Every psychologist confronts difficult decisions where the correct path, if there is one, isn't clear. Perhaps they must balance the rights of two individuals, or weigh several competing ethical principles. While there are no easy solutions, there are things every psychologist can do to help make the best decision:
Know your stuff
Regularly read the Ethics Code and other materials that guide your work.
"I say read the code weekly, but if not weekly, at least monthly," says Ed Nottingham, PhD, an associate member of APA's Ethics Committee. Psychologists should know their state and federal laws and regulations, as well as relevant guidelines published by scientific and professional organizations such as APA.
Moreover, keep in mind that the APA Ethics and Research Ethics offices, federal agencies, colleagues and many state psychological associations and licensing boards provide psychologists with consultations and helpful materials. Continuing-education courses are another great resource. For example, the APA Insurance Trust offers ethics and risk management materials, including an interactive CD-ROM, and the National Institutes of Health offers an online tutorial on human participants protections (see Further Reading boxes, pages 55 and 60).
Trust your gut
When a situation seems not quite right or you feel you're at an ethical impasse, take it as a signal, says Steven Sparta, PhD, immediate past-chair of APA's Ethics Committee. "During those times, I would advise psychologists to not be passive," he adds. "Be assertive in taking action to the point that you believe that the feeling has been adequately resolved."
Every ethical dilemma has a history, adds Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, director of APA's Ethics Office: "The earlier a psychologist is able to recognize that this is a situation with ethical implications, the less likely it is to lead to an ethical problem."
If you know the action is illegal or unethical, "don't do it," is the simple advice of lawyer Joseph T. Monahan--no matter how justified it may seem.
Talk with others
Consult with fellow psychologists at the first sign of a potential dilemma and continue consulting until the issue has been resolved, says Sparta.
Other resources include your institution's legal department and other oversight groups. Such organizations can be an excellent sounding board when unexpected ethical dilemmas arise. Also, consider speaking with a lawyer with expertise in research and publication, or mental health.
"Things have changed dramatically in the last 20 years," says June Tangney, PhD, of George Mason University. "People feel more free to consult with their colleagues about ethical questions that might come up."
Offer a heads up
Talk about foreseeable issues upfront. Psychologists can often avoid ethical pitfalls if they just talk about potential snags at the beginning. "We can't always anticipate every conundrum," says Sparta. "But to the extent that there are situations that are common or that people encounter frequently, we can strive to anticipate them and, if possible, address them right up front."
Think about ethics as more than do's and don'ts. "Learning the Ethics Code and going to risk management workshops is not sufficient to avoid ethical problems," says Michael Gottlieb, PhD, a member of APA's Ethics Committee. "Rather, we must look deeper and come to a better understanding of our emotional lives as well as our intellectual lives. In the end, that may be the best risk management of all."