Ethical Judgments: Lessons from Uncle George & Gay Marriage

The dark side of personal experience in professional judgments

Posted Mar 25, 2013

Today I listened to an interesting discussion about gay marriage and public opinion on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” More and more people (now a majority of Americans) report being in favor of gay marriage, and according to the show, the major reason for the shift is personal experience:  having a child, friend, or co-worker who is gay.  Rob Portman’s experience is not unusual; we naturally want to support those with whom we interact and about whom we care most.  (Of course, it makes me wonder whether people can develop their views based on their empathy for others who have gay relatives.) 

The idea that personal experience can influence our political or personal opinions got me thinking about how the same thing might work when we make professional and ethical decisions. Does personal experience help?  I imagine so (although I have no data and haven’t heard an NPR story on it…). For example, it seems likely that having a relative in therapy may make psychologists more understanding of the importance of confidentiality.

But I also know that there are times when personal experience works against our better judgment as professionals.  Let me tell you about two examples of this point—one regarding diagnosis and one regarding ethics

The first point was made by Paul Meehl, a very influential clinical psychologist from the University of Minnesota.  One of his most famous papers is called, “Why I Do Not Attend Case Conferences,” in which he complained about “softheaded” thinking—logical mistakes—among young psychologists and trainees.  One such example of softheaded thinking is what Meehl called the Uncle George’s Pancakes Fallacy.  When talking about a patient at a case conference, Meehl said, it might be mentioned that one symptom of the patient’s disturbance is his tendency to store uneaten pancakes in his attic. A young psychologist might say that such behavior is not pathological because his or her own Uncle George used to do the same thing!  “The underlying premise in this kind of fallacious argument seems to be the notion that none of one’s personal friends or family could have been a psychiatric case, … partly because (whereas other people may have crazy friends and relatives) I obviously have never known or been related to such persons in my private life” (Meehl, 1973, pp. 239-240).  In this case, personal experience may detract from the objectivity necessary for good diagnosis and treatment of patients.

The second point has been made by many psychologists who write about ethics, including Kenneth Pope, who writes a lot, and well, about ethics.  He talks a lot about logical and ethical fallacies that psychologists make.  One of these fallacies is to assume that because a person is a friend of yours, or has shown good judgment in the past, that he or she cannot have engaged in unethical behavior.

This fallacy is a variation of the Fundamental Attribution Error, which I’ve written about once or twice before:  We tend to attribute behaviors of others to their personality traits and discount situational causes.  Applied to ethics it means that if a behavior—such as breaking confidentiality—is committed by a person we consider an “ethical person,” it cannot have been unethical.  What friends may fail to see is that ethical judgments and behaviors are complex, and that good people can make ethical mistakes.  Sometimes ethical lapses are due to situational factors, including financial pressures, relationship problems, or fatigue.  Thus, even friends of ours—and Uncle George if he was a psychologist—can make ethical mistakes.

The bottom line is that professionals need to be aware of both the potential benefits, but also the risks, in relying on their personal experiences when they make professional judgments.  I believe this is an important point.  If you knew me, you’d agree…  


Meehl, P. E. (1973). Psychodiagnosis: Selected papers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology and a CU President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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