as their friends. They may think that they are going mad. It can be an extremely stressful time of any-one’s life and one which they would not envisage or want themselves to be in. It is nothing that anyone can really prepare for. Those that speak up may need counselling in the very early stages of the process of having made a disclosure to help them come to terms with what they have done. They should not be afraid or embarrassed to take it.


Those that speak up may feel paranoid – are those that they reported on watching them? What will be the consequences of telling the truth? Will there be any backlash? It is a time when in my experience people wonder whether the organisation that they have made a disclosure about is out to get them.


It may feel easier for people who speak up just to run away but this is not likely to be possible. People have careers, families and financial commitments amongst other things and it really is not feasible for people to disappear and wait for the dust to settle.


They may wake up in the night because they cannot get the situation out of their head. This is a common issue that is faced by those who have yet to speak up and have got to do so. Medication may be the answer for some.

Obsessive Thoughts

They may be constantly thinking about conversations and scenarios (past, present and future). The stress of the situation is relived in people’s minds and it goes round and round in their heads.


Whistle-blowers may obtain snippets of information from friends and colleagues which allow them to piece together their next move. The state of high alert that people find themselves in ensures that they hang onto every word that may be of relevance to the disclosure that they have made.

All the good qualities that they may have had as a person may well disappear as they want those that they have reported on to admit the truth (which they may) and, if they do not, suffer the full consequences. They may wonder whether other colleagues who may have witnessed wrongdoing stand by them. It may be that whatever they say initially in support of the whistle-blower may evaporate as time passes and the wrongdoers curry favour with those left behind.

One of the major problems that people will encounter when faced with the dilemma of what to do concerns who to tell. Do they tell their friends, family, the wrongdoer, colleagues, or even an anonymous whistleblowing hotline or app? Would they perhaps use the media? The first person that they are likely to tell is their partner or a very close and trusted friend. This person may have nothing to do with their work but are someone for them to offload on. Someone that they can trust who will listen and who will be sympathetic – someone to give them advice.

‘There is another way. The right way’

 One of the questions that any would-be whistle-blower might ask themselves – is it worth all the angst and worry compared with their anger and sense of justice should any enquiry prove to be unsuccessful and those that commit the wrongdoing go unpunished? This could be weighed up against the maximum punishment that could be brought against a wrongdoer and a sense of justice be found, ie. will it all be worth it?

My advice to anyone who is thinking about speaking up is know everything about what the process is before embarking on a whistle-blowing journey. What would they want out of it? They have to ask themselves what will realistically happen. Will they be happy with the outcome of an investigation or is it simply enough to know that they have done their bit? They should also make sure that what they do is valid, ie. is it in line with the organisation’s speak-up policy? It may well lead to them questioning their morals, their principles and values, their sanity and their religious beliefs.

With all these questions in people’s minds they may be thinking – what is the point? Nothing appears clear and there is no apparent right or wrong way of getting through the journey. My advice to them is this – look at yourself as a human being. If you can say with 100% certainty that you know what others have done is wrong and regardless of the outcome, you can leave this planet knowing that you were honourable, true to your word and courageous, then do it. Do not do it solely for the benefit of others. Do it so that you can look the wrongdoer in the eye and know that you are right and they are wrong. Once they have determined that they are in that place then making a disclosure will be an inevitability.

To make this happen and see it through to the end they need an appetite: a massive appetite. A desire to let someone know what has happened and then stay the course. Whistle-blowers need a positive outlook, a motivation to ensure that the full facts emerge and the stamina to see it through to the end.


Desire is half the battle. If you think you can, you can. If you think you cannot, you will not. Whistle-blowers need to believe in their own ability to do what they know in their heart is right and indeed that hunger has to come from deep in their soul. Only they know how hungry they are for the truth to be revealed. Only they know what this will mean for other people. They have to put themselves in their shoes. How hungry would they be for someone to have the courage to speak up on their behalf.


The determination to reveal the truth doesn’t just come from those who speak up. There are others who do not even know about the wrongdoing but will give the whistle-blower added determination once they have revealed any wrongdoing. So they have to do not do it just for them but do it for others who have been directly affected as well as for a wider group of people who will want them to do this in the interests of morality, ethics, and justice. No-one wants to see those committing wrongdoing get away with it. Whistle-blowers have to be the one who stands up and who are counted.

