Three Skills Involved in Ethical Judgments 1: Communication

What skills are useful to commenting on the psychology of public figures?

Posted Apr 04, 2011

The Law and Ethics of Judging Personality

So how much expertise is needed and what kind?  Quite a bit — and no matter how much expertise a commentator possesses, others invariably second-guess the writer about the accuracy of his or her statements.

The American Psychological Association Code of Ethics, 5.04 Media Presentations, reads in part:

"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..." (more, here).

Commenting on public figures requires expertise drawn from at least three areas: skill in communication, an understanding of personality, and an understanding of the personalities of public figures in particular. This post  will examine the role of communication skills.

Skilled communication is typically called for in discussing the psychology of public figures. This skill includes a balance between accuracy, on the one hand, and interpersonal sensitivity, on the other.

Some commentators on public figures — often celebrity columnists in their own right — cultivate a curmudgeonly or partly comedic persona. These commentators and their followers understand that they exaggerate for effect. Their humor and, often, exaggeration force those who read or listen to their descriptions to think about how serious, honest, and correct they might be in describing someone. I think here of such commentators as Maureen Dowd, Glenn Beck, Christopher Hitchens, Karl Rove, and Don Imus. Although widely different in style and outlook, each one's distinctive voice is part of the entertainment. They can say something outrageous (to a point) with few repercussions. Speaking of Paul Wolfowitz, who had urged the United States to intervene in Libya, Maureen Dowd says:

"You would think that a major architect of the disastrous wars and interminable occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq would have the good manners to shut up and take up horticulture. But the neo-con naif has no shame."

Karl Rove wrote of President Obama on the Fox News website during the initial uprising in Libya and the subsequent crackdown that:

"...[the] images of Mr. Obama from last week are hardly uplifting...there was the president on Libya -- dithering, indecisive, unreliable, and weak. As Qaddafi's mercenaries and bombers brutally grabbed back momentum from the democratic opposition, all Mr. Obama could say was, 'My national security team has been monitor the prepare the full range of options...'"

 In another example, Andrea Tantaros, a national political commentator, said this about President Obama:

"If he has any hope of re-election, or if more importantly, he hopes to solve our challenges, the President needs to forget his basketball picks and focus on the real March madness happening at home and abroad. Sadly, though, leadership is not a trait found in the faculty lounge."

Dowd, Tantoros and Rove all exhibit highly stylized messages that exhibit two features rather saliently: exaggeration and some distancing.  Regarding exaggeration, they are pitched toward the extreme. Their aim often is not to be balanced but to make a point. These commentators' points may stop short of say, Glenn Beck, who claims his performance is a political outgrowth of a rodeo clown sensibility.  Nonetheless, commentators such as these are specialists in wit, caricature, and humor with a grain of truth, and for those reasons are given a wider latitude to speak by their public than the rest of us, even than other journalists.

Writing, as they often do, with an exaggerated certainty, these commentators are also expert at subtly distancing their comments about the target of their conversation in some way. Recall that the American Psychiatric Association's ethical guidelines indicate that a psychiatrist ought never to say that someone has bipolar disorder, but instead something like, "A person who exhibits symptoms like this might suffer from bipolar disorder." In a similar way, each commentator employs stylistic devices that are at least somewhat protective of the person whom they target.

Maureen Dowd's calumny is aimed at a "major architect of disastrous wars...," and although it is clear who she is speaking of, he is not named in the sentence that delivers her zinger. Rove is wise enough to speak of Obama's image rather than of Obama himself, and Tantoros, after identifying the President as the subject of her commentary, closes with a more general developmental judgment: that the leadership she hopes the President will exhibit is "not a trait found in a faculty lounge."

Most psychologists operating in the public eye would aspire to a somewhat different persona than these pundits and columnists, although among the small group of psychologists who are media personalities themselves, there may be an exception or two. Most psychologists hope to speak with some degree of seriousness and precision in their professional roles and those I have seen accomplish that aim more often than not. The capacity to modulate that communication so as to express something on-target and reasonably tactful (as usually will be warranted), is important.

To return to the point here, the ability to comment well on another person's psychology requires some reasonably high level of communication skills. This is not for the often-misunderstood writer or speaker. Clarity in terms of what one means to say is quite helpful, albeit no one achieves that all the time (or even comes close), and those who hear the communication will conceive of it in their own ways. That said, a person who cannot write clearly, modulate his or her tone, and who lacks editorial guidance, may want to reconsider such an activity. This seems like a good time to gratefully acknowledge the assistance I am fortunate to receive on a regular basis from Deborah Hirsch, who copy edits these blog posts (see here).

Communication, then, is the first skill necessary to commentary. It is not only a prerequisite for good professional communication, but perhaps for ethical communication as well, for it can be all too easy to miss the mark when speaking of a public figure. Even those most experienced and clear will sometimes miss the target. Skilled commentators will be more likely than others to hit the mark.


The American Psychological Association ethics can be viewed at:

The sources of the columns discussed above include:

Glenn Beck refers to himself as a rodeo clown in this article:

Copyright © 2011 by John D. Mayer