I have been wondering about how psychologists, psychiatrists, and other professionals in the mental health field might comment ethically on the personalities of public figures. When might it be helpful for a psychiatrist to raise concerns as to the mental health of a politician, or for a psychologist to explain non-conscious processes using the example of someone in the media spotlight?

At present the ethics of the American Psychiatric Association forbid any direct judgment of another person in the media, although those ethics permit an indirect commentary that might be educational. For example, a psychiatrist cannot say that a public figure suffers from schizophrenia, but he or she can say that, "A person who exhibits the same symptoms as this public figure exhibits might suffer from schizophrenia...".

A second organization composed of mental health professionals — the American Psychological Association — has ethical guidelines that, in my reading, allow for judgments of the personality of public figures, with strong limits.  These limits include that one is qualified to make such judgments and that one must delineate one's scientific methods.

Psychobiographers and psychohistorians, some of whom are psychologists and psychiatrists, also engage in public commentary. Their chosen topic of research is the examination of the psychological processes of historical or living figures of some prominence.  Simply communicating their work may lead them to violate the ethical standards of their organizations at times, and such individuals openly argue for alternative ethical standards that allow for their work — compellingly, at times.

This question about ethical public judgments is interesting to me for several reasons. Most centrally, I am a personality psychologist and personality psychologists evaluate personality. The issues of what judgments might be made publicly about an individual overlap to some degree with good standards for more private evaluations.

Second, the ethical guidelines for psychologists and psychiatrists have largely left the judgments of the personalities of public figures to columnists and commentators without specific training in the area.

Third, name-calling and characterizations of politicians have been identified as part of the troublesome and inflammatory language that is part of politics today.  Ethics that guide psychologists and psychiatrists might serve to inform others in this area as well.

For these reasons, I plan to continue to explore themes I investigated in last year's posts concerning the ethics of judging others. The diagram below indicates some of the pertinent areas. The center of the diagram indicates an aspired-for goal: an ethically-informed judgment of someone. Around that goal are various considerations with which the judge might be concerned.  These vary from the purpose of the judgment, to the qualities of the judge (whether he or she is competent to carry out a judgment), to the relation between the judge and target, and so forth (see the following figure).

Ethical systems can be viewed as "aspirational" in the sense that it is impossible to behave in a perfectly judicious, fair and accurate fashion all the time. Even if doing a perfect job is impossible, reviewing these areas may help those who wish to evaluate others' personalities to do the best job they can.  Additionally, it is my hope that future revisions of the ethics codes of the two APAs and related organizations might take into account this treatment of the topic, and be informed in part by the issues raised. This would allow for a more flexible approach in future codes that would make possible the communication of scientific research about public figures to the public. 

Guided by the areas described in the figure above, my next post will most likely be on the "Purpose of the Judgment."


Copyright © 2011 by John D. Mayer

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