In Brief

At a June 10 congressional briefing, psychologists drew from nearly 30 years of psychological research on social systems and organizational abuses to shed light on possible contributors to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib. Among the possible contributors they cited were the pressures of social conformity and compliance with authority.

At the briefing, Steven J. Breckler, PhD, executive director of APA's Science Directorate, and Kevin R. Murphy, PhD, professor and head of the psychology department at Pennsylvania State University, highlighted studies that show:

  • People tend to underestimate how a situation can shape their behavior. For example, in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram, PhD, demonstrated that ordinary people would willingly follow a researcher's orders to administer to a stranger what they believed was an increasingly painful electric shock without questioning the humanity of their actions.

  • Authority and peer pressure can lead people to disregard their actions' potential harm. In 1971, Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, conducted a simulated jail study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Mirroring the Abu Ghraib situation, the Stanford guards--who had no apparent prior psychological problems --became brutal and abusive toward prisoners. People may rationalize such acts by believing that the normal procedure for the institution trumps their own ethical judgments, Murphy said.

So how can people counteract such psychological pulls? Murphy suggested swift, visible leadership intervention as soon as a situation arises, as well as accountability for abusive actions, external investigations and monitoring, and leaders rewarding and protecting whistleblowers.

"We won't ever really get an understanding [of why the abuses happened] if we close the book too quickly," Breckler said. "A deeper understanding can be gained from digging beneath the surface...and bringing the best of what we know from social science to try to understand it."

The briefing was moderated by Heather Kelly, PhD, of APA's Public Policy Office.