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Five Myths Students May Have About Ethics

The strength of a profession lies in its ethical foundations. Yet, students often enter graduate study with misconceptions about professional ethics, and some practicing psychologists may still hold these beliefs. These misconceptions include the notion that ethics is only about following one’s personal beliefs or adhering to laws or codes, ethical infractions are made only by the “bad apples” in the profession, ethics should instill fear, and reaching ethical potential is a solitary journey. While containing a grain of truth, these myths can be misleading and harmful if not addressed. Whether they teach in graduate or continuing education programs or work as supervisors or mentors, ethics educators have a crucial role in promoting ethical conduct. As such, they must be vigilant about these myths and ready to debunk them.

Myth 1: Being Ethical Means Following My Personal Beliefs

One student confidently stated that she understood ethics and morals and felt an ethics course was unnecessary. She said, “My parents instilled a strong sense of ethics in me. If it’s wrong, I simply won’t do it.” Assuming that her self-assessment is accurate, this student has a commendable moral compass and a solid foundation to build upon. However, ethical behavior in the context of psychology is far more intricate.

Like most myths, this has a grain of truth to it. There are some absolutes that everyone with a moral foundation would agree to. In one’s personal life, one does not lie, cheat, steal, or intentionally harm others. Similarly, in one’s professional life, one does not falsify insurance forms, cheat on the licensing examination, or sexually exploit vulnerable patients.

Nonetheless, personal virtues have their limits of usefulness in a professional role, and, in some situations, the virtues of a psychologist may be counterintuitive to students. Consider, for example, a graduate student who, when moved by compassion, felt an impulse to lend money to a patient with financial problems. In one’s personal life, lending money to a friend or family member in need would be considered a virtue. Nonetheless, what is ethical in one’s relationships with friends and family may not be ethical in a professional relationship. Similarly, psychologists do not engage in reciprocal self-disclosure with patients as with friends or family members, although limited self-disclosure that focuses on patient needs can be helpful. Such behaviors risk moving the focus away from the patient, risk turning the professional relationship into a personal one, and may compromise the objectivity needed for effective psychotherapy. The goal is not to squash compassion, empathy, or the desire to help others but to learn to channel those feelings in a manner that best helps patients.

I have known psychologists or psychologists-in-training who gave money or gifts to patients in need. Often, these gifts strain the professional relationship and undercut the value of psychotherapy. If appropriate, ethics educators could describe those situations. In addition, educators could present ethical dilemmas without easy answers. Students who give too much priority to their personal belief systems quickly become aware that they can make mistakes by acting on their initial impulses. They begin to appreciate the importance of knowing the standards of the ethics code and engaging in a deliberative decision-making process.

Myth 2: Being Ethical Only Means Adhering to Ethics Codes and Laws

Again, there is an element of truth in the statement that being ethical means adhering to the ethics codes and laws. Many students study the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code (APA, 2017) closely and strive to adhere to its standards. This provides a strong foundation for them in their professional careers. The standards of the Ethics Code give flesh to the overarching ethical principles such as, beneficence, justice, or respect for patient autonomy, and they also save psychologists the effort of figuring out what to do in many clinical situations. For example, psychologists may question their obligations or roles when they encounter a patient in an emergency and they lack the required competence in that patient’s problem area. Fortunately, those who know the Ethics Code (see Standard 2.02) have a standard to follow when deciding how to act.

Nevertheless, this statement is misleading because no ethics code can tell psychologists what to do under all circumstances. For example, educators could explain that many standards within the Ethics Code include modifiers such as “reasonable” or “feasible,” which require psychologists to use judgment to interpret the standard. Furthermore, many ethical problems are not addressed in the standards at all. Psychologists need a decision-making process to rely upon when they can find no direction from the Ethics Code. Finally, ethics codes and laws only mandate minimal levels of competence. They do not require psychologists to go the extra mile to become the best professional they can be. One can follow the Ethics Code conscientiously and still be a marginally competent psychologist.

Therefore, a balance is needed. Just as students should not assume they are ethical simply because they follow their personal belief system, they should not assume that they are ethical simply because they follow the laws and standards of the profession. The optimal attitude is to try to live out their positive and prosocial values within the parameters set by the rules of the profession.

Myth 3: Only “Bad Apples” Make Ethical Errors

This statement has a grain of truth in that a few psychologists have serious character flaws, addictions, or serious illnesses that prevent them from meeting the minimum requirements of their profession. However, we make a mistake if we draw too sharp a line between “them” and “us.” The problem with this myth is that it implies that as long as one does not have a severe character flaw, then one is immune to making ethical errors. In reality, any of us under the right circumstances could make an ethical error of consequence. If students recognize that they have the potential to make ethical mistakes, then they can prepare themselves for that potentiality and take preventive measures. Ethical misconduct often occurs due to a complex interaction between psychologists, patients, and contextual factors. All of us risk situations in which family issues (such as the severe illness of a child) or professional stressors may tax our resources and we suddenly find ourselves tempted to cut corners in our professional practice. Or, for some reason, a particular patient may activate maternal or paternal feelings, which may cause us to cross boundaries inappropriately.

The optimal solution may be to help students cultivate a sense of humility, defined as “having an accurate view of oneself, particularly of one’s limitations” (Davis et al., 2017, p. 243). Humility does not mean debasing oneself or becoming servile. Instead, it guards against moral narcissism (“I am too ethical ever to do that”). It furthers an accurate self-perception by developing the habit of accepting feedback and criticisms without being overly defensive. One exercise is to have students create a set of circumstances that would cause them to commit an unethical act or to recall the circumstances surrounding an incident where they acted in a way they later regretted. If they perform this exercise honestly, they could identify potential weak spots and sensitize themselves to the possibility that they could make an ethical error.

