Organizations as Psychic Prisons

The Organizational Theorist Gareth Morgan first published his book ‘Images of Organizationin 1986, in which, through the prism of eight metaphors, he attempts to describe the nature and complexities of organizations. A metaphor is a “figure of speech which makes an implied comparison between things which are not literally alike” (Webster, 1961). Morgan also uses the related literary devices of allegory and analogy to illustrate his theories. One such powerful metaphor is that of ‘The Psychic Prison’.

Introducing Plato’s ‘Cave’ allegory, where confined prisoners cannot conceptualize the outside world, the author contends that people can become “imprisoned in” organizations through conscious and unconscious processes which have been created during formative phases and varied human experiences in their lives. The implications of these phenomena for organizations and the repercussions for individuals can be serious and profound; leading to negative outcomes for society as a whole and these issues require in-depth research, description and management for progressive development of both organizations and people.

For example, the phenomenon of groupthink in organizations is of crucial significance. It occurs when organizational, social and cultural traps develop in groups, fostering a sense of “assumed consensus” (even in the face of contradictory evidence), alienating dissenting opinions, retarding problem-solving, inhibiting the expression of doubts and suppressing the conception, discussion and action of alternate options. Decision-making becomes skewed in such a scenario and can lead to negative, unethical or disastrous results. A prime example of groupthink is the recent financial crisis in Ireland where banking institutions and the Department of Finance believed in the “efficiency of financial markets” (Nyberg Report, 2011) to regulate themselves which ultimately proved detrimental to the entire nation.

The origin of ‘The Psychic Prison’ phenomenon is traced to the human unconscious. Morgan describes a (non-exhaustive) list of psychological factors which contribute to the differing nature of relationships that people have with organizations, including theories of sexuality, family dynamics, mortality, anxiety and other,  more obtuse hypotheses (such as ‘artefacts’, ‘archetypes’ and ‘shadows’) which have been propounded by renowned experts including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. He concludes his dissertation by highlighting several strengths and limitations of the metaphor and praises the window of “critical thinking and awareness” of organizational issues that it opens while acknowledging that its complexity does not make it conducive to providing any “easy answers and solutions to problems” for managers.


Department of Finance (2011). Commission of Investigation into the Banking Sector, Misjudging Risk: Causes of the Systemic Banking Crisis In Ireland (Nyberg Report). [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 31 Mar. 2012].

Morgan, G. (1997). Images of Organization. 2nd edition. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.

Webster’s (1966). Webster’s Dictionary. 3rd edition. Springfield, Massachusetts, USA: Merriam-Webster.

About Adam Byrne

Freelance Entrepreneur
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5 Responses to Organizations as Psychic Prisons

  1. michael coughlan says:

    Hi Adam.

    Well done on the paid contract from the on campus business.

    Michael Coughlan.

  2. attilio marchi says:

    Hi Adam
    I have some problem to understand the theory about psychic prison.
    I look for something simple in internet but is very difficult.
    I work in a company and I discovered this concept.
    In my opinion means that when we work for a long time in the same company we don’t be able to be objective, I try to see all through our experience that we have received from our organization and this is one point of view no more.
    It is true?
    Or is the situation in which is difficult to try new solutions, ideas because we have always done something in the same way so it very hard to change method?

    • Adam Byrne says:

      Hello Attilio,

      Many thanks for your comment and I hope all is well with you in Italy.

      In my opinion the Psychic Prison Metaphor can be applied quite broadly to the complicated relationships that manifest between organizations and individuals so I think it’s correct to say that both the examples you gave are valid and possible.

      Gareth Morgan created the metaphor by reference to the work of many experts (eg. Freud, Jung) from varied disciplines (psychology, sociology, etc.) so I think it can be applied and understood in many different ways.

      Have you seen the slides I made to accompany this short essay? They might help you with futher understanding.

      They can be found here:

      Also, I would definitely recommend getting a copy of Gareth Morgan’s book ‘Images of Organization’ – it will be very helpful to you with further understanding of the complex nature of organizations and how they interact with people.

      Best of luck, greetings from Antigua!


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