This week, I examine the American Psychological Association Ethics Code in regard to media presentations -- which includes the analysis of public figures. In this and related posts I am trying to understand the best way to analyze others' characters and to comment on them.

Over the past year, I have been examining public statements about people's personalities. For example, I recently examined the American Psychiatric Association's ethics code in this regard, and in particular, its Goldwater rule, and the concerns about it. Now I would like to learn from the American Psychological Association, one of the two major psychological associations in the US. The other group, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) has no independent ethics code.

Several parts of the American Psychological Association rules are relevant to commenting on public figures. The most central is section 5.04, "Media Presentations."

Section 5.04 includes a statement that any media presentations ought to be "consistent with this [APA] Ethics Code." For that reason, it is useful to consider the Ethics' "Statement of General Principles."

The APA Ethics' General Principles are described as "aspirational in nature" -- standards to strive for. Although the principles are all highly desirable, the goals they outline sometimes conflict with one another (as is often the case in ethical codes) and consequently, weighing their relative importance will involve individual judgments. Consider, for example, Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence. That principle directs psychologists to both "strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm."

Striving to benefit others is a relatively straightforward goal. Taking care to do no harm, however, is a far trickier business. It is hard to act without potentially harming others at least a bit -- as anyone who has lived on this earth surely has noticed. As friends, parents, teachers, employees, or consumers, we judge, advise, and critically observe, and sometimes inflict harm by doing so, unintended or otherwise. At the extreme, "do no harm" could lead a person to cease all activity (which in itself would be harmful). I take this statement to mean "take care to minimize any harm while pursuing beneficence," which those philosophically-inclined may recognize as utilitarian in its approach.

Some of the other aspirational principles include Principle B: Responsibility and Principle C: Integrity -- to "promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness." Principles B and C would seem to allow for the necessity to judge character at times when that is helpful. Although this may involve some harm in some instances, it may promote a greater benefit to the person over the long term, and those around the individual in some contexts. Such judgments are in keeping with utilitarian ethics. Principle D: Justice, wisely encourages psychologists to be fair. This again will call for judgments as to what people can or cannot do, or can or cannot have.

Outside the General Principles, many specifics could be applied to media communications -- particularly those provisions concerning conflicts of interest and patterns of exploitation. As an obvious example, if you are a therapist treating a public figure, you should not violate your client's confidentiality by commenting to the media on what the figure said.

The full "Media Presentations" section of the Code states:

"When psychologists provide public advice or comment via print, internet, or other electronic transmission, they take precautions to ensure that statements (1) are based on their professional knowledge, training, or experience in accord with appropriate psychological literature and practice; (2) are otherwise consistent with this Ethics Code; and (3) do not indicate that a professional relationship has been established with the recipient. (See also Standard 2.04, Bases for Scientific and Professional Judgments.)"

In my reading, the Media Presentations Section (5.04) of the American Psychological Association Code allows for the public analysis of a political figure's mental life if it educates the public and violates no rules of treatment or confidentiality and is otherwise prudent. If done properly, such activities meet most aspirational principles (e.g., beneficence, integrity, responsibility); while if carried out well can minimize harm to others (e.g., nonmaleficence -- do no harm).

Analysis in the media is typically "at-a-distance" -- based on news or biographical sources rather than based on a treatment relationship, so that no violation of confidentiality arises. Moreover, the psychologist conducting the analysis ought to be competent to carry out such an analysis, and ought to aspire to qualities such as fairness, accuracy, and responsibility, and attempt to maximize good effects and to minimize harm.

Still more can be learned from the ethical codes employed by journalists which I will examine in an upcoming post.


The APA Ethics Code can be found at: and at, the latter with 2010 amendments regarding human rights.

Very light copyedits have been applied on several dates since posting (e.g., correcting italics, etc.).

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer

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