Do the Right Thing

How many times throughout history have we seen the domino effect where something begun by just one person turns into an avalanche of claims that uncover wrongdoing on a massive scale. Mark Felt (Richard Nixon), and more recently Christopher Wylie (Facebook/Cambridge Analytica), are examples of how just one person can change the course of history for the better. Without these people the world would have been none the wiser and further cheating, wrongdoing and deceit would have been carried out. Without whistle-blowers there would be unknown continuing victims of sexual abuse, bullying, human trafficking, or breaches of data protection on an industrial scale – and those people would still be suffering.

What motivates them

Why on earth would you want to provide information as a whistle-blower? What would impel you to speak up and provide information about others? The list of reasons as to why people provide information is infinitely long and highly personal to each and every person who does so. They are unique reasons based on that individual’s experience, age, situation, and knowledge.

What have you done recently that you are proud of? Is it helping out a neighbour or guiding an elderly person across the road? It may be something different. Could you help a colleague who is being bullied at work by identifying and providing evidence against the bully to ensure your colleague no longer suffers? Could it be that, by revealing the truth, in years to come someone you helped at work with whom you are no longer in contact thinks of you and thanks you for your selfless act?

The important fact is that those who speak up are motivated to stand up and be counted, instead of looking the other way and not doing anything. It is easy to do nothing, far more difficult to say something. The act of doing good with regard to whistleblowing is not an easy one and is something the vast majority of people would not do. It is generally carried out as a one-off act of bravery. Due to its very nature there are no professional whistle-blowers! Therefore those who decide to speak-up are part of a very small exclusive club. They can have an amazing feeling that they have changed someone’s life by being brave.

‘See evil, feel evil, hear evil. Do something about it’

Listed below are the main reasons that drive people to provide information about others, both in a criminal and in a civil context:


Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong. The vast majority of people know when something is right and when it is not. And everyone knows on a sliding scale where the boundaries are crossed. For example, if you are a passenger travelling in your boss’s car, you would be very unlikely to report them for speeding if they went 5km/h over the limit; however, if they drove at 100km/h an hour that would probably be a completely different situation. Your reaction will depend on your relationship with that person, your position in the company, your age and experience, and your background (have you just had a speeding ticket?). The moral maze is very complicated one and hazardous to navigate.


I know very few people in life who go through their working week without disliking someone. I’m not just talking about a mild dislike, I’m talking about a complete disdain for another human being; someone you dislike because they’ve not been nice to you and whose every action irritates you. It might be someone who you have had to be nice to for a very long time, who keeps getting away with things, knows how to “play the game” and about whom you know that, but for a small amount of digging, someone could find the truth and teach that person a lesson.

‘There is a big difference between knowing the truth and telling it’


You may not be religious in any way. My religion involves having a good heart and faith in humanity. There are good and bad people in every organisation. Having faith is your faith. Believe in what you believe. If your religion tells you that certain things are right or wrong, then that is fine as long as what you believe does not conflict with the law and the policy of your organisation. If this is the case, revealing wrongdoing becomes easier because of your faith. You may benefit from having someone in your faith that you trust and can turn to for advice, and this can be of great value to you. Whistle-blowers can find faith in religion and this may be one of their motivating factors.


Some of those that I have met have honestly got such a kick out of passing on a secret. There is a particular thrill involved in knowing a secret and then telling it to someone. We have all had conversations where a friend says to you …“Psst. Do not tell anyone that bla bla bla”. You then reply, “I promise, I really promise”. Then you meet someone that would like to know what you have to say – you say to them, “Psst. Do not tell anyone. Promise not to tell anyone. I mean promise. Really promise”. You then tell all. How do you know that that person is not going to go and tell someone else? You hope they do not. How will you feel if they tell someone in the same way you did? The secret you have may be very difficult to keep. You want to tell everyone and the excitement when you do, mixed with all the other emotions, will be part of this process.


Loyalty develops slowly over time. It depends on age, experience, trust, rewards, and family. It has to be based on real actions, not phony ones. This is what motivates some that speak up.


Revenge is sweet. It involves getting back at someone who has done you a disservice, or someone or something that has upset you. You do not need any other reason to blow the whistle. You just want the person to know they have been found out and there can be no better reason than that. Whatever you do, always tell the truth and no more. Those that speak up should not embellish the truth to suit their needs as it will come back and bite them. However, tempted they are to tell more than they actually know, just seeing the wrongdoer caught out or undone by their own actions should be satisfaction enough.


