In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethics in Psychological Practice

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theories
  • Confidentiality and Record Keeping
  • Assessment
  • Forensic Psychology
  • Risk Management (Quality Enhancement)
  • Ethics Education and Supervision

Psychology Ethics in Psychological Practice
Samuel Knapp, Leon VandeCreek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0024


Professional ethics refers to the laws, regulations, and standards that govern the profession (including ethics codes), the overarching ethical principles that underlie enforceable standards of conduct, ethical decision-making skills, risk management strategies, and self-regulation (emotional competence). The rules and guidelines for professional conduct are codified in the ethics code of the profession; in psychology this code is titled Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association [APA], 2010; hereafter Ethics Code). However, laws and standards cannot address all of the issues that professional psychologists face. Psychologists encounter situations that are too unique or context dependent to be covered in law or in an ethics code. Also, psychologists may encounter situations unanticipated by the ethics code, or they may encounter situations in which overarching ethical principles appear to collide with the law or the policies of an institution that employs them. Consequently, psychologists need to rely on overarching ethical values and engage in decision making. “Risk management” refers to activities that reduce the likelihood that psychologists will be investigated or convicted by a disciplinary body. To recent scholars, risk management strategies should focus on implementing or fulfilling overarching ethical principles. This perspective on allowing overarching ethical principles to guide professional behavior is called “positive ethics.”

General Overviews

These are some of the more referenced textbooks and overviews of ethics for professional psychologists. Each has its own strengths and unique features. Most are developed for graduate students in psychology or related fields. Fisher 2013 focuses primarily on the ethics code itself, whereas Knapp and VandeCreek 2012, Koocher and Keith-Spiegel 2008, Pope and Vasquez 2011, and Kitchener and Anderson 2011 deal with ethics in a broader sense. Bersoff 2008 is an edited text with substantial commentary by the author. Anderson and Handelsman 2010 focuses more on self-reflection and less on factual content.

  • Anderson, S., and M. M. Handelsman. 2010. Ethics for psychotherapists and counselors: A proactive approach. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Relying heavily on the ethics acculturation model and the use of an ethics autobiography, Anderson and Handelsman provide a series of exercises and discussions designed to socialize young professionals into the profession.

  • Bersoff, D., ed. 2008. Ethical conflicts in psychology. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    This text contains excerpts from some of the more salient articles in professional psychology accompanied by commentary.

  • Fisher, C. 2013. Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Fisher, who was the chair of the committee that recommended changes in the 2002 Ethics Code, clearly explains the principles of the APA Ethics Code, gives useful illustrations, and identifies the rationale behind many of the standards and how they fit into the overall obligations of psychologists. However, the text limits its scope to the Ethics Code and does not consider other areas of ethics such as decision-making models or risk management strategies.

  • Kitchener, K. S., and S. Anderson. 2011. Foundations of ethical practice, research and teaching in psychology and counseling. New York: Routledge.

    The unique strength is its detailed coverage of overarching ethical theories, including the decision-making model proposed.

  • Knapp, S., and L. VandeCreek. 2012. Practical ethics for psychologists: A positive approach. 2d ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Knapp and VandeCreek emphasize positive ethics, or the idea that ethics should focus on more than simply avoiding disciplinary action but should be anchored in an overarching ethical theory that guides a wide range of professional behaviors.

  • Koocher, G., and P. Keith-Spiegel. 2008. Ethics in psychology and the mental health professions: Standards and cases. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is a classic, with clear coverage of essential issues and entertaining vignettes that illustrate important points.

  • Pope, K. S., and M. Vasquez. 2011. Ethics in psychotherapy and counseling: A practical guide. 4th ed. New York: Wiley.

    This is a good, practical textbook that emphasizes self-management and self-awareness more than other texts.

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