top of page

"The Role of Morality in Reporting Indiscretions" by David J. Guariglia

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

The Role of Morality in Reporting Indiscretions

David J. Guariglia, Dominican University New York

Abstract: In this study, a benign behavioral intervention investigates the variables of fairness and empathy in participants’ moral reactions and willingness to “snitch” or report. An initial pilot study that tested whether a student was likely to whistle blow on cheating suggested that participants were more likely to keep it to themselves (75% said they would not report). Based on this pilot, a set of narrative scenarios were created to test the role of empathy and fairness in reporting behavior. Participants were presented with one of four different narrative scenarios and asked how they would respond. The first scenario tested the variable of empathy: after reading a description of a situation of verbal harassment, participants were asked whether they would report the verbal harassment to an authority figure. The second scenario was identical except for one detail: the victim of the verbal harassment was someone they knew. The third scenario tested fairness by asking participants whether they would tell on students who were cheating in class. The fourth scenario was identical to the third except for one detail: it was specified that future scholarship and prestigious graduate school opportunities were at stake. The overall hypothesis predicted that participants would respond to their given scenarios with either fairness or empathy in cases where a personal connection formed after reading and that this would provoke action. More specifically, the researcher hypothesized that participants who received scenarios two and four, where a personal relationship or personal stakes were involved, would be more likely to report than those who received scenarios one and three. The results of the calculated test were statistically significant indicating that fairness and empathy play a role in morality.


While reporting behavior can be described as snitching, whistleblowing, or reporting, the terms are not interchangeable and carry significant differences in connotation. The definition of the term “snitch” is to inform or tattletale on someone else: the word has a negative connotation in society. Crocker (1912)defines snitching as a connection of themselves or a group to the trouble in question. Snitching is not typically a goal for individuals as it is seen as a social crime against their own communities. It creates a temporary socioemotional barrier between both the snitch and the victim that can prevent future communication. For example, in the American Bar Association Journal, Smith (2008) describes snitching as a mentality of inherent distrust of the government’s protection from the backlash of one’s community. To snitch is to utilize one’s own morality in the absence of an authority figure who is then placed at risk for their decision within that community.

By contrast, whistleblowing carries a positive connotation because it indicates advocacy for societal justice. Ordinary civilians whistle blow to prevent crime and uphold standards set by both themselves and the government. In “Whistleblowing,” Ting (2008) reveals whistleblowers are legally protected by the government upholding the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. Whistleblowers are held in higher regard than snitches as there is a subconscious universally recognized confidence that is perceived in speaking out against an observed injustice. The United States Department of Justice and Department of Labor uphold laws for whistleblowers to speak out against the corrupt internal practices by filing complaints to the Federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) Offices by state. Both whistleblowers and snitches report unethical behavior, yet they are evaluated differently under the societal expectations of their communities.

Reporting indiscretions is the action of reporting any form of behavior that includes variables of empathy and fairness. Reporting indiscretions is the most neutral term of the three and allows room for a middle ground. To report an indiscretion is to meet the societal threshold in which a sociological observation becomes a physical action guided by morality. Trevino and Victor (1992) report indiscretions as when a peer goes outside their level of comfort to report another member’s misconduct. This very same vocal expression of morality and the physical necessity of fairness becomes strengthened by ideations of equitable treatment for everyone and social acceptance by everyone. It is essential that each of these terms are defined in an effort to understand how reporting behavior affects morality.

The Pillars of Morality

As noted by the primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal, fairness and empathy are regarded as the twin pillars of morality. Both pillars of morality investigate the levels of treatment expressed between different members of the same community. According to Frans de Waal (2003) fairness requires a biological understanding whereas empathy requires an emotional reasoning when investigating morality. A single study conducted by Frans de Waal and Brosnan (2003) entitled “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay” suggests the biological and sociological factors of morality are connected to the concept of inequality. The study showed this by giving two different capuchin monkeys two different incentives for completing the same task of returning a rock for the reward of food (Brosnan & De Waal, 2003). As a result, the monkey receiving the new incentive of the grape was satisfied, whereas the other monkey receiving the old incentive of the slice of cucumber was dissatisfied. Both pillars—fairness and empathy—served as fundamental factors when exploring morality.

The Pillar of Fairness

De Waal anchors the pillar of fairness in biology and evolution. The biological basis of fairness was derived from The Kin Selection Theory and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The Kin Selection Theory determines fairness by a species genotype, phenotype, and social interaction. According to this theory, the largest animals would succeed, and the smallest animals would fail to survive. Michod (1982) identifies that a species behavioral phenotype influences their overall level of fitness and social interaction. Fairness was ensured in the wild through the animal hierarchy and the food chain as a direct result of kin selection. Reproduction between two different species required altruistic behaviors for greater chances of evolution. Wilson (2005) further states that genes are responsible for predisposing species to altruistic behaviors. Thus, fairness has a biological basis rooted in the evolutionary aspects of altruism and socialization.

