APA Outsources Ethics Adjudication

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The American Psychological Association Outsources Adjudication of Ethics Complaints: 5 Far-Reaching Consequences

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

July 22, 2018

The American Psychological Association announced: "Starting immediately, complaints will be accepted against APA member psychologists only if there is no alternative forum to hear the complaint," noting that APA does "not have powers of investigation that governmental bodies and others possess."

Outsourcing ethics enforcement to government bodies and others (e.g., private corporations and agencies that can track and investigate their psychologist employees) results in APA adopting ethics codes, policies, resolutions, and public statements without taking responsibility for holding its members accountable to those ethics.

This historic shift of responsibility creates far-reaching changes in ethics enforcement and in whose ethics gets enforced. Here are a few examples.

First, unless the government, corporate, or other body hearing the ethics complaint has adopted APA's ethics code as its own enforceable policy and made enforcement of the code a priority, complaints will be handled in light of the government's, corporation's, or other organization's own enforceable ethical standards and enforcement priorities. Governments, corporations, and other organizations may enforce standards that differ significantly from—and in some cases may starkly conflict with—APA's ethics code.

Second, the dilemma of what to do when "psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority" (section 1.02 of the APA ethics code) sparked much controversy. APA has shifted responsibility for hearing such complaints to government bodies. This allows the government itself to adjudicate ethics complaints about whether its own laws, regulations, or state authority conflict with ethical responsibilities.

Third, the APA code addresses what to do "if the demands of an organization with which psychologists are affiliated or for whom they are working are in conflict with this Ethics Code" (section 1.03 of the APA ethics code). Ethics complaints involving psychologists who are corporate officers, employees, consultants, or affiliates can now be resolved by the Human Relations Department or other complaint resolution process of the reviewing organization. Private corporations and other organizations may have sharply different perspectives on the topics covered APA's ethics code (e.g., conflicts of interest, the scientific basis of public statements, discrimination based on sexual orientation, deception in research or in the purpose and uses of research, sharing data, the need for anesthesia in animal research involving surgery, and so on).

Fourth, discussions of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, the Abu Ghraib Prison, and other sites in "the war on terror" led to additions, changes, or clarifications in APA policies regarding such topics as participation at such sites, torture, Human Rights, and so on. Ethics complaints against psychologists regarding their participation at these sites can now be resolved by an Inspector General, the military chain of command, or other government grievance channels, as the APA no longer accepts ethics complaints regarding these ethics policies.

Fifth, if the psychologist is licensed, a complaint may be filed with one of the state licensing boards, many of which have not adopted APA's current code as part of their state licensing law. States may adopt enforceable standards that differ significantly from the APA code. For example, the APA code prohibits sex with a former therapy client or patient for at least 2 years after therapy stops, but many states may lack a law imposing such a restriction. As "red states" and "blue states" tend to become more polarized in their views of issues covered by the APA ethics code (e.g., discrimination based on sexual orientation)—or even on the benefits of regulation by government bodies—APA's moves toward organizational deregulation of its ethics and the decision to refer complaints out to government bodies and other organizations for adjudication allow APA's national set of enforceable ethical standards to be replaced by a different set of enforceable ethics and enforcement priorities adopted by each state.

The APA statement regarding this change is online at:

PLEASE NOTE: "A Human Rights and Ethics Crisis Facing the World's Largest Organization of Psychologists—Accepting Responsibility, Understanding Causes, Implementing Solutions," which is in press in European Psychologist, is online at:



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