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June 10th Congressional Briefing on Abu Ghraib

Heather OBeirne Kelly
APA Science Policy

One of the goals of APAs Public Policy Office is to bring relevant psychological science to bear on issues of national concern. On Thursday, June 10, 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, PhD (APAs Executive Director for Science) and I-O psychologist Kevin Murphy, PhD (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. 

Steve Breckler discusses relevant psychological research on individual and group behavior

Murphys 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. 

Kevin Murphy discusses relationships between organizational factors and individual behavior.

The briefing drew a large crowd, even in the midst of an unusual week in Washington during which former President Reagan lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. Rep. Ted Strickland, a psychologist in the U.S. House of Representatives and a former consultant to a correctional facility, planned to make remarks at the APA briefing but was unable to attend due to changes in the congressional schedule. More information can be found at http://www.apa.org/ppo/issues/abughraibbrief04.html.


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