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution hypothesizes that the most advantageous traits are passed on, thus ensuring the survival of the fittest. Howerth (1917) extends this point and argues that for natural selection to take place there must be an organic world, variational environments, and a struggle for existence. This would indicate that fairness was directly rooted in morality through survival and competition between species. Furthermore, species may alter in their physical appearance and genetics, but they all share the chance for variation during their evolution if the species survival is under threat (Beatty, 1984). The evolutionary aspects of variation and survival are instinctual characteristics of fairness. Thus, the pillar of fairness requires a scientific biological explanation of morality, while the pillar of empathy describes a more intimate social connection.

The Pillar of Empathy

The pillar of empathy is rooted in the cognitive connection between individuals. The sociological effect empathy has on morality can be observed when applying the concept of reciprocity and the Machiavellian justification principle. Hartley (2014) defines the concept of reciprocity as producing balanced exchanges to sustain advantageous relations. Hence, to show empathy means that someone else would have to feel empathy in reciprocating emotions. Decety and Cowell (2014) argue that an aspect of empathy called emotional contagion is a fundamental role which generates motivation to care for those in distress. In addition, empathy encourages action after observation as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) becomes activated after observing individuals in distress or pain (Decety & Cowell, 2014). Thus, empathy proves fundamental in turning observation into action.

The Machiavellian justification principle asserts that the ends always justify the means. Burgoon et al. (1972) define a Machiavellian as one who uses others for his own purpose. Empathy can be used selfishly because for someone to succeed that means others must lose. Achievement and morality clash when striving for success, yet the risk taken for those goals must be balanced with the reward. Burgoon et al. (1972) explain that the goals for success are set by the individual’s underlying personality. One study (Johnson, 1981) of the factors that influence reporting suggests that high-need achievers in school are more concerned with cheating and success than low-need achievers. Empathy was an important factor in transforming observation into action, but Johnson (1981) found that the type of action can waiver from good to bad. This information proves consistent when considering the role of morality in reporting indiscretions.

The Present Study

This study investigates the role of empathy and fairness in decisions to report unethical or unkind behavior. The sample included 94 undergraduate university students. The material presented to the students included a packet with a demographic questionnaire, brief scenario, several closed-ended questions, and one open-ended question. The results were examined by utilizing a statistical two-sample t-test.



Participants were students from the Human Subject Pool System (approximately 94 participants) of a small university. Participants indicated their consent to participate in deceptive research on the Human Subject Pool System’s Pretest that they would participate in future deceptive studies. Participants were led to believe the study was about the effect helpfulness had on academic achievement. The goal of this experiment was to test what triggered a participant’s moral intervention by studying the variables of fairness and empathy. The researcher hypothesized that participants who received scenarios two and four where a personal relationship or personal stakes were involved would be more likely to report than those who received scenarios one and three. Both variables of empathy and fairness each had two independent conditions in which one condition included a control, and one condition included an experimental variable. The study thus included four different possible conditions to test participant's morality.

Empathy Conditions

The first condition tested the variable of empathy by testing to see whether someone would report verbal harassment to an authority figure. This empathy condition should test the initial gut-response of participants and serve as a form of control variable for empathy. The second condition involved the same scenario, but it was manipulated by specifying that the victim receiving the verbal harassment was someone that they knew. It was hypothesized that this condition would manipulate participants to answer "Likely" in reporting this activity to an authority figure.

Fairness Conditions

The third condition tested fairness by asking participants whether they would tell on students who were cheating in class. This fairness condition should test the initial gut-response of participants and serve as a form of control variable for fairness. The fourth condition involved the same scenario, but it was manipulated by specifying that the quizzes people were cheating on would help them with future scholarship opportunities in addition to granting them prestigious graduate school opportunities. It was hypothesized that this experimental condition of fairness would manipulate participants’ responses in making them feel more inclined to report this to an authority figure.

Rating Conditions

The purpose of this study was to test how fairness and empathy affect morality. Each of the participants in the study would only read one condition and then score their responses on that single condition. There was a total of four different conditions. Two conditions asked about fairness and two conditions asked about empathy. A questionnaire was added to determine the local demographic of this study’s participants. A 7-point Likert-Scale was used to test the likelihood each participant would either snitch or remain silent. The open-response section was added to further investigate additional factors of reporting indiscretions. The larger impact of this study was to help identify a moral line of demarcation for what causes passive observers to stay silent or tell on the transgressor.

