APA Ethics Code Principles and Standards

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Ethics are an important concern in the field of psychology, particularly as it relates to therapy and research. Working with patients and conducting psychological research can pose a wide variety of ethical and moral issues that need to be addressed. The APA ethics code provides guidance for professionals working in the field of psychology so that they're better equipped with the knowledge of what to do when they encounter some type of moral or ethical dilemma.

Some of these are principles or values that psychologists should aspire to uphold. In other cases, the APA outlines standards that are enforceable expectations.

The APA’s Code of Ethics

The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct which outlines the aspirational principles as well as enforceable standards that psychologists should use when making decisions. The APA first published their ethics code in 1953 and it has been continuously evolving ever since. The current version of the ethics code, which introduced the distinction between principles and standards, was developed in 2002 and later amended in 2010 and 2016.

The APA code of ethics is composed of key principles and ethical standards. The principles are intended as a guide to help inspire psychologists as they work in their profession, whether they are working in mental health, in research, or in business. The standards, on the other hands, are expectations of conduct that can lead to professional and legal ramifications when violated.

As Nicholas Hobbs, who served as an APA president and head of one of the committees that designed the standards explained, the purpose of the code is not to keep unscrupulous people out of trouble. It serves as an aid to help ethical psychologists make real-world decisions in their daily practice.

The code of ethics applies only to work-related, professional activities including research, teaching, counseling, psychotherapy, and consulting. Private conduct is not subject to scrutiny by the APA's ethics committee.

The Five Ethical Principles

Not all ethical issues are clear-cut, but the APA strives to offer psychologists guiding principles to help them make sound ethical choices within their profession.

Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence

The first principle of the APA ethics code states that psychologists should strive to protect the rights and welfare of those who they work with professionally. This includes the clients that they see in clinical practice, animals that are involved in research and experiments, as well as anyone else with whom they engage in professional interaction.

This principle encourages psychologists to strive to eliminate biases, affiliations, and prejudices that might influence their work. This includes acting independently in research and not allowing affiliations or sponsorships influence results.

Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility

The APA also suggests that psychologists have a moral responsibility to help ensure that others working in their profession also uphold high ethical standards. This principle suggests that psychologists should participate in activities that enhance the ethical compliance and conduct of their colleagues. Serving as a mentor, taking part in peer-review, and pointing out ethical concerns or misconduct are examples of how this principle might be put into action.

Psychologists are also encouraged to donate some of their time to the betterment of the community.

Principle C: Integrity

In research and practice, psychologists should never attempt to deceive or misrepresent. In research, deception can involve fabricating or manipulating results in some way to achieve desired outcomes.

Psychologists should also strive for transparency and honesty in their practice.

When deception is used in research (which may involve the use of confederates as participants or not fully revealing the true nature of the research), psychologists must make efforts to mitigate the effects. This type of research deception must be justified and the possible gains must outweigh potential drawbacks.

The use of deception should be minimal, not result in distress, and be disclosed at the earliest possible opportunity.

Principle D: Justice

In it’s broadest sense, justice relates to a responsibility to be fair and impartial. This principle states that people have a right to access and benefit from advances that have been made in the field of psychology. It is important for psychologists to treat people equally.

Psychologists should also always practice within their area of expertise and also be aware of their level of competence and limitations.

Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity

Psychologists should respect the right to dignity, privacy, and confidentiality of those they work with professionally. They should also strive to minimize their own biases as well as be aware of issues related to diversity and the concerns of particular populations. For example, people may have specific concerns that are related to their age, socioeconomic status, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or disability.

Ethical Standards

The 10 standards found in the APA ethics code are enforceable rules of conduct for psychologists working in clinical practice and academia. These standards tend to be broad in order to help guide the behavior of psychologists across a wide variety of domains and situations. They apply to areas such as education, therapy, advertising, privacy, research, and publication.

Resolving Ethical Issues

This standard of the APA ethics code provides information about what psychologists should do to resolve ethical situations they may encounter in their work. This includes advice for what researchers should do when their work is misrepresented and when to report ethical violations.

Competence

It is important that psychologists practice within their area of expertise. When treating clients or working with the public, psychologists must make it clear what they are trained to do as well as what they are not trained to do. This standard stipulates that in an emergency situation, professionals may provide services even if it falls outside the scope of their practice in order to ensure that access to services is provided.

Human Relations

Psychologists frequently work with a team of other mental health professionals. This standard of the ethics code is designed to guide psychologists in their interactions with other professionals in the field. This includes guidelines related to dealing with sexual harassment, discrimination, avoiding harm during treatment, and avoiding exploitive relationships (such as having a sexual relationship with a student or subordinate).