Although not a common reason to speak up, it is common enough to feature here. It might be that those who work for an organisation find that nepotism and the old boy network have got to them over the years. They may have been passed over for promotion, side-lined for political reasons, or there has been a complete disregard for their loyalty and service to the organisation, along with very little recognition of the hard work that they have put in. This be their chance to tell the truth and see that person receive some justice. It may well be that they have reached a tipping point on their ‘axis of anger’ and that they have seen someone promoted to a point where they think enough is enough.


Some say this is not the main driver. However, this is nonsense. Wave cold, hard cash in front of people and they will talk. Money matters and money talks. Even if someone initially says they do not want money in return for information, in the vast majority of cases, they will take it if offered. To some people it is their main driver, to others it helps them through the month. Some may even give it to charitable cause.

When offered money, the majority of people find it hard to turn down. Information is very difficult to put a price on – how do you value it? This may depend on the amount, the quality, the nature of the situation, and the risk the whistle-blower took to obtain it? Its value is very subjective. To someone who has nothing, any amount may be seen as huge – to a wealthy businessman, it could be seen as insulting. It is a difficult call to make and few people want to be insulted.

In the criminal world, whistle-blowers pay no tax or national insurance. If you had little income and received a large monetary reward, how would you account for this? How could you spend it safely without friends becoming suspicious? How could you store it safely? The management of reward money is a major factor in keeping whistle-blowers safe and rigorous safeguards are put in place to ensure accountability.

On most occasions, whistle-blowers will have their expenses paid, such as the cost of getting to the venue, telephone calls, perhaps a drink or food when meeting their handler. Large amounts of money are generally paid in stages to avoid suspicion from friends and family as to how they obtained such large payments without seemingly working for them. Large amounts must therefore be risk-assessed so that the whistle-blower is not exposed by having to account for them. Small amounts have to be carefully managed so that, for example, drug users do not potentially overdose on the money they have been given. Oh, if money was simple to manage – the root of all evil and good!

The correct use of money is invaluable in terms of gaining outstanding intelligence. You cannot obtain an insight into the activity of those you are interested in by not paying decent amounts of money.

The vast majority of people have a price. What would yours be? £5, £10, £100, or £1000? Would you exchange information in return for money? What information do you have that someone else would pay money for? Could you accept ‘blue money’? Would it be a step too far? In my experience very few whistle-blowers refuse money – the majority take it. In any case, who cares? As a covert whistle-blower you do not have to tell anyone.

Is money really the root of all evil? Think of the good a well-placed whistle-blower can do. For example, they could:

  • Recover stolen property that is of sentimental value to the owner.
  • Arrest someone who has committed a crime.
  • Reveal a crime.
  • Provide insight into the minds of those who wish to do harm.

How can this be measured? Is it worse to be the informant or the authorities? What you know could be the last, vital piece of information in the intelligence jigsaw. It is all highly subjective, but intrinsically you have to be fair, honest, subject to scrutiny, and full of integrity. The list goes on.

Money is a way of saying thank you. Thank you for your time, thank you for your effort, and thank you for your information. I have never heard someone who manages a whistle-blower say that they have paid too much to someone. If anything, it is normally not enough. The risk people take to pass information on and regularly meet their handler should not be underestimated. The risk of compromise is very real and places whistle-blowers under considerable stress. To be paid small amounts of money on a regular basis – £50, £100 or £150 – is, in my opinion, not worth the gamble. To entrust the authorities with your life is unlikely to be seen as worth the risk. Very few informants I have met have been genuinely satisfied with what they have been given. Everyone always wants more. Authority budgets have been reducing, leading to increased pressure being placed on formal budgets to provide more value for money.

Whistle-blowers will generally never become rich by providing information. The money will help get the car serviced, buy a nice meal, and generally help out with household bills. It is a gesture, no more than that. It is true that some whistle-blowers are given large sums that can make a massive difference, but this is not a common occurrence. Obviously, the more the risk the higher the value of the commodity, and the time saved by the authority is always in favour of the amount paid. The figure is always a round one and never paid until the very last moment. This is for ease of payment and shows that paying for information is not an exact science.

I have known whistle-blowers to be paid considerable amounts that may appear excessive to the public. I can understand the sentiment but, balanced against the time saved trying to catch increasingly sophisticated criminals, I believe this is money well spent. In comparison with not catching people, or even when the authorities are trying to catch people, the rewards paid in relation to the cost to the taxpayer are very small. The press periodically publicise the amount spent on informants, but do not set this against the overall cost of covert policing – a legitimate tactic – and, when used properly, how cost-effective this method of intelligence gathering can be.

