Ethics in Psychology: An Overview for Students

ethics in psychology definition and examples, explained below

Ethics in psychology refers to the moral principles and values that guide the behavior of psychologists while conducting research or providing therapy to clients. 

Put simply, it involves making sure that psychologists always act responsibly and professionally.

For example, ethical guidelines dictate that psychologists must obtain informed consent from their research participants before conducting any research on them. 

The participants must comprehend the agreement and be aware of what their involvement will involve.

Another example of ethics in psychology is maintaining confidentiality. Psychologists must maintain client confidentiality except in cases where disclosure is necessary to prevent harm to the client or others or when required by law.

chrisComprehension Questions: As you read through this article, our editor Chris will pose comprehension and critical thinking questions to help you get the most out of this article. Teachers, if you assign this article for homework, have the students answer these questions at home, then use them as stimuli for in-class discussion.

What is Ethics in Psychology?

In psychology, ethics pertains to the rules and guidelines established by the organization of psychologists and the ethical and lawful duties that scientists and practitioners owe to the people or patients they work with.

Psychologists use methods that guarantee human dignity, privacy rights, and confidentiality when conducting research, teaching, and practice following specific principles. 

These ethical principles are established because:

“…psychologists as a collective have a responsibility to use their abilities, knowledge, skill, and experience to enhance law’s effectiveness, efficiency, and reliability in preventing harm, but their professional behavior in this collaboration must be moral” (Allan, 2018, p. 485).

Ethical principles demand that psychologists consider the potential risk of harm to participants or clients due to their clinical work or research.

As a result, psychologists must adhere to a code of conduct that is built upon ethical decision-making models such as the Belmont Report’s four principles:

  • respect (protects participant autonomy), 
  • beneficence (maximizes benefits against risks/harms), 
  • non-maleficence (prevents unnecessary harm), 
  • justice (ensures treatments are fairly distributed) (Nagai et al., 2022).

These principles prioritize the protection of participant welfare both physically and mentally, confidentiality agreements between psychologist-clients relationships enacted by countrywide laws on data privacy protection. 

In summary, ethics in psychology is an essential aspect of scientific practices used to ensure maximum benefit with a minimal negative impact on study participants or clients while promoting public trust in psychological research.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: What four principles are endorsed by the Belmont Report? Would you add any additional ethical principles to this list?

Examples of Ethics in Psychology

  • Confidentiality: One of psychology’s most important ethical considerations is confidentiality. Psychologists are required to keep the information shared by their clients confidential. For instance, if a client shares any personal stories or reveals their identity to a psychologist, the psychologist must ensure that this private information remains between them.
  • Informed Consent: Ethical psychologists always obtain informed consent from their clients before embarking on any research, therapy, or other type of professional intervention. This means that they clearly explain the nature of the therapeutic process and outline its potential benefits and risks so that clients can make informed decisions.
  • Withdrawal Rights: Clients have the right to stop therapy at any time without facing the consequences related to breach or forfeit of confidentiality.
  • Avoidance of Dual Relationships: Psychologists should avoid creating situations where multiple relationships exist with clients. Hence they should not engage with social media contacts as close associates and adhere to appropriate behavior in public and private spaces.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Psychologists must be sensitive to cultural norms when treating people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, which may differ vastly based solely on normative values held within different communities.
  • Clarity on Multiple Relationships: Psychologists should limit their care to clinical roles and discourage clients from expecting indulgent conversations beyond those parameters. They should also be cautious when personal interests might affect the well-being of their clients.
  • Therapy Termination: In cases where a therapist cannot cater to needs effectively, it’s ethical to refer to a better alternative option.
  • Maintaining Professional Boundaries: Psychologists should always uphold boundaries by ensuring all interactions remain professional and ensuring there are no conflicts of interest between researchers and research participants.
  • Reporting Unethical Activity: If a psychologist becomes aware of unethical behavior, they generally have a responsibility to report it to the governing bodies, such as the university’s ethics board if this occurs during a psychological study. They may also need to pause the study until an investigation is completed.
  • Beneficence: Psychologists are responsible for providing optimal assistance to patients and striving to enhance their mental well-being. This includes ensuring access to necessary resources for clients who may be financially unable to obtain them or who require digital support tools.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: What would be an example of a “dual relationship” that might mean a researcher will have to remove themselves from a study?

Understanding the APA Code of Ethics

The American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Ethics was developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s due to growing concern over unethical conduct among psychologists (Leach, 2012).

Before this, no clear ethical guidelines governed the behavior of clinical psychologists, counselors, or therapists dealing with clients.

There were also concerns over the lack of consistency between different psychologists’ theoretical approaches during therapy.

chrisEditor’s Note: To see some unethical psychological studies conducted in the past, read my article on famous case studies in psychology.

The APA recognized these issues and established a committee in 1947 to develop a set of guidelines for ethical behavior. This committee included professionals from various disciplines within psychology (Leach, 2012).

After several years of discussion and development, the first APA code of ethics was established in 1953 (Stricker, 2010).

The purpose of the APA Code of Ethics is to provide guidance to psychologists on how they should behave professionally and what standards they should adhere to when interacting with patients/clients/pupils undergoing counseling or therapies.

It helps establish ethical guidelines that all members must follow, helping prevent unprofessionalism while empowering clients to access psychologist services (Leach, 2012).

This includes but is not limited to ethical principles involving Informed consent, cultural sensitivity, boundary setting, avoiding exploitation, and confidentiality, amongst others.

The code establishes general principles, such as respect for persons’ rights and autonomy self-determination, while protecting individuals from harm (Stricker, 2010).

