Introduction and Preamble to the APA Ethics Code for Psychologists

Introduction and Preamble to the APA Ethics Code for Psychologists


Readings on Ethics for Psychologists

APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct
Rules and Procedures
APA’s council adopts a new Ethics Code
10 ways practitioners can avoid frequent ethical pitfalls

Read the APA Ethics Code – Introduction
Read the APA Ethics Code – Preamble

Notes on Ethics

So, why do we have an ethics code? Having an Ethical Code is what establishes our field as a profession. In having an ethical code, we are stating an expectation for our own behavior, and taking actions to enforce the rules ourselves for our own kind. In doing so, we make ourselves responsible for our field and the actions of our members. This makes us like a guild or union.

However, using a method of reasoning and decision-making that has as its basis the welfare of others and a dedication to knowledge and truth, we hold ourselves to a “higher level of reasoning,” which differentiates us from a simple collection of specialists or a guild/union.

Some have argued that the code is less forceful, and presents some of the ethical requirements of psychologists as “should make reasonable efforts to” instead of “is required to,” and that this makes our ethics code more “wishy washy.” The problem is that our code can not cover every situation definitively, but instead must offer guidelines we learn to incorporate into new situations. Others point out that if we take a “risk management” approach, we end up focusing only on problems and their prevention, rather than real ethical thinking. Consider the question, “Is it ethical to…?” and the reply of, “Well, technically….” Being overly concerned with the “rules” prevents us from going beyond individual situations and issues, to thinking about the larger issues and the context in which they exist.

What Are Ethics? How Do Psychologists Behave Ethically?

Vasquez (Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 23(3), 196-202)
Rest (Counseling Psychologist, 12, 19-29)
Kitchner (Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 23(3) 190-195)

Vasquez suggests the following process, and notes we both do this process ourselves, and model this process for others. He cites Rest’s four steps to being ethical people.

Ethical Step I: We must be able to

  • perceive a situation,
  • take on different roles and perspectives, and
  • show forethought and empathy for the consequences that will result.

Ethical Step II: We must review the options open to us and decide which is the most ethical or right. What guides us in this? The Principles of the APA code are a starting point, but personal values can add to this. Kitchner suggests several more:

  • Beneficence
    We must be guided by efforts to help others. Our statements should be accurate and our methods up-to-date ( competency), and we would understand power differences in relationships
  • Nonmaleficence If we can not help, we must “above all, do no harm.” This would preclude sexual or other harmful dual role relationships, breaking confidentiality, and serving others when our personal functioning compromised our work
  • Justice or Fairness
    We balance the needs of one against the needs of many. This would include our role in public policy, duty to warn others of risk for harm, and taking responsibility to police our own
  • Autonomy
    We respect the individual’s right to choose, allowing others to make what we think are mistakes, and providing information to make informed decisions
  • Integrity
    We must behave with a sense of honesty, and work to build trust; this means advertising and billing fairly, affirming others’ worth as people, and making statements that others can trust without having to question our motives
  • Fidelity
    We must keep our word, and live up to the responsibilities we accept. Thus, we don’t abandon clients when they can’t pay

Ethical Step III: Next, we must decide on a course of action. Personal values come into play here, as well as legal issues, ethical reasoning, and personal motivations.

Ethical Step IV: Finally, once we make a decision, we must carry it through. This may mean unforeseen sacrifices or difficulties, but we carry through on our decisions. This is a difficult process sometimes, and there may not always be a “right” or an “easy” answer. That’s why the fourth step is there, because we must carry out the plans we make and continue to work with them, acknowledging mistakes, and accepting responsibility for the consequences.

If there’s anything that you learn from an ethics class that forms a core part of ethical reasoning, it should be “Consult, consult, consult,” and then “Document, document, document.” Consulting helps you foresee things you would miss on your own, consider other ideas about how to handle ethical problems, and benefit from others’ experience. Documenting allows you to “cover your butt” in some ways, as well as challenges you to think clearly and completely about your decisions, recognizing the risks that are being addressed and the issues that remain before you act.

On the pages that follow you will find the text of the Ethical Code, related entries from the Illinois State lawbooks, links to information from the American Psychological Association, and notes on the subsections of the Ethical Standards.

Why Do Psychologists Make Ethical Mistakes?

there are many examples of bad ethical judgment. You will read some and say to yourself, “I would never be so stupid as to do that.” Sometimes unethical behavior is the result of stupidity and unprofessionalism, and we do hope you would never act for these reasons. However, sometimes it stems from more complex reasons. Koocher and Keith-Spiegel offer the following:

  • Lack of Awareness: more complaints have been filed against psychologists who did not have an ethics course in their graduate program and who are isolated from their colleagues, than against psychologists who took an ethics course and consult with peers
  • Lack of Competency: sometimes people are incompetent, but sometimes clinical issues require extensive knowledge of new information and decision-making skills based on special education
  • Insensitivity: sometimes people behave in ways that are insensitive and really don’t realize it. Heightening their awareness often is enough to alter their behavior
  • Exploitive Actions: sometimes psychologists act in exploitive ways to generate referrals and business, and their motives are not focused on ethics at all
  • Irresponsible Behavior: sometimes psychologists do make bad decisions, sometimes under distress and sometimes not. At other times, they might make better decisions
  • Vengefulness: some of the examples you’ll read reflect simple vengefulness and uncontrolled anger. Hopefully you will not be like this either, but psychologists in emotional distress sometimes do unhealthy things. Ethically you are charged to be aware of your own impairment and seek help as needed, make plans to check the appropriateness of your work, and put your client’s needs as paramount during the therapy session
  • Fearfulness: May said that it is a peculiar habit of humans to run faster when they become lost. This is true of psychologists too; sometimes we make even worse decisions after making bad ones out of fear of being caught and punished, or fear of disapproval
  • Slip Ups: sometimes a casual word suddenly breaks confidentiality, a simple effort to take a break from work ends up in abandoning a client in an emergency, and a simple failure to plan ahead results in failure to cover clinical responsibilities. Rare events do happen, and you’ll find yourself in the same boat one day