‘The challenge is doing the right thing. To ignore is doing the wrong thing’

Having dealt with literally hundreds of whistle-blowers over nearly twenty years I have witnessed similarities in the character of all those who have spoken up. They may have differed massively in their personalities and motivations but those that speak up are in the main strong, humble and determined to do the right thing. Those that provide information over a protracted period of time remain patient and resolute. They are principled, steadfast in their belief that they are right and all take a leap of faith when they decide to speak up. They normally reach an age with a certain amount of experience and life skills when they decide that morally they cannot keep quiet any longer. They normally have a deep sense of justice and are tenacious.

To speak up is not for the fainthearted. They have a sense of intolerance to wrongdoing and a strong sense of self belief in what they disclose is right. They are generally outraged by what they have witnessed and are brave individuals as they know that, if they do it anonymously and should they be identified, then they could suffer repercussions for both their career and personal life.

There are many lessons that can be learnt from those that decide that enough is enough who decide to speak up. In order to help quantify the issues that people face when deciding to speak up I conducted a short survey (Survey Monkey, May 2020). This was based on a sample of 40 people:

  1. Would you speak up if you knew about something that was wrong at work? Yes 95%; 5% No
  2. Have you ever spoken up? Yes 85%; 15% No
  3. Do you think your organisation takes speaking up seriously? Yes 55%; 45% No
  4. Do you think that your position within an organisation matters when deciding whether you would speak up or not? Yes 55%; No 45%
  5. Do you think that people are nowadays more likely to speak up at work if they witness wrongdoing they would have done in the past? Yes 70%’ 30% No

These figures somewhat surprised me. It appears that the vast majority of people have spoken up despite the fact that they don’t believe that the organisation takes speaking up seriously. This then begs the question why do people do it? In my experience the vast majority do it because of the attributes that I have outlined above. A strong sense of right and wrong and an understanding that the person who makes the disclosure will not be able to act as judge and jury, should any investigation result in a ‘guilty’ verdict for those that have committed wrongdoing.

Concluding Thoughts

There are many issues that whistle-blowers face in the 21st century. These haven’t fundamentally changed since people have started telling the truth. People have never wanted to be seen as snitches, grasses or snouts. Holding such a title is not one that attracts many suitors. It carries with it a certain stigma.

Those that speak up worry about being ostracized by their colleagues, losing their career and all that entails. It has never been recommended as a great career move. But the world has fundamentally changed. Certainly, since the outbreak of COVID-19 people have become frustrated with the ‘system’. They realise that by speaking up the world can be changed by people taking a stance against wrongdoing in whatever form it is found.

In the UK speaking up has recently brought to the fore issues such as BLM and lack of PPE in the NHS. Organisations are starting to realise that values that customers and clients hold true are openness, honesty and integrity; that this starts with them feeling empowered as employees; that they both need a voice and have one, too. Social media has enabled those who feel that they have previously not been able to speak up can now do so virtually anonymously via social media platforms.

Organisations that do not allow their staff to speak up run the risk that their employees will speak up outside of their workplace. This may explain why the vast majority of people have stated that they have spoken up and by doing they have done the right thing. It is therefore of concern that the majority of those that took place in the survey did not feel that their organisation took speaking up seriously. That the organisation allowed them to speak up but then didn’t do much about it. That staff feel empowered to speak up but by doing so it became a futile act. That their heroism by speaking up was in fact a worthless exercise. That the characteristics that they display, that the motivation that they have to try and rid their organisation of wrongdoing and that the sense of right and wrong that they feel deep in their fabric is just paid lip service to by their employer.

It therefore follows that speaking up just then becomes a tick box exercise for the organisation. That the whistle-blower finds it within themself to speak up and the organisation appears to have a speak up culture. The heroism of whistle-blowers, with all that entails, should not be devalued by this modern way of some organisations interpreting their own version of a speak up culture.

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After graduating with a BA (Hons) Economics in 1994, Nick Inge joined the UK Police. He soon started recruiting and handling informants, specialising in serious crime, counter-terrorism and corruption. Nick retired from the police in June 2019. Nick is now the CEO of a specialist whistleblowing consultancy, iTrust Assurance Ltd and the Co-founder of a social enterprise Worldly Wise. Nick is also a volunteer Careers and Enterprise Adviser for The Careers and Enterprise Company and the author of two books.

Nick’s first book on whistleblowing can be found here, and his second book can be found here.