The Personality Analyst

How Personality and Personal Intelligence Shape Our Lives

Are Psychological Judgments of Public Figures Inherently Bad?

Economists comment more freely to the media than do mental health professionals

Psychologists and psychiatrists are advised to be cautious about commenting on the personalities of public figures, according to the ethics codes of the APAs (American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association). The ethics codes vary from a near-total prohibition of direct comments about an individual's mental health, for psychiatrists, to a "yellow light" -- proceed very cautiously -- for psychologists (as I read those codes).

The history of the ethics codes' restrictions suggest that they were instituted to address several dangers. One danger concerned protecting public figures from noxious commentary. For example, the American Psychiatric Association's "Goldwater Rule" was implemented and so-named after psychiatrists responded to a Fact magazine (now defunct) poll about Senator Barry Goldwater, during the Senator's run for President in 1964. The psychiatrists evaluated the Senator's  character rather frankly, with some comments that seemed thoughtless at times, extreme, and potentially insulting.  Often forgotten, however, was that there were many thoughtful comments as well (some quite supportive of the Senator).

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A second danger is one that psychiatrists and psychologists might face if angry public officials attack them in response to their judgments. For example, after the Fact magazine poll, Senator Goldwater sued the magazine for libel and won his case. Although his legal action ended there, he might plausibly have pursued the matter further against either some of the psychiatrists who commented or against the American Psychiatric Association itself.

Third, the ethics codes' authors might believe that media commentators generally judge personality in strongly negative terms, and might hope to discourage mental health professionals in specific from doing the same.  Even the most eminent of media commentators can be judgmental, and their evaluations of others often are strong and memorable.  This past Saturday, September 18th, as just one of many examples I might have used, Maureen Dowd wrote of certain Tea Party members in the New York Times,

"The insane have achieved political respectability while the sane act too good for it all. The irrational celebrate while the rational act bored and above-it-all."

But when commentators such as Ms. Dowd refer to certain political candidates as insane, shouldn't psychiatrists be there to bolster her argument, or to knock it down, or to simply reveal a split in professional opinion -- the latter openly illustrating the limits of the field?

An interesting comparison can be drawn between psychiatrists and economists in regard to their public behavior. Economists have no single set of professional ethics (although any employed economist must surely follow the ethical standards of his or her organization). The lack of general restrictions on economists' free speech means that they can speak relatively openly to the media at any time.

Consequently, economists' statements to the media sometimes include rather strong claims. Like psychiatrists, most economists agree with each other on some points, such as that either too much inflation or deflation can be problematic, and they disagree as to other points, such as whether it is best for the government to raise or lower taxes at a given time.

To my mind, this open discussion among economists provides a good public education as to the values and limits of economic thinking.

Of course, there is a substantial difference between the judgments of economists and the judgments of mental health professionals. Economists judge the economy: something large, impersonal, and without consciousness. If an economist says the stock market is on a downward course, the market itself is being criticized. Investors themselves are not the subject of the judgment in any direct, individualized way.  Psychiatrists and psychologists, on the other hand, are judging people - individuals with rights and responsibilities and with awareness and feelings of their own.

Yet people can and must judge one another -- for example, when they vote, or choose a doctor, or choose a friend. A first answer to the question, "Is there something potentially dangerous about professional judgments of personality?" is that, yes, it can involve some injury to the feelings or reputation of another if not done with prudence.  The target of the judgment is a person who likely cares about how he or she is judged. That does not, however, make the judgment necessarily bad.

Judgments openly made by professionals teach about agreements and disagreements in the field and potentially help to guide the public.  By restricting the speech of their members, the APAs (American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations) may protect the feelings of some public figures, which is laudable. The cost, however, is that psychiatrists and psychologists hide their own scientific authority -- and their scientific weaknesses -- within a gated community of professionals, denying members of the public the opportunity to learn and to evaluate in what respects they trust such professionals. Paradoxically, the ethics codes may work to withhold important mental-status information about leaders from the public.  Conversely, it is the economists' lack of ethical restrictions on their public expressions that may lead to the greater public good.

Changing such ethical standards wisely -- and thinking about how to judge one another more generally -- is not an easy task, but it is one worth pursuing.

Notes

My statement that economists have no code of ethics is based on Chapter 8, for example, of Peil, J., & van Staveren, I. (2009). Handbook of Economics and Ethics. Chetenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

See earlier posts for free-speech restrictions on psychiatrists and psychologists as regards media statements about the personality of public figures.

The quote that "The insane have achieved..." is from the 2nd-to-last paragraph of Dowd, M. (2010, September 18th). Myth and Madness. New York Times, (Op-ed columnist). Accessed from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/opinion/19dowd.html?_r=1&src=me...

Edits: The article was lightly copy edited on the Wednesday and Thursday after posting.  In the second paragraph, the characterization of the psychiatrists' comments in Fact magazine was slightly recharacterized (I added mention of the many thoughtful and supportive comments by psychiatrists that were part of the survey).

Copyright © 2010 John D. Mayer

John D. Mayer is Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of numerous scientific articles, books, and psychological tests.

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