CE credits: 1
Exam items: 10
After completing this course participants will be able to:
• Discuss the limitations of assimilation strategies.
• Discuss the limitations of separation strategies.
• Identify ways to improve adherence to integrated strategies.
Most psychologists strive to act ethically, but all of us are vulnerable to lapses in which we perform in a less-than-optimal way, often without even being
aware of it (Bazerman & Banaji, 2004, p. 111).
Some psychologists, for example, may stumble because they
don’t know the laws or standards governing their profession.
Others may place self-interest above public welfare — such as
taking on lucrative forensic work without the training to do
so. Still others impulsively enter into clinically contraindicated
multiple relationships with patients.
We’ve all heard of colleagues who act in a questionable
way but perceive themselves as behaving ethically and even
consider their behaviors exemplary. We are not referring to
obviously unethical behavior that is rationalized — such as one
psychologist who billed Medicare for services he never delivered
and claimed he did not attend to the details of billing because
his time was consumed as a concerned healer. Instead, we are
referring to situations in which psychologists believe they are
acting ethically, even though a peer evaluation would suggest
We refer to these types of behaviors and attitudes as the dark
side of professional ethics. The problem seems to occur because
psychologists define professional ethics in different ways. For
example, consider this vignette:
A young trainee gave her home phone number to a patient
who was in deep distress. The patient called one weekend and
the trainee agreed to meet the patient at a restaurant. They
talked for two hours and ordered beverages and light snacks. The
trainee fully disclosed the events to her supervisor the next day.
The instructor noticed wide discrepancies in how the trainee’s
classmates responded to this event. Some students criticized the
trainee for a boundary violation. Others praised the trainee’s
dedication to her patient. Both groups justified their opinions on
the basis of “ethics.”
In this vignette, as in many other situations psychologists
face, psychologists use the word “ethics” very differently.
Some focus almost exclusively on laws, regulations and the
enforceable standards of the APA Ethics Code. When asked,
“What is the ethical thing to do?” they only want to know the
laws or standards that govern the situation. Perhaps their fear
of disciplinary action is so great, their training so inadequate or
their character so rigid that they place excessive emphasis on the
more rigid interpretation of risk management strategies, even if
those strategies place unnecessary barriers between themselves
and their patients. And, if confronted with such behavior by a
colleague, they may even view with scorn those who take a more
Other psychologists define professional ethics by
disproportionately emphasizing their own personal beliefs,
virtues and value systems. When asked, “What is the ethical
thing to do?” they refer to their personal sense of morality and
make little reference to the laws, rules or APA Ethics Code.
Perhaps their sensitivity to the concerns of their patients is
so excessive, their training so inadequate, their confidence so
inflated or their self-reflection so superficial that they minimize
the importance of laws and standards; they may even disdain
those who are more scrupulous about following professional
laws and standards.
We consider both of these views of professional ethics to be
inadequate and believe that they can lead psychologists into
less-than-optimal or even unethical behaviors. We argue that
the dark side may manifest itself in two ways. First, it may lead
practitioners to focus on rules so much that they risk harming
their professional relationships. Second, it may appear in
the guise of placing one’s personal beliefs above value-based
professional standards such that they similarly risk delivering
less than optimal services.
The Ethics Acculturation Model
According to the Ethics Acculturation Model, or EAM
(Anderson & Handelsman, 2010; Handelsman et al., 2005), the
task of becoming a psychologist involves understanding new
professional values and integrating them with one’s existing
moral values. This integration is similar to the way that Berry
and Kim (1988) described immigrants’ acculturation. Some
immigrants accept the new culture wholeheartedly, even
minimizing or rejecting their culture of origin; this strategy is
termed an assimilation strategy. Others retain as much of their
culture of origin as possible, minimizing their involvement with
the new culture and avoiding its new norms and standards; this
is referred to as a separation strategy. Still other immigrants
lose their culture of origin and fail to adopt the norms of their
adopted country; this is a marginalization strategy. Finally, some
adopt helpful elements of their new culture while retaining the
functional and helpful elements of their old culture; this is an
In a manner similar to immigrants, psychology students can
adopt assimilation, separation, marginalization or integration
strategies as they strive to incorporate both their personal and
professional ethics. Berry and his colleagues (Berry, 2003; Berry
& Sam, 1997) have found that integration is the most effective
acculturation strategy; we contend that this is the case for ethics
acculturation as well.
When trainees use an assimilation strategy, they rely too little
on their personal ethics and too much on the laws or standards
that govern the profession of psychology. In the extreme, strict
adherence to the rules is all that matters to them. Students