Case Study: The Milgrim Experiment

In 1961, Dr. Stanley Milgram of Yale university conducted one of the most controversial experiments in psychology. Milgram’s studied deceived participants by telling them the study was about punishment and learning. The true purpose was to investigate the power of authority. During the study, participants were instructed to administer increasingly high levels of shock to an actor. As the actor began to object and expressed severe pain, the researcher insisted they continue administering shock. Video recordings of the participants clearly showed they were under severe duress throughout the experiment. The study was heavily criticized for both the use of deception and psychological duress endured by participants.

Five Ethical Principles by The American Psychological Association (APA) 

APA has created five basic principles that act as ethical standards for psychologists. These are meant to ensure that psychologists behave ethically, professionally, and sensitively toward their clients and coworkers.

Here are the five general principles of APA:

1. Beneficence and Non-Maleficence

This principle requires that psychologists promote the welfare of clients and strive not to harm them. They must ensure that their interventions are not likely to cause any harm or negatively impact their client’s mental health (Stricker, 2010).

This includes providing appropriate treatment methods, conducting assessments accurately while avoiding false diagnoses or wrong interventions, and remaining informed about current research advancements in the field.

2. Fidelity and Responsibility

Psychologists must maintain professionalism and trustworthiness by adhering to competency standards within their field. 

They should also follow the guidelines set by the APA and abide by codes of conduct when interacting with regulatory authorities or stakeholders. This ensures that they fulfill expectations placed upon them with the utmost diligence (Stricker, 2010).

3. Integrity

Psychologists should prioritize honesty, truthfulness, and open communication in their interactions with clients/patients. 

These behaviors contribute to building a strong and trusting relationship, essential for effective engagement between patients and psychologists (Stricker, 2010). 

Throughout this process, psychologists should uphold respect and dignity and adhere to the rights outlined in the code of ethics specific to their jurisdiction.

chrisEditor’s Note: At times, psychologists need to withhold some information from research participants in order for the study to work out. In these cases, institutional review boards (IRB) will apply additional scrutiny to the study before approving it and require the research participants provide an exit interview explaining the information withheld. This gives the research participants the opportunity to withdraw from the study post facto.

4. Justice

This principle emphasizes fairness for all persons related to access, opportunity ability, or understanding (Stricker, 2010).

It regards ethical practice involving consideration of matters such as bias in selecting group life analyses that appeal exclusively rather than inclusive basis on what is presently known about given cases.

5. Respect for People’s Rights

Psychologists have a responsibility to respect the rights of each individual, which includes upholding confidentiality, autonomy, and self-determination. 

They should work within their professional competence while avoiding exploitation or power differentials. This can be achieved by promoting data privacy when necessary to protect individuals from potential abuse (Stricker, 2010).

Importance of Ethical Principles in Psychology

Ethical principles are essential in psychology as they guide psychologists to behave responsibly and maintain professional client relationships.

The main objective of ethics in psychology is to protect clients from harm and uphold their privacy, dignity, and well-being. Therefore, ethical principles provide guidelines to guarantee the confidential handling of individuals’ information.

Furthermore, ethics in clinical settings establish a common foundation for professionals, guiding their actions and ensuring patient care is based on empirical research rather than personal biases (Mustapha & Nketiah, 2021).

chrisEditor’s Note: Empirical research refers to research that is based on observation and evidence. It ensures there is an evidence basis for claims. To learn about empirical research, read Dave’s article here

What is more, to prevent the abuse of professional influence, psychology has regulations in place that outline appropriate ways for professionals to exercise their authority and influence over clients’ decision-making processes. 

These regulations are guided by ethical guidelines that help orient and limit abuses, including exploitation cases such as dual relationships that may foster sexual grooming strategies (Hadjistavropoulos & Cruise Malloy, 1999).

Finally, ethics requires psychologists only perform their clinical duties after obtaining full consent. This means ensuring patients understand every aspect of possible risks, benefits, and other outcomes before proceeding. 


Ethics in psychology is of utmost importance as it guides the behavior and practice of psychologists while upholding the welfare and dignity of clients. 

It provides a foundation for responsible behavior through maintaining confidentiality, ensuring informed consent, cultural sensitivity, and boundary setting safeguarding against power differentials and unwarranted exploitation.

The APA Code of Ethics guides ethical principles within psychology to ensure everyone’s rights are respected, no matter their background or race. 

Adopting and adhering to such values provided under jurisdiction are integral when dealing with people from diverse backgrounds with varied problems.

By following the ethical guidelines laid out by regulatory bodies, psychologists can create a safe and transparent environment through which patients can access services without fear or stigma. 

This improves mutual respect leading to greater trust and strengthening relationships between psychologist-clients even under challenging circumstances that confront the practice of psychotherapy.


Allan, A. (2018). Moral challenges for psychologists working in psychology and law. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law25(3), 485–499.

Hadjistavropoulos, T., & Cruise Malloy, D. (1999). Ethical principles of the american psychological association: An argument for philosophical and practical ranking. Ethics & Behavior9(2), 127–140.

Haeny, A. M. (2014). Ethical considerations for psychologists taking a public stance on controversial issues: The balance between personal and professional life. Ethics & Behavior24(4), 265–278.

Leach, M. M. (2012). The Oxford handbook of international psychological ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mustapha, H. S., & Nketiah, B. (2021). Ethics: An insight into psychological research and practice. OALib08(01), 1–12.

Nagai, H., Nakazawa, E., & Akabayashi, A. (2022). The creation of the Belmont Report and its effect on ethical principles: a historical study. Monash Bioethics Review40(2).

Stricker, G. (2010). American Psychological Association Code of Ethics. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology.

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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