What To Know About The APA Ethics Code

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychologists are tasked with promoting mental and emotional wellness in various avenues, requiring specialized skills and education and careful adherence to ethical standards. Clients often discuss highly sensitive topics, entrusting the therapist with personal details and relying on them for advice, support, and empathy. 

Due to the sensitive nature of this position, professionals with the American Psychological Association (APA)—the foremost organization for psychologists in the United States—developed a strict code of ethics for psychologists and therapists to abide by. Whether you're a therapist, a client, or a curious community member, looking into the history, contents, and relevance of the APA Ethics Code to understand its significance in greater detail can be helpful.

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History of the APA Code of Ethics

The American Psychological Association (APA) was founded in 1892 by psychology professor G. Stanley Hall and a group of like-minded early psychologists. By the 1940s, psychology was in a significant period of growth. Psychologists were responsible for evaluating the mental health of young men drafted into World War II and treating the mental health of hospitalized soldiers. Because of the increased visibility of the profession and the need for accountability, the American Psychological Association felt that an ethics code was needed.

The first American Psychological Association Ethics Code was created in 1953. It was more than 170 pages long, with contributions from over 2,000 psychologists. The code was primarily composed of real-life ethical dilemmas the psychologists encountered in their practices. Many of these dilemmas remain relevant today, including a patient's right to boundaries, unfair discrimination, and integrity in psychological research. Embedded within the first code of ethics was the expectation that it would be revisited and revised, which has occurred many times throughout history. The most recent revision of the APA Ethics Code was published in 2003, with amendments in 2010 and 2017. 

The official name of the text is the "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct," reflecting its two distinct parts. The first part, the general principles, is a list of values psychologists are asked to abide by, though it is not considered a binding or enforceable section. The second part is the ethical standards, a list of ten rules that psychologists must adhere to or risk losing their license. 

The importance of the code is reflected in the initial statement made in the preamble: "Psychologists are committed to increasing scientific and professional knowledge of behavior and people's understanding of themselves and others and to the use of such knowledge to improve the condition of individuals, organizations, and society."

Whom does the APA Ethics Code Apply To?

The principles and standards of the Ethics Code apply to practicing psychologists, whether they provide treatment, research, teach, or work in other areas. While it does not apply to psychologists acting in a purely capacity without contact with clients, the ethics code was purposely written broadly to ensure it covers a wide range of situations in which psychologists act professionally. 

The code is also adhered to by mental health professionals who are not psychologists but want to commit to a high ethical standard. However, the American Counseling Association (ACA) also has a code of ethics for counselors and non-psychologists. 

The five general principles

The general principles section of the APA Ethics Code lays out five guiding ethical values psychologists can strive to uphold. While the general principles are not considered binding, psychologists are often expected to adhere to them while practicing. 

A. Beneficence and nonmaleficence

The first principle aligns with the Hippocratic oath practiced by medical doctors, "Do no harm." It's the basic understanding that psychologists act in the best interest of their clients. Practicing under this principle includes an understanding that the psychologist can significantly impact the client, so they should not be unduly influenced.  

B. Fidelity and responsibility

Under this principle, psychologists must remain loyal to their clients and have high professional standards. They are responsible for their actions and are also asked to accept the consequences of mistakes. This principle involves holding oneself and each other accountable to these standards. This principle also urges psychologists to provide a certain amount of their work pro bono—at a reduced cost or free. For some, volunteer work may fulfill this suggestion. 

C. Integrity

The principle of integrity reflects society's trust in the profession of psychology to provide truthful, relevant, thorough work. This principle states that psychologists must not engage in deceptive or dishonest behavior. They must utilize best practices and avoid imprudent commitments as they provide their services. 

D. Justice

This principle states that everyone is entitled to the advances and contributions that have been made to the field of psychology. For this reason, psychologists must treat clients equally and avoid unfair bias. 

E. Respect for people's rights and dignity

According to this principle, all clients have the right to recognize their value, and the ability to decide for themselves. This principle also states that psychologists should be sensitive to differences in background, including race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. 


Ethical standards

Unlike the general principles above, the Ethical Standards are enforceable, providing guidelines through ten different sections, each with several subsections. You can view the complete Ethics Code, including the ethical standards, on the APA's website. Below are the ten sections of this code: 

  1. Resolving Ethical Issues: The APA provides several guidelines for how psychologists should comport themselves when faced with ethical dilemmas. 
  2. Competence: This standard ensures psychologists provide only those services for which they are qualified.
  3. Human Relations: This section outlines expectations for how psychologists will act toward clients and colleagues. 
  4. Advertising and Other Public Statements: This section outlines acceptable methods for soliciting business and promoting psychological services.
  5. Record Keeping and Fees: This section provides guidelines for record-keeping, accounting, and similar processes.  
  6. Education and Training: This standard consists of rules that apply to those responsible for training or teaching psychology-related subjects. 
  7. Research and Publication: The APA lays out guidelines for conducting and publishing research. 
  8. Assessment: This section offers a comprehensive guide for how psychologists should evaluate subjects and provide recommendations in several different arenas. 
  9. Therapy: In this section, the APA sets out numerous rules for psychologists engaging in different therapy forms with clients. 

Examples of ethical standards

Although there are hundreds of ethical standards to look through, there are a few that are often encountered in therapy, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Psychologists must obtain informed consent before working with a client. 
  • Psychologists must not engage in sexual intimacy with current clients. 
  • Psychologists must not work with someone who is a prior sexual partner. 
  • Psychologists are asked to terminate services when the client no longer requires support, won't benefit, or is harmed by the service. 
  • Psychologists must avoid harm to their clients, patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, coworkers, and other people they work with. 
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Support options 

If you have been considering working with a psychologist but aren't sure where to start, you have a few options. Some clients face barriers to treatment in person, which might include challenges like financial insecurity or difficulty leaving home. In these cases, psychologists can be contacted online through a platform like BetterHelp.

Online therapy can be done from home, and providers can often be found through platforms that match clients with someone trained in their area of need. You can also choose between phone, video, or chat sessions, giving you control over how you receive support. 

Research shows that online therapy effectively establishes a trusting relationship between a mental health professional and a client. For example, in a study on the effectiveness of online therapy for depression and anxiety, researchers found high levels of the therapeutic alliance during and after treatment. 


Due to the nature of the psychologist profession, the APA Ethics Code continues to be a guiding resource for professionals. Knowing that their psychologist adheres to the Ethics Code can help clients feel more comfortable as they address complex challenges. If you're looking for a qualified, vetted professional, consider matching with a therapist online or contacting a professional in your area for further guidance.
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