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Do Nice People Make Ethical Psychologists?
by Mitchell M. Handelsman, PhD - University of Colorado Denver
Categories: Promotion of Research
f I'm a nice person who acts morally, doesn't that mean I'll be an ethical psychologist? Of course the first answer to consider is, "It depends," because that's the basic answer to any question in psychology. And we could always add, "More research is needed." However, the answer I want to pursue in this column is: not necessarily. Being a nice, moral person is not sufficient to assure ethical behavior as a psychologist.
As a group, psychologists may be among the nicer people on the planet. After all, we want to help people, right? That's what we wrote (or will write) on our graduate school applications. However, a strong desire to help—through psychotherapy, teaching, research, consulting, or other activities of psychologists—is not the only issue. In fact, if our desire to help is too strong it can actually hinder our ability to do the ethical thing in some situations. More on that in future columns. For now, let's look at two major reasons that nice people don't automatically become ethical psychologists. (By the way, the same can be said about any profession. But other professions have their own magazines....)
The first reason is that our motivations are complex and often conflicting. For starters, we want to help people but we have to make a living as well. We may also want to be noticed or reinforced in other ways for our work. We want grades, authorships, acceptances to graduate school, degrees, licenses, tenure, promotion, columns in national publications, more promotions, etc. These are not unethical desires; thus, our desire to help people is always in context, and it can be difficult to know the best ways to help and to meet our other needs. You've heard of conflicts of interest: some conflicts are inherent in psychology, as in all professions.
The second reason that nice people are not automatically ethical psychologists is that psychology itself is a complex enterprise. Sometimes we simply don't know what would be helpful (More research is needed). We may not know if we have the competence to provide the necessary help, or do the research, or teach the course.
Despite the fact that almost everybody you meet talks about how they "used psychology on" a friend or relative, the professional culture of psychology is not all that intuitive! For example, psychotherapy looks a lot like friendship, financial planning, coaching, and many other human enterprises. However, the therapy relationship is a unique and delicate thing, subject to a unique set of ethical guides including rules about confidentiality and informed consent. Thus, our backgrounds and other relationships provide only partial models and precedents for our professional decisions.
The relationships between psychotherapists and clients, between researchers and participants, or between professors and students have boundaries that need to be acknowledged and respected. We all know (I hope) that psychotherapists should not have sex with their clients. That is an unethical multiple relationship. But how about investing in a client's business venture? Or going to a client's wedding? In future columns, we'll "unpack" these ethical issues and processes. We'll explore ethical issues and dilemmas, how psychologists make good (and bad) decisions, and how they learn to behave ethically in the first place.
By the way, this is the first installment of an ongoing ethics column in Eye on Psi Chi. Why devote an entire column to ethics? Here's my answer: Ethics pervades every aspect of psychology-even more aspects than statistics! For example, I'm now in my office writing this column during my office hours. I have a deadline coming up and must get it finished. What if a student knocks on the door to argue about a grade she received on her last paper? Do I answer the door or hide under my desk? How much time do I spend with the student? These decisions have ethical dimensions influenced by my obligations to students, editors, readers, colleagues, myself, etc.
I invite you to tell me what you'd like to read about in this column. I'd love for you to send me questions about ethical issues, examples of particularly excellent ethical behavior by your professors and other psychologists you know, or any other thoughts.
Mitch Handelsman received his BA in psychology from Haverford College and his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas. He is currently professor of psychology and a CU President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, where he has been on the faculty since 1982. He served for a year (1989-1990) in Washington DC as an APA Congressional Science Fellow. In 2003-04, he was president of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. He is a licensed psychologist and a fellow of the American Psychological Association.
Mitch won the 1992 CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) Colorado Professor of the Year Award, and the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (APA Division 2) in 1995. He has published several book chapters and over 50 articles in journals ranging from the Professional Psychology: Research and Practice to the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. His major research area is professional ethics; he is the coauthor (with Sharon K. Anderson) of a text on ethics in psychotherapy (Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach) from Wiley-Blackwell. His ethics blog, "The Ethical Professor," can be found at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-ethical-professor. You can contact Mitch at mitchell.handelsman@UCDenver.edu
Fall 2010 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 15, No. 1, p. 10), published by Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2010, Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.