Psychologists as Public Citizens


Psychologists often bemoan the perception that our profession is rarely accorded the prestige it deserves. We are underpaid, under-reimbursed, and undervalued. Our science is toothless and is of interest only to researchers themselves and the undergraduate psych majors who have to digest their inexplicable findings. Our professional organizations’ lobbying efforts are rendered impotent by lack of funds. In any case, lawmakers don’t want psychological science to get in the way of a predetermined legislative agenda. I could go on, but you understand what I’m driving at.

Whenever I make a presentation at an out-of-town venue, I often counter what I view as unwarranted professional pessimism by picking up a copy of the local newspaper. Almost invariably, there is an article that directly involves psychological science or practice, either on the front page or at least in the A section of the paper. Whether it be expert testimony, dissemination of research findings, or a professional viewpoint on a matter of public health or opinion, psychology is almost always there.  (As a test, the first mention of psychology in The New York Times on the day I write this column comes on page A12, with a reference to psychologist Dr. Pierre Altieri providing hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. In my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post, the first reference to psychology doesn’t occur until page A14, in a discussion of how this year’s Nobel Prize winner in economics Richard Thaler integrated psychology and economics to better predict human behavior. All in all, a slow day for psychology but you get my point. Psychology is everywhere.)

While our code of ethics clearly applies only to our activities as psychologists, not as private citizens, we also have a role as public citizens. A clear distinction between these roles is often impossible and the application of professional ethical codes murky. But we are increasingly prominent as a profession, in ways good and bad, making the standards we apply increasingly important.

A psychologist member of Congress, self-styled as the “nation’s mental health expert” captured national attention last week with his sudden resignation after revelations of an extramarital affair. While extra-marital affairs may be politically survivable according to modern mores, this one was compounded with the hypocrisy of the representative’s public antiabortion stance when, after a false alarm, he encouraged his paramour to terminate her suspected pregnancy. (A mention of psychology in the A section of the newspaper is common. Being the subject of two separate articles on the same day in the front section of The New York Times is not). Yet two other psychologist members of Congress, Dr. Judy Chu and Dr. Alan Loewenthal, continue to admirably represent their constituents and the profession without fuss or fanfare, and psychologists are often surprised to know that, until this month, three members of the profession were simultaneously serving in the US Congress.

Last week saw the publication of a book on the mental status of the U.S. President, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, edited by a Yale University psychiatrist and containing many chapters written by psychologists, including a past president of the American Psychological Association. Since the last election, most of us have gained familiarity with the “Goldwater Rule,” promulgated after the 1964 presidential contest, that enjoined psychiatrists from publically diagnosing political figures. In this regard, the distinction between a personal and a professional opinion when voiced publically, suddenly becomes a rather important one. Where should psychologists as public citizens come down on this issue? Should we demand evidence of impaired mental functioning via standardized assessment devices or does our expertise in psychopathology allow us to render a better-informed opinion than the average citizen or op-ed contributor? My own personal stance on this is clear: I believe I have every right as a citizen, and perhaps some additional insight as a retired military officer, to opine on the suitability of the commander in chief. But since I have not had the opportunity to employ my clinical training as a psychologist I cannot legitimately opine on the fitness of the same person to hold office. I understand that legitimate arguments can be made on both sides of this issue and I respect those who are perhaps more than anything astonished that we should have to face this dilemma. But sanity has never been a precondition for public office, and woe betide the profession that believes it should act as some kind of mens sana gatekeeper of candidacy to office.

The American Psychological Association itself was embroiled in controversy this past week over reports of the pending publication in the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of a paper said to describe the accuracy of a computer in judging sexual orientation on the basis of facial features. As a disclaimer, I have not read the article, only the news reports surrounding it. With astonishing accuracy, it was reported, the computer program could distinguish between gay and straight people on the basis of certain facial characteristics. Spokespeople for LGBT and social justice groups were alarmed and outraged, an understandable response given not only the vicious persecution of sexual minorities but the long, sorry, and otherwise laughably inaccurate history by psychologists and other mental health professionals in “predicting” sexual orientation (remember the Szondi test, class?) The authors of the paper cried foul, arguing that they didn’t invent this technology, they were simply exposing current applications of artificial intelligence to raise awareness about the privacy risks of such technology. Responsible psychologists and other researchers (who, we hope, have actually read prepublication copies), were quick to point out methodological flaws in the study, namely that the study focused mostly on the sexuality of European-American men who used dating websites, among other shortcomings. Here the role of the psychologist is clear: As scholars, we have an obligation to ensure that only studies meeting standards of investigational rigor are published. As scientists, we recognize the social context of our investigations, including the fact that sexual orientation is a societal, as well as biological, construct. As professionals, we have an obligation to first do no harm, so we must ensure that scientific data are not misused. As public citizens, we stand to protect the rights of minorities and underrepresented groups.

The role of psychologists in the judicial system comes before the U.S. Supreme Court with more frequency than many of us suspect. In the last Supreme Court term, for example, as reported in the current issue of the Journal of Health Service Psychology (Smith, 2017), a lower court imposition of the death penalty was overturned due to expert testimony provided by a psychologist. The psychologist in this case (Buck v. Davis) had accurately reported statistical evidence indicating that members of racial minorities were more likely to engage in violent acts. The Court overturned the verdict because the psychologist, while accurately conveying statistical data, did so in a manner that presumed that a lay audience (the jury) would have the sophistication to digest and appropriately apply such data in rendering a verdict. The Court found this presumption unwarranted, and instead believed that the psychologist’s data confused and misled the jury. The death sentence was overturned. In this instance, the role of the psychologist was clearly governed by the professional ethical obligation to uphold justice and ensure that the results of our endeavors are not unjustly applied. But here the role of the psychologist as public citizen perhaps takes even greater prominence. Setting aside any debate on the merits of the death penalty, any individual who participates in a judicial proceeding that may result in the ultimate penalty—the judicially-sanctioned taking of human life—has moral and societal obligations that transcend profession-specific ethical codes.

The tension between psychologists’ roles as professionals and as public citizens will never be completely resolved, and potentially insoluble ambiguities will always exist. But as our profession becomes more prominent, our awareness of these ambiguities should be heightened, along with recognition of our burden to resolve them in the best interests of both the profession and the public.

Copyright © National Register of Health Service Psychologists, All rights reserved.


Smith, S. R. (2017). Supreme Court 2016-2017: A New Justice and a Term of Surprising Importance. Journal of Health Service Psychology, 43, pp. 83–95.

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