Psychologists have an ethical responsibility to become more involved in addressing human rights issues, posited graduate student Dhruvi Kakkad, who received the 2004 Graduate Student Ethics Prize at APA's Annual Convention for her paper on the topic.

Kakkad, who finishes her doctorate this fall at Fordham University, explained three ways that Western psychology can shift its approach to social justice:

  • Taking a systems-oriented approach. There's a tendency in psychology to be preoccupied with the individual, she said, which may "complacently allow pathology to continue at a systemic level."

  • Shifting from reactive to proactive approaches. Psychologists should consider what can be done beforehand to prevent the crises--such as ethnic tensions--that spawn social justice issues, she argued.

  • Remedying cultural biases in the field. Western psychologists should consider how their individualistic culture can influence how they work with people from collectivistic cultures, which value community and family above self.

With those shifts in mind, psychologists could conduct culturally sensitive research to inform public policy as well as therapy that's responsive to both traumatic experience and how people from different cultures express distress and define well-being.

She went on to discuss some of the ethical dilemmas of carrying out this work, such as that psychologists' effectiveness can be compromised if they have visibly strong reactions to hearing details of torture or are overly curious about the graphic details.

The Graduate Student Ethics Prize rewards the year's best student paper on psychology and ethics and is a collaboration between APA's Ethics Committee and the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS).

Kakkad's paper was selected out of 30 submissions because her analysis went beyond a literature review to take a position on the ethical responsibilities of psychologists in society, says Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD. The prize included $1,000 and a trip to the Honolulu convention, as well as the publication of her article in an upcoming issue of the journal Ethics & Behavior.

--D. SMITH BAILEY

Further Reading

For more information on the prize, visit the APA Ethics Web page.