Privacy and Confidentiality

This standard outlines psychologists’ responsibilities with regards to maintaining patient confidentiality. Psychologists are obligated to take reasonable precautions to keep client information private. However, the APA also notes that there are limitations to confidentiality. Sometimes psychologists need to disclose information about their patients in order to consult with other mental health professionals, for example.

While there are cases where information is divulged, psychologists must strive to minimize these intrusions on privacy and confidentiality.

Advertising and Other Public Statements

Psychologists who advertise their services must ensure that they accurately depict their training, experience, and expertise. They also need to avoid marketing statements that are deceptive or false. This also applies to how psychologists are portrayed by the media when providing their expertise or opinion in articles, blogs, books, or television programs. When presenting at conferences or giving workshops, psychologists should also ensure that the brochures and other marketing materials for the event accurately depict what the event will cover.

Record Keeping and Fees

Maintaining accurate records is an important part of a psychologist’s work, whether the individual is working in research or with patients. Patient records include case notes and other diagnostic assessments that are used in the course of treatment. In terms of research, record keeping involves detailing how studies were performed and the procedures that were used. This allows other researchers to assess the research and ensures that the study can be replicated.

Education and Training

This standard focuses on expectations for behavior when psychologists are teaching or training students. When creating courses and programs to train other psychologists and mental health professionals, current and accurate evidence-based research should be used.

This standard also states that faculty members are not allowed to provide psychotherapy services to their students.

Research and Publication

This standard focuses on ethical considerations when conducting research and publishing results. For example, the APA states that psychologists must obtain approval from the institution that is carrying out the research, present information about the purpose of the study to participants, and inform participants about the potential risks of taking part in the research.

Assessment

Psychologists should obtain informed consent before administering assessments. Assessments should be used to support a psychologist’s professional opinion, but they should also understand the limitations of these tools. They should also take steps to ensure the privacy of those who have taken assessments.

Therapy

This standard outlines professional expectations within the context of providing therapy. Areas that are addressed include the importance of obtaining informed consent and explaining the treatment process to clients. Confidentiality is addressed, as well as some of the limitations to confidentiality, such as when a client poses an immediate danger to himself or others.

Minimizing harm, avoiding sexual relationships with clients, and continuation of care are other areas that are addressed by this standard.

For example, if a psychologist must stop providing services to a client for some reason, psychologists are expected to prepare clients for the change and help locate alternative services.

Ethical Code Violations

What happens if a psychologist violates a standard in the APA ethics code? After a report of unethical conduct is received, the APA may censure or reprimand the psychologist, or the individual may have his or her APA membership revoked.

Complaints may also be referred to others, including state professional licensing boards. State psychological associations, professional groups, licensing boards, and government agencies may also choose to impose sanctions against the psychologist. Health insurance agencies and state and federal payers of health insurance claims may also pursue action against professionals for ethical violations related to treatment, billing, or fraud.

Those affected by ethical violations may also opt to seek monetary damages in civil courts.

Illegal activity may be prosecuted in the criminal courts. If this results in a felony conviction, the APA may take further actions including suspension or expulsion from state psychological associations and the suspension or loss of the psychologist's license to practice.

Ethical Considerations in Psychology

Because psychologists often deal with extremely sensitive or volatile situations, ethical concerns can play a big role in professional life.

Key Ethical Issues

Client Welfare: Due to the role they serve, psychologists often work with individuals who are vulnerable due to their age, disability, intellectual ability, and other concerns. When working with these individuals, psychologists must always strive to protect the welfare of their clients.

Informed consent: Psychologists are responsible for providing a wide range of services in their roles as therapists, researchers, educators, and consultants. When people are acting as consumers of psychological services, they have a right to know what to expect. In therapy, obtaining informed consent involves explaining what services are offered, what the possible risks might be, and the patient’s right to leave treatment. When conducting research, informed consent involves letting participants know about any possible risks of taking part in the research.

Confidentiality: Therapy requires providing a safe place for clients to discuss highly personal issues without fear of having this information shared with others or made public. However, sometimes a psychologist might need to share some details such as when consulting with other professionals or when they are publishing research. Ethical guidelines dictate when and how some information might be shared, as well as some of the steps that psychologists should take to protect client privacy.

Competence: The training, education, and experience of psychologists is also an important ethical concern. Psychologists must possess the skill and knowledge to properly provide the services that clients need. For example, if a psychologist needs to administer a particular assessment in the course of treatment, they should have an understanding of both the administration and interpretation of that specific test.

A Word From Verywell

While ethical codes exist to help psychologists, this does not mean that psychology is free of ethical controversy today. Current debates over psychologists’ participation in torture, the use of animals in psychological research, and the use of conversion therapy remain hot-button ethical concerns.

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