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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2011
The ABCs of the APA Ethics Code
Mitch Handelsman, PhD, University of Colorado Denver

If you ask psychologists what they think of their ethics code, the APA Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct (The "APA Code” or "Code” at, you’re likely to hear two basic types of responses. Some people will tell you that it’s nothing but a list of picky, specific rules that has nothing to do with what psychologists do. Others will say the Code is nothing but vague statements and generalities that have nothing to do with what psychologists do.

In fact, the APA Code has everything to do with what psychologists do. Like any ethics code, it tries to (a) inspire professionals to act according to important principles and high ideals, and (b) provide specific and useful guidance for how to behave. As a consequence, the Code has some very general statements, some very specific rules, and lots in between.

Because psychologists perform many duties (e.g., teaching, consultation, research, psychotherapy, assessment, supervision), the APA Code, like any code, cannot be totally specific and comprehensive. Psychologists must use their professional judgment; the Code provides the profession’s best guidance for making sound judgments.

Students who want to become psychologists should read the code to get a sense of the values of the professional culture they are entering (Handelsman, Gottlieb, & Knapp, 2005). Let’s take a look at each of the four sections of the Code:

  • Introduction and Applicability,
  • Preamble,
  • General Principles, and
  • Standards.

Introduction and Applicability
The introduction basically says, "Yep, this is an ethics code.” The section notes that the Code pertains to all the activities of psychologists. However, it goes on to say, "These activities shall be distinguished from the purely private conduct of psychologists, which is not within the purview of the Ethics Code.” This raises interesting questions about how we draw lines between personal and professional behavior (Pipes, Holstein, & Aguirre, 2005). The Introduction also says that judgment is involved in ethical decisions. Thus, psychologists cannot blindly follow a set of rules.

The preamble is a short mission statement that establishes the notion that psychologists strive to act in accordance with the highest standards—not just to avoid punishment (Handelsman, Knapp, & Gottlieb, 2009). It also outlines the goal of the Code itself: "the welfare and protection of the individuals and groups with whom psychologists work and the education of members, students, and the public regarding ethical standards of the discipline.”

General Principles
The general principles are aspirational. That is, the purpose of these five principles is "to guide and inspire psychologists toward the very highest ethical ideals of the profession.” (Aspirational also means that psychologists are not punished for not meeting these ideals.) For example, Principle A is "Beneficence and Nonmaleficence,” which basically means that psychologists should do good and not do harm. Beneficence is the most intuitive principle in psychology; most of us write on our graduate school applications that we want to help people. But implementing this principle is not always easy or obvious. What if our clients or students don’t want to be helped or refuse our help? For example, can we hospitalize mentally ill people against their will?

Questions like this lead to Principle E: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity. Sometimes you’ll see this principle phrased as "respect for autonomy.” In broad terms, Principle E means that people have the right to make choices. We have limits on what we can do for people because we think something is good for them. This principle also encourages sensitivity to individual, cultural, and other differences, "including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status.”

The general principles are aspirational guides for our behavior. The Standards, by contrast, are more in the nature of specific rules. These are enforceable; that is, APA can punish you if you violate the rules.

Some Standards are pretty specific and leave little or no room for interpretation. For example, Standard 10.05 says, "Psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with current therapy clients/patients.” Any questions? Didn’t think so. Now, what about former clients? What about students? Stay tuned for future columns!

Other Standards take more judgment to implement. For instance, Standard 4.01 starts out, "Psychologists have a primary obligation and take reasonable precautions to protect confidential information….” What constitutes reasonable efforts? (The word "reasonable,” by the way, appears many times throughout the more than 100 specific standards.) Because psychologists act in varied situations, under varied state laws, with varied methods and populations, "reasonable efforts” need to be defined and implemented in light of ethical, practical, and legal concerns.

Being an ethical professional means more than simply knowing a list of rules. It also involves sensitivity to the ethical dimensions of professional work, skill at making ethical choices, understanding the "big ideas”— the general principles behind the rules—and the willingness to consult with other professionals and act in accordance with our ethical beliefs (Rest, 1984).

Handelsman, M. M., Gottlieb, M. C., & Knapp, S. (2005). Training ethical psychologists: An acculturation model. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36, 59-65.

Handelsman, M. M., Knapp, S., & Gottlieb, M. C. (2009). Positive ethics: Themes and variations. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 105-113). New York: Oxford University Press.

Pipes, R. B., Holstein, J. E., & Aguirre, M. G. (2005). Examining the personal-professional distinction: Ethics codes and the difficulty of drawing a boundary. American Psychologist, 60, 325-334.

Rest, J. R. (1984). Research on moral development: Implications for Training Counseling Psychologists. The Counseling Psychologist, 12(3), 19-29.

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 bio.

Copyright 2011 (Volume 16, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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