Should psychologists abide by the Goldwater Rule?

By Jennifer A. Cohen, Ph.D.
July 25, 2018 - Last updated: July 24, 2018

trump mental healthI started my work on this article with a Google search using “Donald Trump’s mental health.” There were about 8.8 million results, ranging from articles in academic journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine to magazine commentaries, including one in the Marie Clair UK edition.

Everybody had an opinion about the president’s mental health, and that does not exclude psychiatrists and psychologists. The ethical part of me said, “Stop this madness of diagnosing the president,” but at the same time, I thought about the immigrants and the LGBT communities. Who will speak for them in this political climate?

After more research and thought about the issues, I began to ask one question: As the field of psychology bridges into other academic disciplines, what information can be shared and what professional trade should remain within the profession of psychology?

Monumental events in political psychology

To understand the impact psychologists can have on politics, we should examine history. One of the most renowned political psychologists, Harold Lasswell, published his book, Propaganda Technique in the World War, in 1927. He suggested using psychological theories to enhance propaganda techniques.

Years later, the U.S. government planted cultural propaganda in Western Europe during the height of the Cold War, and it is now often referred to as “psychological warfare.” It is not just psychological theory.

Psychiatrists/mental health providers have gotten involved in politics before. In 1964, Fact magazine published a survey noting that 1,189 psychiatrists would consider Republican candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater unfit to assume the presidency. Goldwater subsequently lost the presidency but won a lawsuit against the magazine.

The Goldwater rule then originated as a guiding ethics standard of the American Psychiatric Association, which was supported by the American Psychological Association, to ensure that psychiatrists and psychologists do not give professional opinions on public figures they have not examined.

In the recent past, psychologists participated in the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation programs, which once again challenged our ethics in the political arena.The psychologists who designed the abusive interrogation techniques were, in retrospect, wrong, but in the “right” political atmosphere I can see many psychologists justifying that work as patriotic. Maybe I am pushing too far, but I do not believe that we have learned our lesson.

Despite the Goldwater rule, many psychologists participated in the “duty to warn” movement in 2017 by organizing and fundraising with the aim of removing the president on grounds that he is psychologically unfit.

Ethics in political psychology

I have used biased historical and current events in portraying political psychology and psychologists in a negative light, but the lesson is real: Psychologists, like other professionals, can do “evil.” The earlier we recognize what we are capable of, the better we can focus on developing and reinforcing a code of conduct to ensure our first and foremost ethical principle: that we do no harm.

In my opinion, in terms of diagnosing world leaders or any prominent political figures, the Goldwater Rule should stay. We, as psychologists, are professionally and ethically responsible for what we say. Psychologists know the difference between mental disorders and personality disorders and their associated features. However, the public may not be clear on that issue. When a psychologist says there is a “duty to warn,” the public could hear it as “the president has a mental problem and he is dangerous.”

We should be more aware of the unspoken messages that our profession shows the public. Also, when we make an alliance with or condemn a specific public figure, political party or fanatic organization, we are more easily pulled into in-group-out-group biases.

Moreover, psychological diagnoses and interventions could reinforce unjust social conditions and make some individuals reluctant to seek help or to feel comfortable with their therapists, supervisors or professors.

A systematic review of the symptoms of mental illness among 37 presidents from 1776 to 1974 concluded that about eighteen (49 percent) met criteria suggesting psychiatric disorders. Furthermore, no direct studies link a president’s mental health with evidence that the individual is unfit for an office.

Questions to ask ourselves

What about immigrants and LGBT communities that have been impacted by the current political climate? As psychologists, we continue to have an ethical obligation to protect and serve these vulnerable populations, not necessarily specific organizations.

In clinical settings, we should continue talking about racism, sexism and other “isms” that our patients experience and the patients’ underlying psychological difficulties. Within the research and educational arena, psychologists should focus on evidenced-based psychological research and theories to address these social disparity issues. Given our professional capacity, psychologists also should advocate and support policies that are not simply politically pleasing, but also are based on empirical evidence.

In our personal lives, we also need to be thoughtful of our actions. If we decide to take a public position, we should take time to determine how this will affect our professional roles as psychologists.

I began this article by asking one question: What information can be shared and what professional trade should remain within the field of psychology?

My stand is that the focus of our political discussion in public should not be directed at an individual, but to illuminate societal issues. We are less likely to do harm if we do not affiliate ourselves with a political party or a public figure.

As we establish our footing in other academic fields, we also should check our egos. Many of us have a “savior complex,” in that we feel responsible to save the world by telling people what we know. That is when boundaries and ethics become blurred. Psychologists can help people the most by listening and not by judging what we think is right and wrong.

References available from author

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Jennifer A. Cohen, Ph.D., HSP, is a clinical psychologist in El Paso Texas. Her email address is:

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