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Cognitive Fallacies in Online Counseling – Assessing Our Own Cognitive Distortions

Have you ever heard colleagues justify a questionable professional decision by stating she or he, “felt it was ok?” Or maybe they were  “just doing the same as the other professionals?” Or “it’s better to deliver some help rather than none at all?”

Cognitive FallaciesMany practitioners deliver services online without adequate professional training. It also appears that many are making a number of similar cognitive fallacies when justifying rogue practice decisions with their online practices. They might believe they have had a client in a special circumstance. Maybe they read something someone wrote on a website, joined a band of other rogue practitioners who have come up with their own “ethics code,” or even read an article that was published in some book or journal.

Ken Pope and Melba Vasquez (current American Psychological Association President) are two respected ethics researchers and authors. Their article “21 Ethical Fallacies: Cognitive Strategies To Justify Unethical Behavior” might be worth a careful reading so we can check some of our own cognitive distortions at the door.*

Here are a few cognitive maneuvers they describe that I suspect are alive and well in the online counseling, online therapy and telementalhealth worlds. I encourage you to consider these, perhaps add your own, and discuss in our comment section below.

  1. It’s not unethical if the professional association you belong to allows it.
  2. It’s not unethical if an ethics code never mentions the concept, term, or act.
  3. It’s not unethical as long as no law was broken.
  4. It’s not unethical as long as we can name others who do the same thing.
  5. It’s not unethical as long as we didn’t mean to hurt anyone.
  6. It’s not unethical as long as there is no body of universally accepted, methodologically perfect (i.e., without any flaws, weaknesses, or limitations) studies showing — without any doubt whatsoever — that exactly what we did was the necessary and sufficient proximate cause of harm to the client and that the client would otherwise be free of all physical and psychological problems, difficulties, or challenges. This view was succinctly stated by a member of the Texas pesticide regulatory board charged with protecting Texas citizens against undue risks from pesticides. In discussing Chlordane, a chemical used to kill termites, one member said, “Sure, it’s going to kill a lot of people, but they may be dying of something else anyway” (“Perspectives,” Newsweek, April 23, 1990, p. 17).
  7. It’s not unethical if we acknowledge the importance of judgment, consistency, and context. For example, it may seem as if a therapist who has submitted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bogus insurance claims for patients he never saw might have behaved “unethically.” However, as attorneys and others representing such professionals often point out: It was simply an error in judgment, completely inconsistent with the high ethics manifest in every other part of the persons’ life, and insignificant in the context of the unbelievable good that this person does.
  8. It’s not unethical if we can say any of the following about it (feel free to extend the list):
    “It came from the heart.”
    “I listened to my soul.”
    “I went with my gut.”
    “It was the smart thing to do.”
    “It was just common sense.”
    “I just knew that’s what the client needed.”
    “Look, I was just stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
    “I’d do the same thing again if I had it to do over.”
    “What’s the big deal?”
  9. It’s not unethical as long as no one ever complained about it.
  10. It’s not unethical as long as we know that the people involved in enforcing standards (e.g., licensing boards or administrative law judges) are dishonest, stupid, destructive, and extremist; are unlike us in some significant way; or are conspiring against us.
  11. It’s not unethical as long as it would be almost impossible to do things another way.
  12. It’s not unethical as long as there are books, articles, or papers claiming that it is the right thing to do.
  13. It’s not unethical as long as we can find a consultant who says its OK.

* The above excerpt is adapted from the chapter “Ethics & Critical Thinking” in the book Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide, Third Edition, by Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP, and Melba J. T Vasquez, Ph.D., ABPP (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons, 2007), and is used with permission of the holder of the copyright.

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