Science Public Policy News

Abu Ghraib: Informing Congress About the Science

"How can Psychological Research in Military Contexts Help us Prevent Another Abu Ghraib?" highlighted the study of organizations, and the military in particular.

By Heather O'Beirne Kelly

One of the goals of APA's Public Policy Office is to bring relevant psychological science to bear on issues of national concern. On Thursday, June 10th, science policy staff organized an APA Congressional Briefing on Capitol Hill to educate a target audience of congressional staff and federal agency personnel about psychological research related to the recent incidents in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Two distinguished psychological scientists spoke at the briefing: social psychologist Steve Breckler (APA's Executive Director for Science) and I/O psychologist Kevin Murphy (Head of the Department of Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University). In his talk, "How can the Science of Human Behavior Help us Understand Abu Ghraib?", Breckler gave an overview of the social psychological principles relevant to the prisoner abuse situation. Drawing on decades of research on the power of the situation to influence and shape behavior and on the stability of individual personalities, Breckler discussed the relevance of findings on social conformity, compliance, obedience to authority, individual differences, and factors that mitigate responses to social influence.

Murphy's presentation, "How can Psychological Research in Military Contexts Help us Prevent Another Abu Ghraib?", highlighted the study of organizations, and the military in particular. Murphy focused on how our knowledge about organizational climate and cultural factors, end-accountability, collective corruption, leadership, training, and whistle-blowing can be effectively transferred into military contexts to impact prevention of further incidents and intervention following such events.

The briefing drew a large crowd of more than 100 people, even in the midst of unusual week in Washington during which former President Reagan lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. APA has since received a request from the US Army's Materiel Command to provide information from the briefing that might inform the official investigation of the incidents at Abu Ghraib. More information is available from the Science Policy Insider News Journal.