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The APA's Ethics Code and Personality Analysis at a Distance

The APA Ethics Code and personality assessment at a distance

Last week, I described how the American Psychological Association's Ethics Code might allow for discussion in the media of the personalities of public figures. I focused on the Ethic Code's "General Principles," and the passage on "Statements to the Media" (5.03 of the Code).

There are additional portions of the APA Ethics Code relevant to discussing the personality of public figures. For example, Section 9 of the Code concerns the practice of personality assessment. A reader of this blog, "Dissent," correctly pointed out in a comment on June 21st that Section 9 could be relevant to certain discussions of public figures. Personality assessment entails an analysis of an individual's personality, often carried out to answer a question about diagnosis, treatment, or predictions of the person's future behavior. Discussing someone's personality in the media could overlap with personality assessment.

The Ethics Code on assessment states in part that:

"... psychologists provide opinions of the psychological characteristics of individuals only after they have conducted an examination of the individuals adequate to support their statements or conclusions." (9.01b)

This section of the Psychologists' Code is similar to that of the American Psychiatric Association's Goldwater rule that psychiatrists ought to render judgment only after having seen someone in person. Section 7.3 of the psychiatric ethics states, with regard to speaking to the media:

" is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement." (7.3)

The ethics codes of the respective professional associations of psychologists and psychiatrists have in common that they are writing for clinical practitioners. The above passages both plainly have in mind the usual and customary procedures employed by such practitioners as they carry out assessments: the use of clinical tests, interviews, and first-hand observation of clients.

But personality may also be assessed "at a distance." The American Psychological Association recognizes this alternative in several ways, most directly here:

"When psychologists conduct a record review or provide consultation or supervision and an individual examination is not warranted or necessary for the opinion, psychologists explain this and the sources of information on which they based their conclusions and recommendations." (9.01c)

Although the intent of this passage remains focused on clinical work, and specifically on record reviews in a clinical setting, such record reviews in a medical setting are analogous, in certain important ways, to the review of biographical material carried out in psychobiographical research. Specifically, in each case, records compiled by others are employed to develop a general picture of an individual.

Those psychologists and psychiatrists who study the personalities of public figures often employ somewhat different methods from those who work with clients face-to-face. These at-a-distance methods include researching public statements, examining biographical information, and understanding the historical context of an individual where applicable. Meetings with the person being analyzed are not usually held or even necessarily considered desirable.

A few other differences:

  • The analysis of a public figure's personality, although better than chance when done properly, is often assumed to be less certain than individual, personal assessments (whether this is actually the case depends on a number of factors).
  • Some analyses of public figures involve studies of groups, for example, of US Presidents or English royalty, and although certain individuals may be singled out as examples of a particular psychological quality, the statistical confidence comes from examining the group as a whole.
  • The purposes of such analyses can be a bit different from clinical assessments. In particular the analysis of public figures is often carried out:
    • to better understand people of importance or interest who are especially psychologically healthy,
    • to determine if, due to some constellation of psychological qualities, a public figure has been or will be more likely to behave in certain foreseeable ways,
    • to determine if a leader might perform better or worse than average in some area, or might pose some danger to others, or,
    • to further promote the scientific understanding of personality at-a-distance and its methods.

The differences between clinical assessments and at-a-distance psychobiographical assessments are substantial, and I have only touched upon them above. It seems likely the ethical considerations involved would differ as well. For that reason, I wonder about the suitability of applying the ethics developed to guide clinical assessments to the much different enterprise of psychobiographical studies at a distance. This seems to me to confuse two very different enterprises.

Such a confusion seemed to occur when Dr. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who analyzed Saddam Hussein's personality, testified about his findings before two Congressional committees in advance of the first Gulf War. Some psychiatrists expressed concern that Dr. Post had violated Section 7.3 of the Ethics of the American Psychiatric Association, which I quoted above (the so-called Goldwater Rule), when he testified.

Dr. Post defended himself by saying that he was acting not in his role as a psychiatrist, but in a professional role as a psychohistorian. I would like it to be clear that he could be a psychiatrist who behaved ethically when he performed a thoughtful psychobiographical analysis.

I believe that the professional ethics codes could be improved if they recognized explicitly that the purposes and procedures for individual assessment in a clinical setting are different than the purposes and procedures involved in more public psychobiographical and psychohistorical analyses.

There is some recognition in the ethics codes of the difference between psychobiographical assessment and clinical assessment. In the American Psychological Association Code, although informed consent is required for clinical assessment and many types of research, the Ethics Code makes allowances for dispensing with such consent for research under limited conditions that, arguably, involve psychobiographical analyses, as these are based on the freely-available public record (Sections 3.10 and 8.05).

Although the American Psychological Association allows for such analyses (in my reading), however, the ethics codes of both the psychological and psychiatric associations are primarily concerned with clinical practice and assessment. I believe fostering the development of psychobiography and "assessment at a distance" has benefits that far outweigh their drawbacks. As such, a greater acknowledgement of the legitimacy of such practices in future editions of the ethics codes would be desirable.

More on this in subsequent posts.


Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer

The ethics code of the American Psychological Assn. can be found here.

The ethics code of the American Psychiatric Assn. can be found here.

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