Safety & Confidentiality

Each of the participants’ remained anonymous. Participants were assigned a number label (1-94), and their responses were labeled with this identifying number in compliance with the university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Only the student’s demographic, closed-ended, and open-ended responses were reviewed and assessed. In further attempting to protect the well-being and safety of the university’s students, each of the participants received, read, and acknowledged a debriefing form at the end of the experiment.


The measures of this experiment involved a standard 7-point Likert Scale that served as a functional rating system that measures beliefs, opinions, and attitudes on the given conditions of empathy and fairness. In addition, participants were asked to provide a circled handwritten close-ended response. A large space was also provided for handwritten open-ended responses to further explain their reasoning. The demographic questionnaire asked participants about their race, gender, and age as a tool for investigating external validity and any possible limitations of the experiment relative to its accuracy in sample diversity.


Participants were asked to voluntarily provide information regarding their age, gender, and ethnicity through a questionnaire before the experiment. The average age of each participant was approximately 20 years old. The gender demographic of participants consisted of 58 females, 36 males, and 1 self-identified as other. Participant racial demographic was as follows: 47 White, 19 Black or African American, 8 Multiple/Mixed, and 12 Asian. A total of 54 participants were non-Hispanic, while 41 participants of that same sample were Hispanic.



A two-sample t-test (pooled variance) was utilized as the statistical test when comparing both the empathy group and the fairness group in testing morality. The results of the calculated test identified that there was a statistical significance between the averages of both independent variables being investigated. A two-sample t-test was used because two or more variable’s data were being compared. This test determined whether the two pillars of morality played a role in participant’s responses to the scenario.

The sample size consisted of 94 total participants that were split evenly into two groups of 47 participants per variable. In the fairness scenarios, the experimental condition had a sample average of 2.54 whereas the controlled condition had a sample average of 2.24. In the empathy scenarios, the experimental condition had a sample average of 5.25 whereas the controlled condition had a sample average of 5.55. These sample averages between both variable’s conditions suggest that empathy and fairness were not significant in testing morality. Yet, when the variables averages were compared against each other the data was statistically significant. The total sample average of both empathy conditions was 5.42 whereas the total sample average for both fairness conditions was 2.38. Participants objectively understood what actions were good and bad, but they had subjectively decided whether to partake in that condition’s manipulated form of social involvement.

The results suggest that the moral line exists at the point an individual decides to physically act based upon the moral standards intrinsically determined by themselves and extrinsically reinforced by society. In conclusion, the participants given scenarios one and two testing the variable of empathy were more than 50% more likely to report an indiscretion compared to those participants given scenarios three and four for the variable of fairness. This can be interpreted as empathy being a stronger predictor for reporting indiscretions than fairness. These results suggest that there was not a correlation between the manipulated and controlled conditions, but rather between the variables themselves.


The results of this experiment suggest that fairness and empathy do play a role in the decision to report an indiscretion. Empathy was more likely to trigger the action of reporting an indiscretion than fairness. This suggests people are more likely to act when they can empathize with other people. Empathy’s impact on morality remains unclear as there are many plausible explanations involved in describing its role in the decision-making process.

Empathy could be considered a stronger predictor for morality in reporting indiscretions due to Hoffman’s theory of empathy and moral development. This theory mainly encompasses the factors of empathy involved in human arousal including direct association, mediated association, and role-taking. Direct association is an emotional connection the observer makes with the distressed stranger. Krzesni (2015) explains that direct association is when the observer associates a similar experience directly to their current situation with feelings of empathy. It is not merely the sight of the distressed person or the situation but the visceral feelings and emotions that follow, urging the body to act morally.

Mediated association causes empathetic arousal in the form of a verbal expression of pain and discomfort. This level of empathy creates a call for action in which the surrounding area was made aware of the cry for help. Observers who process this information may feel empathetic distress and act in response to the verbalization of the victim. The act of real physical harm against the victim becomes surreal and other emotions surface depending on whether the victim was helped or hurt. Guilt is most associated within the process of reciprocal altruism and serves as a form of intrinsic motivation (Krzesni, 2015). Mediated association describes the process to act with intentional purpose, without expectation.

Role-taking is the process of understanding how someone else may feel and in that moment reciprocating those same emotions. This can be practiced in many different settings and form an emotional connection and understanding between two or more people. Hoffman states that empathetic distress motivates prosocial and helping behaviors that are associated with feelings of guilt (as cited in Krzesni, 2015). There must be an intrinsic desire for an observer to act altruistically, evoked by the internal empathetic arousal response.


The study had several limitations related to its construction. The study was based on a convenience sampling of participants taken from the Human Subject Pool System of a small university. This method of sampling is both time and cost-efficient, but it is a biased method of sampling as it is not reflective of an actual population. Another limitation is the demographic that was offered as most of the students were predominantly white and female.

