'False Memory Syndrome', Ethics

Does the BPS Care About Ethical Standards Enough to Enforce Them?

Ashley Conway writes:

Following on from my earlier post

The Charity Commission says that the BPS must follow the demands of the Royal Charter and Statutes and Rules of the Society. The Royal Charter states:  that the Society should “…maintain a Code of Ethics and Conduct for the guidance of Members and to compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.”.

I believe that this is an area where the BPS completely fails to fulfil its obligations.

About a third of BPS members are also registered with the HCPC, and the BPS is happy to pass on responsibility for dealing with rule violations by them.  But what of the other two thirds of the membership?  The answer seems to be that the BPS does everything it can to avoid taking any responsibility, usually passing the buck to the member’s employer.  But what if they have no employer (i.e. are self-employed?) or their employer uses Non Disclosure Agreements to avoid scandal, as some universities do (see here and here)?  This could mean that ethics violations go unreported and can be repeated by a guilty individual, possibly causing great harm to vulnerable people.

I cannot find anything in either the Charity Commission requirements or the BPS Charter that says that this responsibility about ethical standards can be farmed out to third parties or ignored.

What follows is a specific example of the problem.  Elizabeth Loftus is an Honorary Life Fellow of the BPS who enjoys a high profile internationally, despite considerable controversy.  This, from The Psychologist (July 2011, 24, 490-503):

Star power arrived at the 2011 Annual Conference this year in the form of Elizabeth Loftus (University of California, Irvine), the doyenne of false memory research whos had the mixed fortune of attracting death threats and the highest academic accolades. 

However, there are, I would suggest, serious ethical questions to be raised about her conduct.

  1. As far back as 1995, complaints were made to the American Psychological Association (APA) against Loftus by Lynn Crook and Jennifer Hoult.  Both have complained that Loftus grossly mis-represented their life stories (see here and here).  Loftus resigned from the APA just before the complaints process was about to be initiated.  There were allegations that she had been tipped off about it, because for both the APA and Loftus, resignation was the best way to avoid the investigation and unwanted publicity.  
  2. She has come in for strong criticism from judges for the nature of her expert witness testimony.  In the case referenced in her TED talk described below, referring to Loftus’s actions in question (Loftus falsely claiming to be a clinician’s supervisor to gain personal information for her use), the court stated  “In our view, intentionally misrepresenting oneself as an associate or colleague of a mental health professional who has a close personal relationship with the person about whom one is seeking information would be a particularly serious type of misrepresentation …” .  In another case Judge John Fedora dismissed Loftus’s opinion as “Having been rendered after an uncritical review of an absurdly incomplete record carefully  dissected to include only pieces of information tending to support Appellant’s repressed memory theory …”.
  3. In her TED talk there is further evidence of possible ethical breaches.  (i) She reveals the name of a victim of abuse who was promised anonymity, when her very personal story was used as a case study by respectable psychologists;  (ii) Loftus states:  “She accused her mother of sexual abuse based on a repressed memory” without informing us that actually the person in question had made revelations of abuse as a little girl, which had videotape and verbatim documentation.  So the accusations were based on much more than an adult’s “repressed memory”, and the truth goes very much against the false memory hypothesis that Loftus is seen to support.  (iii) Loftus states: “I became part of a disturbing trend in America where scientists are being sued for simply speaking out on matters of great public controversy.”.  But the litigation issue was not about speaking out on matters of great public controversy.  The real reason that she was being sued was for  “… for defamation and invasion of privacy…” as she herself reveals in this same talk.
  4. There have been important questions raised over the validity of the data in her famous “lost in the mall” study.

I have raised this issue of Loftus’s behaviour on a number of occasions with the BPS.  This year I wrote to the CEO about this and related issues three times.  I received no reply, which I now know has been the experience of many others.  I did, finally, get something back from a very senior member of the BPS who said “In relation to Prof Loftus, election as an Honorary Life Fellow confers membership of the Society so the member conduct rules would apply, as they do to all members. I would draw your attention to the fact that, since the Society is no longer a regulator, it normally requires ‘allegations to first have been determined using other appropriate procedures’ such as by the appropriate regulatory body.’” I genuinely do not understand this response.  What would be an appropriate procedure and who would be an appropriate body for Loftus?  The complainants above did not find one.  Where in the Charity Commissions rules for the Society, or the Royal Charter, does it say that the Society is no longer a regulator?  If this really means that the BPS takes no responsibility for enforcing its Conduct Rules or Code of Ethics, what is the point in having them?  

And BPS – how does this fit in with the requirement to “… compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.”?  

I think that the BPS owes us all an answer to this question.

2 thoughts on “Does the BPS Care About Ethical Standards Enough to Enforce Them?”

  1. 1) Elizabeth Loftus is American.
    2) every psychologist has someone else who disputes the validity of what they do.

    This is looking tenuous.

    Like

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