Ethics in Psychology

As a clinical psychologist, even though I’m not currently registered in Alberta yet, I work and live by the Canadian Psychological Association Code of Ethics.

There are four guiding principles.

I. Respect for the Dignity of Persons

II. Responsible Caring

III. Integrity in Relationships

IV. Responsibility to Society.

These principles seem to be more relevant than ever these days, but the one I’ve been thinking most about is the fourth.  People probably understand a psychologists responsibility to their clients, but may not realize our responsibility extends beyond our own clients to society as a whole.

The CPA code of ethics states “Psychologists, both in their work and as private citizens, have responsibilities to the societies in which they live and work, such as the neighbourhood or city, and to the welfare of all human beings in those societies” and goes on to add “expectations of psychology as a science and a profession are that it will increase knowledge and that it will conduct its affairs in such ways that it will promote the welfare of all human beings.”

As a psychologist I cannot stand by as the world begins discount the dignity of all persons and I must do what I can to promote the welfare of ALL human beings – not just those of certain races, religions, sex or sexual orientation.  I will not stand by as a government dismantles systems and processes for protecting the environment for future generations. I will not stand by as world leaders break down laws and regulations designed to prevent corruption and fraud thereby making it easier to exploit vulnerable people.

I don’t always know what to do to help this situation, but I will do everything I can think of. I will try.


And more about Cause and Effect

Ok, so here is another big problem with the way media reports research.  Here is a news article I found online.

Cause Effect FacebookCause Effect Facebook

The headline reads – Facebook can Cause Depression

So of course I went off in search of the original research. It was a survey of a very large sample of undergraduate students.  Students reported on the reasons for their Facebook use (e.g. surveillance to compare their lives to those of their friends), their emotional reactions to those posts and their current mood.

The researchers have found that, feeling envious in response to other people’s posts, statistically predicted depression scores.  This word predicted is very misleading.  It gives the impression that the envy happened first.

The key point is that all of these variables are measured at the same time, so we don’t actually know which one occurred first.

It may be that envy leads to depression, but it could also be that people with depression are more likely to feel envy.

It is simply not possible to draw conclusions about cause and effect from this data.

Cause and Effect

There are many limits to what we can demonstrate in research, and one of the hardest is causation.  To demonstrate that A causes B, we need to ensure 3 things:

1. That A and B are related

2. That A occurs before B

3. That no other variable explains their relationship.

I beat this drum so much that I’m pretty sure my students are good and sick of hearing it.  But I am combatting this misconception nearly every day from popular media.  While on a trip to the UK, I found this mini article in their newspaper.



Ok, so what I’m guessing is that they gathered these people together, asked about their history of head injury and tested their cognitive abilities.  So they may have met the first criteria.  But that’s it.

It is unlikely they tested these people BEFORE their head injuries because it would be difficult to predict who would suffer such an injury.

The problem with this conclusion is that it could be that B causes A – perhaps poor cognitive functioning increased the likelihood that these people would injure themselves.  Alternatively, it could be that some other variable accounts for both A and B. Perhaps some neurological difference makes the injured people more impulsive, and also impacts on their attention and concentration thereby affecting their cognitive performance.

Now, I know it makes a kind of logical sense that hurting your head, and therefore possibly your brain, would impact on what your brain does, but this research CANNOT actually draw this conclusion.


Ok, so it was almost a full 2 months ago, but I have moved!  I am now at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. I’m very excited to be here and look forward to learning a lot more about teaching and learning in a different environment. I will attempt to get the blogs up and running again.

Watch this space.


Evaluating Students

I’m currently involved in a project examining peer review of teaching and the number of ways our teaching and courses can be evaluated is quite comprehensive. Our presentation style, the materials we provide, the choice of assessments, the design of marking rubrics and syllabi and on and on. In a (natural) defensive reaction, I thought, even students aren’t evaluated this much!

Yes, I evaluate my students by assessing the amount of content they have successfully retained for the exam. I evaluate their ability to gather, integrate and present information in essays and assignments. But aside from these academic measures, I don’t really evaluate anything else. I don’t measure their interpersonal skills, their campus engagement, even their contributions to class discussions.

I don’t evaluate the effort they put in.  I don’t even keep track of patterns of behaviours like late assignments or requests for special consideration (although I have thought of this last one….often).

When students walk out into the wide world with their degree, does anyone consider how they got there? First, someone who got straight A’s has the same degree as someone who got C’s. (some employers may ask for transcripts, but many don’t). Someone who never handed in a late assignment has the same degree as someone who requested extensions chronically across many courses.

I wonder what information we could glean about students, and how we could use this to guide what we do and how we do it.

Thrust into an unknown world

Perhaps I should have gotten onto Twitter when it first came out.  To be honest, I never felt I had anything of interest to say that would garner a following.  I still don’t!  But I’ve recently registered for a MOOC about Technology Enhanced Learning and have decided that if for no other reason, perhaps I should be at least familiar with the modes of communication my students use.

I think I am listed as Jay Brinker1. I could be wrong.

It has asked me who I want to follow. This is a lot of pressure. As an academic endeavour, I feel I ought to only choose people of respectable standing.  And sincerely I don’t really care to hear what most celebrities have to say. But if you type in “academic” into the search box, the most peculiar results emerge.

Please feel free to make recommendations.

Even worse it has a section about who is following me. This could a double edged sword. If no one is following me, it would be insulting. I could tell my students to follow me (power imbalance and all) but then I’ll be under the gun to post clever and inspiring tweets. My clever and inspiring moments are rare, fleeting and decidedly unpredictable.

I also don’t really know what a hash tag is or how to use one. The help section has a lot of information, but this feels like reading the manual to my new vacuum. I should be able to figure this out on my own. I’m a smart person. But the truth is I couldn’t figure out how to empty the dust canister on my vacuum until I hit a critical button which dropped the bottom of the canister releasing all of my hard work right back onto the floor.

I wonder what the Twitter equivalent is to making a big mess.

Ah well, all in the name of posterity and excellence in higher education.