better understand their personal feelings and values and how
they can lead to ethical problems. Doing so not only reduces the
risk of psychologists drifting into ethical trouble, but also helps
move the quality of professional practice from merely adequate
The problem and efforts at solutions
Psychology training programs accredited by APA are required to
provide ethics education to their students. This helps students
and colleagues understand where the “floor” in ethical behavior
lies and how the standard of care is commonly interpreted. That
usually includes learning the APA Ethics Code, as well as state
factors have the potential to overpower one’s knowledge of
ethics codes and rational decision-making models.
Although many psychologists and trainees can accurately
describe their ethical responsibilities, they report that they
might, in certain situations, act otherwise.
rules and regulations, relevant state and federal statutes and
court decisions, and mastering a particular ethical decision-making model.
Unfortunately, research suggests that cognitive strategies
alone are not sufficient. Although many psychologists and
trainees can accurately describe their ethical responsibilities,
they report that they might, in certain situations, act otherwise.
Bernard et al. (1987) came to that conclusion in a study
that looked at psychologists’ responses to a hypothetical
scenario: A psychologist learns that a male colleague is sexually
involved with a client, despite a previous confrontation about
such behavior. The researchers found that 37 percent of the
study’s clinical psychologists said they would not report the
colleague’s violation, even though they knew that they should.
Similarly, Pope, Tabachnick and Keith–Spiegel (1987) found
that 80 percent of their psychologist-respondents thought
that “working when too distressed to be effective” is unethical,
yet 53 percent reported doing so. Such research suggests that
knowledge per se represents only a portion of what is required
for sound ethical practice.
A broader view
Research has also found that psychologists’ ethical responses
are shaped by multiple factors. They include the awareness that
ethical issues are present, social and cultural influences, habits,
emotions, intuitions, identity, virtues and character, multiple
or competing motivations, prior decisions, and the executive
and organizational skills needed to implement decisions. These
influence moral judgments and behaviors more than moral
reasoning (Haidt, 2001, 2007).
Because of these human variables, we believe that building
resilience and confronting vulnerabilities in psychologists’ lives
is a form of primary prevention. When applied to professional
behavior, such actions include addressing the emotions
and personal values of individual psychologists well before
problematic ethical behavior arises. By drawing on the science
of prevention (Coie et al., 1993), we can bolster psychologists’
protective factors and minimize risks of ethical missteps.
Four factors affecting resilience and vulnerability
Psychologists and students who want to enhance their resilience
and minimize their vulnerabilities may benefit from carefully
reflecting on where they stand in relation to four dimensions:
desire, opportunities, values and education (DOVE). Each
of these dimensions can foster ethical behavior and personal
resilience. At the same time, each may represent vulnerabilities
that can lead to ethical breaches. We do not claim that these
four represent an exhaustive list. Rather, we propose them as a
beginning of the discussion. The four are:
1. Desire to help. Why do people choose to be psychologists?
One common answer is that psychologists want to help others.
However, desire to help can also create vulnerability. As Behnke
(2008) observed, “There’s no one thing that has gotten more
psychologists in [ethical] trouble than the desire to be helpful.”
A typical example is the well-intentioned boundary
violation. Under normal circumstances, a good person who