Ethical Dilemmas Encountered by Members of the American Psychological Association: A National Survey
Kenneth S. Pope
Valerie A. Vetter
ABSTRACT: A random sample of 1,319 members of the American Psychological Association (APA) were asked to describe incidents that they found ethically challenging or troubling. Responses from 679 psychologists described 703 incidents in 23 categories. This process of gathering critical incidents from the general membership, pioneered by those who developed APA's original code of ethics, may be useful in considering possible revisions of the code and preserving APA's unique approach to identifying ethical principles that address realistically the emerging dilemmas that the diverse membership confronts in the day-to-day work of psychology. View citation and copyright.
Founded in 1892, the American Psychological Association (APA) faced ethical problems without a formal code of ethics for 60 years. As the chair of the Committee on Scientific and Professional Ethics and Conduct in the early 1950s observed, In the early years of the American Psychological Association, the problems of ethics were relatively simple. We were essentially an organization of college teachers. The only ethical problems which seemed to present themselves were those of plagiarism and of academic freedom. (Rich, 1952, p. 440) The Committee on Scientific and Professional Ethics was created in 1938 and began handling complaints on an informal basis ("A Little Recent History," 1952). By 1947, the committee recommended that APA develop a formal code. "The present unwritten code...is tenuous, elusive, and unsatisfactory" ("A Little Recent History," 1952, p. 427). The method used to create the formal code was innovative and unique, an extraordinary break from the traditional methods used previously by more than 500 professional and business associations (Hobbs, 1948 ). Setting aside what Hobbs termed the "armchair approach" (p. 82) in which a committee of those "who are most mature, in wisdom, experience, and knowledge of their fellow psychologists" (p. 81) would study the various available codes, issues, and literature and then submit a draft to the membership for approval, APA decided to create "an empirically developed code" based on an investigation of the ethical dilemmas encountered by a "representative sample of members": "The research itself would involve the collection, from psychologists involved in all of the various professional activities, of descriptions of actual situations which required ethical decisions" (p. 83). A survey collecting examples of the ethical dilemmas encountered by APA members led to a draft code (APA Committee on Ethical Standards for Psychology, 1951a, 1951b, 1951c) that was refined and approved in 1952 (APA, 1953). APA had created a process through which it could produce "a code of ethics truly indigenous to psychology, a code that could be lived" (Hobbs, 1948, p. 84). The 1959 revision, the result of nine drafts over a three-year period, was adopted for use on a trial basis (APA, 1959). The committee anticipated that future revisions would be necessary to address changing conditions of practice: The Committee on Ethical Standards hopes that these major principles stated in general form will weather considerable growth of psychology without drastic alteration. Unlike the general principles, the explanatory paragraphs which accompany them are quite specific and, therefore, subject to change or extension as the need arises. They may serve the purpose fairly well for the present, but it would be a sad mistake indeed to assume that there is little left to say about the ethical behavior of psychologists! (Holzman, 1960, p. 247). To maintain the unique nature and effectiveness of the code, future revisions were to be based not only on discussion among members but also on "additional critical incidents of controversial behavior" (Holzman, 1960, p. 247). To base revisions on recommendations by...
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