The conditions of empathy and fairness were presented in two different settings: one set of scenarios was set in a school environment while the other set of scenarios was set in a real-world setting. This may have produced a confounding factor. In hindsight, each variable should be controlled for the same external variables to avoid bias and the creation of confounding variables. In addition to the type of setting, the deception that was used within the study of academic helpfulness could account for intentional outliers or skewed data. Both closed and open-ended responses were helpful but would not necessarily reflect whether that person would perform those actions listed on the survey.

The methods for collecting the data included a mixed methods approach as the survey was distributed in one of three ways: handed out personally by the researcher, handed out by the professors, or provided within a digital format. Some of these methods for data collection provided an incentive for the participant’s participation by receiving psychology research credits and others included gift cards or potential extra credit opportunities if applicable. If these limitations were moderated throughout the entirety of the experiment, it would provide an even greater statistical significance in explaining not only empathy and fairness but also accurately measure the manipulations.

Future Research Directions

This study investigated the role of morality in reporting indiscretions. Overall, this study lacked a large and representative sample size. Future studies could expand both the size of the participant pool and the demographic. In promoting diversity, the experiment should have offered research credits not only in psychology classes but in all majors to promote both inclusion and diversity when collecting data. In developing the framework of the survey, the instrument should have asked follow-up questions to record both their initial response to the condition and then the change after the experimental condition. Stronger deception would have avoided false responses and could have provided more accurate data. These future research directions are an accumulation of very small errors that could more accurately be accounted for in the future.


The societal law or demarcation that makes a passive individual into a snitch, whistleblower, or reporter is action. The line for morality in reporting indiscretions is not enough to mouth words of injustice or develop feelings of empathy without revealing their true intention. In conclusion, the role of morality in reporting indiscretions occurs when thoughts become action. This experiment’s data concludes that participants are 50% more likely to speak out against an injustice due to empathy rather than fairness.


Beatty, J. (1984). Chance and natural selection. Philosophy of Science, 51(2), 183–211.

Brazil, K. J., Volk, A. A., & Dane, A. V. (2023). Is empathy linked to prosocial and antisocial traits and behavior? It depends on the form of empathy. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 55(1), 75–80.

Brosnan, S. F., & de Waal, F. B. M. (2003). Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature, 425(6955), 297–299.

Burgoon, M., Miller, G. R., & Tubbs, S. L. (1972). Machiavellianism, justification, and attitude change following counterattitudinal advocacy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22(3), 366–371.

Crocker, W. N. (1912). “Snitching.” The Journal of Education, 75(15 (1875)), 415–416.

Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). Friends or foes: Is empathy necessary for moral behavior? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 525–537.

Devitt, J. K. (2015). Principles for protecting whistleblowers. In Speaking Up Safely Civil Society Guide To Whistleblowing: Middle East And North Africa Region (pp. 13–19). Transparency International.

Hartley, C. (2014). Two conceptions of justice as reciprocity. Social Theory and Practice, 40(3), 409–432.

Howerth, I. W. (1917). Natural selection and the survival of the fittest. The Scientific Monthly, 5(3), 253–257.

Johnson, P. B. (1981). Achievement motivation and success: Does the end justify the means? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 374–375.

Keum, S., & Shin, H.-S. (2019). Genetic factors associated with empathy in humans and mice. Neuropharmacology, 159, 107514.

Krzesni, D. (2015). Empathy. Counterpoints, 503, 33–54.

Michod, R. E. (1982). The theory of kin selection. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 13, 23–55.

Pan, B., Garandeau, C. F., Li, T., Ji, L., Salmivalli, C., & Zhang, W. (2023). The dynamic associations between social dominance goals and bullying from middle to late childhood: The moderating role of classroom bystander behaviors. Journal of Educational Psychology, 115(2), 349–362.

Quintana, D. S., Rokicki, J., van der Meer, D., Alnæs, D., Kaufmann, T., Córdova-Palomera, A., Dieset, I., Andreassen, O. A., & Westlye, L. T. (2019). Oxytocin pathway gene networks in the human brain. Nature Communications, 10(1).

Smith, B. L. (2008). Keeping a “snitch” from being scratched: Witness intimidation is gaining even as the murder rate declines. ABA Journal, 94(12), 20–21.

Ting, M. M. (2008). Whistleblowing. The American Political Science Review, 102(2), 249–267.

Trevino, L. K., & Victor, B. (1992). Peer reporting of unethical behavior: a social context perspective. The Academy of Management Journal, 35(1), 38–64.

United States Department of Labor. (2019). The Whistleblower Protection Programs | Whistleblower Protection Program.

Whistleblower Rights and Protections | U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. (n.d.).

Wilson, E. O. (2005). Kin selection as the key to altruism: its rise and fall. Social Research, 72(1), 159–166.


bottom of page