How Can Psychological Research in Military Contexts Help Us Prevent Another Abu Ghraib?

Comments delivered by Kevin R. Murphy, PhD
Professor and Head, Department of Psychology
Pennsylvania State University

APA-Sponsored Congressional Science Briefing
"Psychological Science and Abu Ghraib"

Thursday, June 10, 2004

106 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC

Organizational Climate and Culture Factors Influence the Likelihood of Abuse

Bad Barrels vs. Bad Apples

Organizational factors usually have a stronger effect than personal factors (e.g., personality, ethical beliefs) on abusive or illegal activities


Holding organizational units accountable for ends but not for means encourages and rewards corner-cutting

Collective Corruption

  • Rationalization - socially constructed accounts to justify illegal acts
  • Socialization - newcomers are taught to perform or tolerate corrupt acts
  • Institutionalization - acts become routine 

Reversing Normalization of Corrupt Practices

  • Very difficult for individuals within the organization to reverse entrenched corruption
  • Usually requires external shock - e.g., media exposure
  • Accountability for means as well as ends is critical

Research on Dishonesty, Rule-Breaking and Crime in Organizations

People who knowingly break the rules almost always think they are doing the right thing

Most instances of corporate corruption involve large numbers of active or passive participants - rarely the result of a few bad apples

Perceptions of informal norms is a strong determinant of rule-breaking

Leadership issues

Modeling ethical behaviors is important

Rewarding, condoning or ignoring illegal acts greatly increases the likelihood that they will occur and become part of the culture of the organization

Swift and visible leadership action early in the cycle of collective corruption can be effective, but leaders have a difficult time influencing subordinate behavior if abuse becomes institutionalized

Communication from high-level officers to leaders closer to the action (e.g., lower-level officers, non-commissioned officers) is critical. Shop-floor visibility makes a substantial difference


Abuse does not typically result from lack of knowledge of the rules and procedures

Training should focus on

  • Skills for violating pressure to break the rules
  • Ethical awareness
  • Respond effectively when abuse is witnessed

Research on Whistle-Blowers

Whistle blowers are usually shunned and punished by the organization

Visible support and protection for whistle- blowers from organizations is important

Establishing reliable and safe methods for people to report violations is important