Towards Ethical Leadership in Psychology

Jared L. Skillings, PhD, ABPP

Editor’s note: This article represent the views of the author alone and not those of APA or any group by which the author is employed or affiliated.

In 2015 a bombshell was dropped inside the hallowed halls of professional psychology. But this was not terrorism, and it was no ordinary bomb. In fact, we not only gave permission for it, but paid millions of dollars, and even lit the metaphoric fuse. Over the months while attorney David Hoffman’s team fulfilled their commission to complete an Independent Review, psychologists hoped. We hoped that the allegations of corruption within the American Psychological Association (APA) would turn out to be false, or at least exaggerated. We hoped that psychologists – our colleagues and friends – had not colluded or tortured. We hoped that our leadership had not lost its way. We hoped that psychology’s core values were still about human rights and understanding/improving the human condition.

In July 2015 the bomb exploded; the 500+ page Independent Review was released. After the initial panic and debris were cleared away, it became apparent that psychology leaders had indeed colluded with high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense to gain favor and bolster psychology’s political position. The Review detailed sophisticated political maneuvering in APA governance, task force operations, and policy development that allowed, even if unintentionally, the use of “enhanced interrogation” torture. Conflicts of interest abounded, and the facts were purposefully hidden from other psychology leaders, APA members, and the public. Thankfully, the Review concluded that changes in the APA ethics code around the same time were not connected.

The events detailed in the Review mostly took place in the early/mid 2000s when a cultural zeitgeist of fear permeated the U.S. after 9/11. Many APA leaders and staff were interviewed for the Review. Several of them held powerful positions and were identified by name for apparent wrongdoing. Many APA divisions, state/provincial associations, and stakeholders wrote strong statements condemning torture, collusion, and the lack of transparency about these issues. Anger and disgust were justifiably thinly veiled, but this emotional tone exacerbated the unprofessional vitriol in emails and on professional listserves towards those named in the Review. However, the Review was not a professional ethics investigation of individuals, and certainly not a trial. Because APA was the target of the investigation, the Review’s conclusions should have been best interpreted in light of organizational process, governance, and culture. Scapegoating individuals is the easy way out, but it should not deter us from understanding and correcting the organizational processes which facilitated the ethical failures in the first place.

Some groups (e.g. American Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) Psychological Network) wrote thoughtful statements that emphasized the social injustice of torture, particularly in relation to its impact on victims, but also minority psychologists and community members. Indeed, MENA psychologists and those from Muslim faith traditions have been marginalized overtly and subtly. For example, if you (the reader) come from a majority ethnic/spiritual background and did not feel uncomfortable with the metaphor of the Independent Review as a bombshell in this paper, then that is an example of privilege.

In order to provide a voice for the 15,000+ early-career psychologists (ECPs) in APA, a partnership was formed between the ECP leaders on APA’s top committees/boards, representing practice, science, education, and the public interest. These 11 psychology leaders became known as the “ECP Coalition for the Advancement of Psychology.” Within two weeks of the release of the Independent Review, the Coalition conducted the only survey of psychologists’ perceptions of these issues. This narrative, community-survey approach resulted in over 400 responses in one week’s time, including 250 responses from ECPs. The Coalition completed a formal statement on 10/20/15, which was disseminated to the APA Board of Directors and other psychology stakeholders, such as the Society for Health Psychology. The statement called for increased integrity, accountability, and transparency in APA, with seven robust recommendations:

  1. Update APA’s mission, vision, and core values statements to reflect a commitment to defending and enhancing human rights/potential.
  2. Develop a robust conflict of interest policy for APA governance leaders and staff.
  3. Develop a formal Human Rights Office within APA, including a member-led ombudsman program.
  4. Develop an APA organogram (i.e. organizational chart to explain information flow) to enhance organizational transparency and member engagement.
  5. Develop or identify guidelines for organizational transparency in APA.
  6. Improve accountability in APA by increasing the participation of ECP and diverse leaders.
  7. Institute term limits in APA governance to prevent leaders from gaining undue power/influence.

Dr. Anton, 2015 APA President, and the APA Board of Directors (BOD) offered a response letter, dated 12/9/15. In summary, these were its conclusions:

  1. The BOD pledged a review of APA’s strategic plan in 2016/17 to embed a focus on human rights “into the fabric of the organization.”
  2. The BOD formed a conflict of interest taskforce. As of February 2016, it is actively working on developing a policy statement.
  3. The BOD is considering whether to form a Human Rights Advisory Committee, which would make recommendations regarding future human rights initiatives/involvement.
  4. The BOD invited ECPs to contact APA staff to develop an organogram. In January 2016 two organizational psychologists were identified for this task. Their emails to APA staff have not been returned as of February 2016.
  5. The ECP Coalition’s recommendation to develop guidelines for organizational transparency was ignored. Rather than considering how to imbed guidelines for transparency into APA, the BOD proposed methods to better disseminate Council meeting minutes.
  6. The BOD pledged consideration of a leadership institute for new APA talent in 2016.
  7. The BOD acknowledged that there is no centralized control over term limits in APA Council. Thus, there is no mechanism for preventing psychologists from gaining undue influence in APA due to continual service in Council, APA’s primary decision-making entity.

As politics go, the BOD letter was very kindly and favorably worded. Nevertheless, large organizations like APA have a strong homeostatic tendency; in other words, they change very slowly if at all. In this case, promises for a brighter future are not sufficient. Real organizational changes are necessary at the level of organizational values, systems, and processes. It will be critical for APA to better understand the impact of torture on its victims and this scandal on all psychologists. This is increasingly important as mid/early career psychologists begin to take leadership, as genuineness and inclusion are strong values for them. Grassroots changes are important too; state/provincial associations and APA’s divisions should develop their own strategies for increasing transparency and reducing conflicts of interest.

In conclusion, it is my strong belief that psychology leaders, APA members, and ECPs must unite around an inclusive and cohesive vision for an APA with integrity, internal and external mechanisms for accountability, and radical transparency. We must reinvest science into our clinical, educational, and public advocacy efforts as we demonstrate the integrity and value of psychology to society.