American Psychological Association’s Ethics Office Seems to be Toothless, Lazy

apa-ethics-office-tortureAs I make my way through the 566-page independent Hoffman Report about the troubles at the American Psychological Association, I keep coming across more and more astonishing revelations. The American Psychological Association (APA) represents a minority of professional psychologists in the U.S., but is the largest professional psychological association in the world.

This past week, an independent report commissioned by the APA was released that shows how the APA colluded with various U.S. military leaders to allow psychologists to remain as consultants in interrogations that may have included torture.

The good stuff about the APA Ethics Office starts on page 58 of the Executive Summary.

One of the purposes of a professional association such as the APA is to help police its profession and keep unethical psychologists from claiming membership. (When such membership was a benefit to a psychologists’ career, this made more sense. More recently, it appears APA membership is a liability.) The APA Ethics Office is charged with investigating complaints made against psychologist members, and after reviewing the evidence, adjudicating the outcome of the complaint. (I should note here that the Ethics Office can only investigate APA members; they can’t do anything about complaints brought against U.S. psychologists who are not members of the APA.)

So what did the investigation find?

The evidence supports this allegation and shows three primary factors led to the Ethics Office’s failure to properly address these complaints:

(1) when conducting investigations the Ethics Office’s longstanding practice is not to pursue the full investigative steps permitted by the Ethics Committee Rules and Procedures (“the Rules”);

(2) the Ethics Office stretched the interpretation of its procedural rules so as to be as favorable as possible to the accused psychologist; and

(3) at times the Ethics Director, Stephen Behnke, actively resisted taking any action against psychologists who participated in interrogations.

It gets worse, though. Most people assume that when the Ethics Office says it “investigates” an ethics complaint against a member it actually, you know, “examines, studies, or inquires into systematically; searches or examines into the particulars of; examines in detail.”

Instead, here’s what they actually do:

Based on the Ethics Office’s practice, the adjudication process is typically a highly limited, “paper-only” review, which means that the “investigation” consists merely of examining documents that are sent to the Ethics Office by the parties to an ethics complaint.

Investigators take no affirmative steps to seek documents from other witnesses, and conduct no interviews, even though the Rules explicitly permit them to do both, and suggest to outside observers that the Ethics Office will take such normal investigative actions. When faced with the choice of taking more investigative steps, as permitted by the Rules, and taking fewer steps, the Ethics Office almost always chooses the latter.

Indeed, the “investigations” conducted by the Ethics Office do not comport with any ordinary understanding of the term “investigation” and would be more accurately described as a document review or case file assessment.

In other words, the office is apparently purposely setup to be a toothless entity, acting only when they receive overwhelming, damning evidence against an APA member. Anything that requires actual investigating on their part, the Ethics Office apparently defers.

Although the way in which the Ethics Office handled the James matter was technically permissible under the Rules, it demonstrates just how little effort the Ethics Office expends in its “investigation” of ethics complaints, the way in which the Ethics Offices stretches to construe the Rules in a way that is favorable to the accused, and how much the Ethics Office falls back on the rationale that standards in the Ethics Code were too vague to put psychologists on proper notice that certain interrogation techniques were unethical — a rationale that was never shared with APA membership, or the general public.

Does the APA Ethics Office Thinks Torture is Just Fine?

But it gets even worse. Not only does it appear that the Ethics Office will not lift a finger to do much investigating of anything itself, at least one of the Ethics Office’s leaders thinks that egregious behaviors the rest of the world clearly would define as torture may not actually be unethical. Here’s where Deputy Director of the Ethics Office and the Director of Adjudication, Lindsay Childress-Beatty, shares her idiosyncratic view.

As in the James matter, the Ethics Office staff again questioned whether certain techniques, such as “sleep deprivation, withhold food, isolation,” were actually unethical.

In a memorandum to the Ethics Committee Chair, Childress-Beatty wrote, “these techniques in and of themselves may not be cruel, unusual, inhuman, degrading treatment or torture depending upon factors such as the situational context, length of time used, and intensity.” […]

Moreover, suggesting that techniques such as sleep deprivation, withholding food, and isolation could not be proven to be unethical by a preponderance of evidence even before an actual case investigation is conducted is stretching the bounds of the Ethics Code so as to not find a violation of any standards.

So, basically, the Ethics Office of the APA is saying that, you know, torture might be ethical depending upon the circumstances. The APA’s own Ethics Office!

But the fact that it might ever be considered ethical for psychologists to recommend sleep deprivation against detainees in this situation is a very notable ethical conclusion by the APA Ethics Office and the Ethics Committee Chair who agreed with the recommendation to close the matter.

Certainly, it is not a conclusion that we are aware APA has ever admitted making, either in the explanation to the complainant for closing the Leso matter or its public statements. In effect, the only way for APA to close this case using the Rules was to call interrogation techniques “potentially ethical” in light of APA’s supposedly vague ethical standards, when almost all APA’s post-PENS statements stressed that its ethical standards (including PENS, according to Behnke) were strict and would clearly prohibit such techniques.

In short, while publicly proclaiming the strictness of their rules and their eagerness to thoroughly investigate complaints of abusive interrogations, behind closed doors, the Ethics Office crafted rationales that stressed the vagueness of their ethical standards and the highly restricted nature of their “investigations” in order to close complaints, all the while using a stretched interpretation of their procedural Rules.

So if you have a friend in the Ethics Office like Stephen Behnke, you’ll be okay (actually, no, as the APA apparently sacked Behnke). Also it helps if a complainant doesn’t file too much information with their complaint, as that will also result in the complaint being thrown out pretty quickly.

I can’t wait to see what I come across next in the Hoffman report.



American Psychological Association’s Ethics Office Seems to be Toothless, Lazy

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.


APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2015). American Psychological Association’s Ethics Office Seems to be Toothless, Lazy. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 13 Jul 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 13 Jul 2015
Published on All rights reserved.