Many different professions – doctors, attorneys, and teachers among them – are governed by a code of ethics. Likewise, psychologists must practice in an ethical manner to ensure the safety of their clients and deliver the best possible services to their clients.
But what does it mean to practice ethically?
The American Psychological Association developed the APA Code of Ethics to answer this very question.
Let’s examine the APA Code of Ethics in more detail.
What is the American Psychological Association?
Before we can explore the Code of Ethics, it’s important to know the organization behind them.
Founded in 1892, the APA is one of the oldest professional organizations for psychologists in the world.
According to its website, the mission of the APA is to “promote the advancement, communication, and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives.”
To achieve this goal, the APA seeks to use psychological principles to make a positive impact on society; elevate the public’s understanding of and use for psychology; prepare psychology and its practitioners for the future; and strengthen the APA’s standing as an authority in the field of psychology.
But for all this to occur, those working in the field of psychology must understand how to practice ethically. Thus the Code of Ethics was born.
What is the APA Code of Ethics?
The APA Code of Ethics establishes rules of conduct for psychologists in a professional setting.
The first edition of the Code of Ethics was published in 1953 in response to the ever-increasing roles of psychologists in the public space.
To develop the Code of Ethics, the APA asked psychologists to submit instances in which they felt they were faced with an ethical dilemma. These situations were reviewed by a select committee that was tasked with organizing these dilemmas into broad themes.
The original Code of Ethics was 170 pages in length, though it has been revised nine times over the years, the most recent of which was in 2010.
What began as a collection of broad themes has developed into specific principles and standards by which psychologists must abide.
APA Code of Ethics Core Principles
The APA Code of Ethics is driven by five core principles that outline the expected behavior of practitioners.
Technically speaking, the Code of Ethics only applies to psychologists who are also members of the APA. However, these guidelines are followed by a wide range of professionals in the mental health field. What’s more, state licensure requires applicants to be bound by a specific code of ethics.
Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
This principle revolves around the idea of doing no harm to one’s clients. Psychologists are expected to strive to protect the welfare and the rights of their clients while also seeking to minimize factors that might cause them to use their influence in an inappropriate fashion. What’s more, this principle outlines that “psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical and mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work.”
In other words, psychologists have an ethical obligation to their clients to take care of themselves such that they can provide the best possible care to their clients.
Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility
Psychologists are expected to “uphold professional standards of conduct, clarify their professional roles and obligations, accept appropriate responsibility for their behavior, and seek to manage conflicts of interest that could lead to exploitation or harm.”
Furthermore, this principle dictates that psychologists consult with other professionals and institutions to ensure they are able to meet the needs of their clients. It is also asked of psychologists to “contribute a portion of their professional time for little or no compensation or personal advantage.”
Principle C: Integrity
Being accurate, honest, and truthful is a central tenet of the APA Code of Ethics. More specifically, psychologists are forbidden from stealing, cheating, engaging in fraud or subterfuge, or intentionally misrepresenting facts.
However, this principle does outline parameters for when deception can be used – it must be “ethically justifiable to maximize benefits and minimize harm.” In other words, the benefits of the deception must outweigh the costs.
Principle D: Justice
This principle posits that all people deserve equal access to quality psychological care. Additionally, psychologists are asked to examine their own blind spots or personal biases, understand the boundaries of their competence, and to undertake an honest examination of the limits of their expertise so as to avoid providing or condoning unjust practices.
Principle E: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity
First and foremost, this principle demands that psychologists recognize and respect the dignity and worth of all people. Each individual has a right to “privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination” that must be protected.
Furthermore, this principle notes that psychologists should be aware of and have respect for differences based on “age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, natural origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status.” Likewise, psychologists are expected to consider these factors and seek to eliminate the effect of any biases they might have based on these factors.
APA Code of Ethics Professional Standards
As noted earlier, the original APA Code of Ethics was created after a committee organized common ethical situations into various broad groups.
Today, the Code of Ethics contains professional standards in ten distinct areas, each of which has multiple subsections that provide insight into how the standard is applied.
Below are the ten standards with an example of each standard’s application in practice. Please note that this is not a comprehensive list of all the ways in which these standards can be applied – it is just a sampling.
- Resolving Ethical Issues – Section 1.07 prohibits psychologists from filing or encouraging others to file ethics complaints that are “made with reckless disregard for or willful ignorance of facts that would disprove the allegation.” For example, a psychologist cannot file an ethics complaint against another psychologist out of spite. There must be actual ethical concerns in order for a complaint to be filed.
- Competence – Section 2.06 states that psychologists must refrain from activities in which they “know or should know that there is a substantial likelihood that their personal problems will prevent them from performing their work-related activities in a competent manner.” Staying out late and binge drinking several nights a week might be considered a violation of this standard.
- Human Relations – Section 3.01 mandates that psychologists refrain from unfair discrimination. For example, a psychologist cannot turn away a client simply because of their nationality.
- Minimizing Intrusions on Privacy – Section 4.01 states that psychologists have a duty to protect confidential information about their clients. Therefore, when consulting with another psychologist about a client, a psychologist shouldn’t use the client’s name and should minimize personal details to protect the person’s identity.
- Advertising and Other Public Statements – Section 5.05 forbids psychologists from soliciting testimonials from their clients. Since many people seeking the assistance of a psychologist are in a vulnerable position, they could be improperly influenced by the psychologist to provide them with a positive testimonial, even if one isn’t warranted.
- Record Keeping and Fees – Section 6.03 stipulates that psychologists cannot withhold client records in an emergency situation for the sole reason that payment hasn’t yet been received. So, if a client attempts suicide and is taken to the hospital, a psychologist must provide the client’s records so emergency staff can proceed with appropriate treatment.
- Education and Training – Section 7.03 requires that psychologists in a teaching position provide their students with an accurate course syllabus and bases for evaluation. Likewise, psychology teachers are expected to present psychological information in an accurate manner. Characterizing Freud’s psychosexual stages as the work of a pervert would not be accurate and as such, could be considered a violation of this standard.
- Research and Publication – Section 8.06 outlines that while psychologists can offer financial inducements or other inducements to people for participating in psychological studies, those inducements cannot be excessive or inappropriate. For example, to entice college freshmen to participate in a study, a psychologist might offer a $10 gift card to the campus bookstore. A $100 gift card might be considered excessive.
- Assessment – Section 9.02 pertains to the use of valid and reliable assessments for the population being tested. When an assessment is used that is not valid or reliable, it is the psychologist’s duty to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the test results as well as the interpretation of those test results.
- Therapy – Section 10.10 states that psychologists should end therapy with a client when it “becomes reasonably clear that the client/patient no longer needs the service, is not likely to benefit, or is being harmed by continued service.” To continue therapy with a client solely to reap the financial rewards of doing so would be an ethical violation.
As you can see, the APA has gone to great lengths to provide practicing psychologists with a guideline for ethical practice.
These guidelines are based on the notion that psychologists have a lot of power and influence, and that that power and influence should be wielded with care and respect for those in need.
By adhering to these guidelines, psychologists of all kinds – from those in research to those that teach to those that offer therapeutic services – are assured that they can conduct themselves in an ethical manner.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
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