Myth 4: I Need to Fear Discussions of Ethics

Ethics can sometimes be scary. The topics covered in an ethics class may be unpleasant, such as how to respond to suspected child abuse or how to respond when patients present a serious and imminent danger of harming themselves. In addition, students may fear the consequences if they make an error and misinterpret a standard in the ethics code or if their actions harm a patient. Finally, being accused of making an ethical violation could be a source of great shame and personal humiliation.

Like all myths, this contains a grain of truth. One should have a certain amount of healthy fear or respect for licensing boards, malpractice courts, and other disciplinary bodies. However, fear needs to be kept in perspective, as it is seldom the best motivator of behavior.

Ethics educators can reduce unnecessary fear by giving students confidence that they know the basics, creating a safe space to discuss their worries and concerns, and assuring them that they can get the support and resources needed when they do not know what to do. Educators can assure them they will make mistakes, but with proper preparation, they can significantly decrease the likelihood of big mistakes (I often shared my mistakes with my graduate students). When faced with ethical questions or conundrums, psychologists aim to be open about their concerns, be receptive to correction, and develop acceptance of their limitations. To paraphrase Nissen-Lie et al. (2017), students should learn to doubt their ethical conduct but love themselves as a person. They should be conscientious but avoid the pitfall of perfectionism, which involves relentless self-criticism without the benefit of self-compassion.

One ethics educator stated that ethics education should be fun. Dr. Small (2005) wrote:

In the workshops I have conducted on positive ethics, we try to create a stimulating, enjoyable, and nonjudgmental atmosphere. We avoid using the word unethical, just as in a clinical workshop, we would try to avoid labeling participants or even behavior as incompetent. We assume that most psychologists continue striving to reach higher levels of clinical and ethical excellence. (p. 8).

Without being maudlin or overly sentimental, one goal of the ethics educator is to help students feel valued as people and professionals and to convey confidence that they will make meaningful contributions to society as they live out their life goals.

Myth 5: Ethics is Entirely An Individual Affair

When I taught ethics, one of the first questions I asked my students was, “What do you want the person next to you to get out of this class?” This question surprised them, but they soon described goals for their fellow students. Then I would ask them, “Why did I ask that question?” The students could then identify ways their goal of promoting public health could be better fulfilled if their fellow students with the same goals did better at their jobs.

Finally, I would ask them, “Do you want to do good, or do you want good to be done?” Doing good means that we directly help another person, such as providing them with high-quality psychotherapy. However, wanting good to be done means we want to promote public health even if we are not delivering the service directly. This could include, among other things, being available as a consultant to other psychologists, mentoring early career psychologists, or advocating for policies that promote the public’s well-being.

The myth of the solitary ethical agent has an element of truth. In the final analysis, each psychologist determines how they can act, and in some ways, everyone must take on their own journey. However, this statement is also misleading because we can reach our ethical best when we embed ourselves within a community of those with shared values and mutual concerns. Johnson et al. (2012) called this the competence community. Seeing that good is done necessarily means interacting with other healthcare professionals, and we can do our best at doing good when we similarly create a community of like-minded professionals with similar goals.

In addition to helping others, embedding ourselves in a protective community also benefits us. By working within this protective social network, we will cultivate relationships with colleagues who will:

  • Monitor our behavior and give feedback when we slip.
  • Keep us up-to-date on changes in the profession.
  • Share resources if asked.
  • Be a friend and allow us to debrief or vent after a difficult day.

Conversely, we can promote public well-being by informally monitoring our colleagues and reaching out to them when they seem to be struggling. We can share our ideas and resources with them and be a sounding board when they have difficult emotions they need to process.

Educational Recommendations

We can help students develop a healthier perspective on ethics by assisting them to:

  • Understand the unique rules of psychology so they can channel their prosocial instincts to best benefit patients.
  • Appreciate the values and limitations of ethics codes and laws.
  • Recognize that all of us have the potential to make ethical mistakes.
  • Respect the disciplinary processes, but do not fear them so much that they stifle discussions and reflections on ethical topics.
  • Create a professional community that challenges and supports them to be their best ethical self.

Samuel Knapp is a retired psychologist who formerly worked as the director of professional affairs for the Pennsylvania Psychological Association.

Cite This Article

Knapp, S. (2024, June). Five myths students may have about ethics. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 59(3).

References

American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ethics/code

Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., McAnnally-Linz, R., Choe, E., & Placeres, V. (2017). Humility, religion, and spirituality: A review of the literature. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9(3), 242–253. https://doi.org/10.1037/rel0000111

Johnson, W. B., Barnett, J. E., Elman, N. S., Forrest, L., & Kaslow, N. J. (2012). The competent community: Toward a vital reformulation of professional ethics. American Psychologist, 67(7), 557–569.  https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027206

Nissen-Lie, H. A., Rønnestad, M. H., Høglend, P. A., Havik, O. E., Solbakken, O. A., Stiles, T. C., & Monsen, J. T. (2017). Love yourself as a person, doubt yourself as a therapist? Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 24(1), 48–60. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.1977

Small, R. (2005). Ethics can be fun. The Pennsylvania Psychologist, 63(11), 8-15.

 

 

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