American Psychological Association Code Of Ethics

The American Psychological Association (APA) promulgated the first Code of Ethics for psychologists in 1953. Based on the work of a committee organized in 1947 (Canter, Bennett, Jones, & Nagy, 1994), this publication had further basis in the work of another committee, this one formed in 1938 and devoted to ethical concerns. The for-malization and codification of ethical standards was ultimately a response to the increasing professionalization of psychology, a development that began during World War II.

The first Code of Ethics (APA, 1953) was developed using an empirical, critical-incident methodology (Hobbs, 1948), which had been unprecedented among associations. Rather than using an a priori method to determine ethical principles, the authors surveyed the membership of the association for descriptions of past incidents in which decisions with ethical implications had been made, and requested a discussion of the ethical issues involved. This material then formed the basis for many drafts of the first Code of Ethics, each of which was distributed to the membership for commentary before the final version was adopted.

Since the introduction of the original Code of Ethics, numerous revisions, either minor or major, have been adopted. These changes, regardless of scope, serve to keep the Code current and responsive to new issues, to changing views on traditional issues, and to legal imperatives that influence ethical behavior. It would be accurate to describe the Code of Ethics as a living document whose approach to ethics is influenced by current events rather than being based on universal ethical principles. Each revision of the Code of Ethics contains a set of ethical principles (or standards) without the inclusion of illustrative incidents.

The Code of Ethics presently in force was published in 1992 (APA, 1992), although a committee currently is working on a new revision. Although the critical-incident methodology was not employed for the 1992 edition, the revision was informed by the history of ethical complaints that had been filed, so that an empirical basis was built into the revision process. The alterations to the Code took 6 years and involved many iterations of the APAmembership, the Ethics Committee, the Revision Comments Subcommittee, and the Council of Representatives of APA. The resulting document was intended to be accessible both to psychologists and to consumers of psychological services, and to provide guidelines that would increase the quality of psychological services and also reduce the risk of harm to the consumers.

The code of ethics of any professional association is enforceable only with regard to members of the association, yet such a code also informs the basis of many state boards' conceptions of ethics. Board members, in turn, are asked to make judgments on the professional conduct of licensed professionals. In psychology, the Code is the foundation of the ethical instruction mandated by accreditation for its students. Thus, the influence of the Code is far broader than its scope of enforceability. Similarly, although the maximum penalty that can be exacted for a serious violation of the Code is simply expulsion from the organization, this expulsion is publicly noted, other groups with relevant jurisdiction are informed (and may take independent action), and matters such as insurability are affected, so that the penalty is much more severe than expulsion by itself.

The 1992 Code of Ethics has two major sections, as well as introductory material. The first section of the Code consists of six General Principles, which, although aspirational rather than enforceable, can be used to interpret the enforceable standards that follow. These principles are concerned with the areas of competence, integrity, professional and scientific responsibility, respect for people's rights and dignity, concern for others' welfare, and social responsibility. Their approach informs the rest of the document, particularly the more specific principles that make up the largest portion of the document.

The General Principles' specific, directly enforceable translation is the Ethical Standards. The 102 standards are contained in eight sections; the first, General Standards, is potentially applicable to the professional and scientific activities of all psychologists, and is amplified in many of the subsequent standards. This section indicates, among other things, that the Code applies only to the professional, and not the personal, activities of psychologists, and that, when the Code conflicts with the law, the psychologist may choose to conform with the law, but must attempt to resolve the conflict in a manner consistent with the Code.

The second standard concerns evaluation, assessment, or intervention. It is predominantly, but not exclusively, applicable to clinical activities. The standard concerning advertising and other public standards is much more permissive than previous Codes had been and was heavily influenced by rulings of the Federal Trade Commission. The fourth standard concerns therapy and may be the area of major concern to most practitioners. It is complemented by the next standard, which concerns privacy and confidentiality, although the latter standard goes beyond the clinical activities of psychologists. The sixth standard concerns teaching, training supervision, research, and publishing. Its presence makes clear that the Code of Ethics is not restricted in its scope to professional practice but is intended to be applicable to the activities of all psychologists. The seventh standard, forensic activities, is new, and reflects the increasing involvement of psychologists in forensic activities. It applies to all forensic activities, and not just the activities of forensic psychologists. This section has been an area of disproportionate action, perhaps because of the adversarial nature of the arena in which this activity takes place. The last standard addresses resolving ethical issues and indicates the responsibility of psychologists to be familiar with and to help uphold the ethical standards of the discipline.

Although the Code itself consists only of bare statements, an excellent commentary has been developed (Canter et al., 1994) for those who wish for further information about the meaning of the principles. It is only through the commitment of the individual psychologist to the Code of Ethics that psychology can progress toward a firm foundation in ethical and responsible conduct.


American Psychological Association. (1953). Ethical standards of psychologists. Washington, DC: Author. American Psychological Association. (1992). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 47, 1597-1611.

Canter, M. B., Bennett, B. E., Jones, S. E., & Nagy, T. F. (1994). Ethics for psychologists: A commentary on the APA Ethics Code. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Hobbs, N. (1948). The development of a code of ethical standards for psychology. American Psychologist, 3, 80-84.

George Stricker Adelphi University

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