Psychology’s Blind Spot (2008 Jan)

by Barry A. Liebling

As a professional you should be on guard against conflicts of interest – allowing perverse incentives to divert you from doing your job properly. And of all professions, you might expect that psychologists would be especially astute at recognizing when conflicts occur and how to deal with them. After all, psychology includes the study of perception, motivation, cognition, and persuasion.

Recently, The American Psychological Association (APA) published Corporate Funding and Conflicts of Interest (American Psychologist, December 2007, vol. 62, no. 9, 1005-1015. at The document is the result of a presidential task force urging “psychologists to become familiar with the challenges that corporate funding can pose to their integrity.”

The task force reviewed the “consequences of external funding” and decided to use the pharmaceutical industry as “a case example” because pharmaceutical companies “provide a telling example of the distortions and unintended consequences that can occur when…practitioners become overly dependent on for-profit industries,” because these companies have expressed interest in funding APA activities, and because the pharmaceutical industry is “wealthy and politically influential and…has the potential to exert a significant impact on… psychology.”

Author disclosure – for many years I have been a member of the APA and have been a marketing consultant to several pharmaceutical companies.

What does the task force anticipate pharmaceutical funding will do and what recommendations does it make? The short answer is that funding will have mostly negative consequences and the best policy is to approach the pharmaceutical industry with extreme caution.

The crux of the argument is that accepting money from a pharmaceutical sponsor is likely to taint the judgement of psychologists. Even those with good intentions can be seduced by the powerful and subtle effects of being beholden to a company.

How might a psychologist’s judgement be impaired by “external funding?” Consider three examples.

A psychologist who is paid by a pharmaceutical company might be biased and incorrectly conclude that the company’s products are effective. Another psychologist who attends a company-sponsored seminar might be convinced, without sufficient evidence, that her clients should take vitamin supplements. Finally, a psychologist might accept a grant from a pharmaceutical company and feel obligated to further the company’s interests even though he privately disagrees with its goals.

What does the task force propose to remedy the problem? The document makes 24 specific recommendations designed to minimize the influence of “external funding.” It calls for barriers that would discourage companies from sponsoring psychology-related activities, assiduous disclosure rules when “external funding” is present, and policies to dampen company influence when disclosure is not sufficient.

Take note that the task force selected the pharmaceutical industry as “a case example.” Presumably the conclusions and recommendations are not restricted to it. Are there other entities that firmly impact on the integrity of the profession? It is significant that the APA task force does not mention the colossus that permeates psychology – the government.

You cannot easily overstate the influence of government funding on academic psychology. Psychologists who want a professorial career would have a hard time without government grants. Getting hired and promoted at universities depends on publishing research that is usually government-funded.

My position is that a person of integrity can do a good job even when there are incentives to do otherwise. People routinely reject bribes. The APA task force views professionals as malleable and argues that “external funding” pressures are nearly irresistible.

Using the logic of the task force, what might happen to a psychologist’s judgement when an activity is sponsored by the government? Go back to the three examples we just considered.

A psychologist with government funding might be biased and incorrectly conclude that a pharmaceutical product is dangerous – since that is what the sponsor expects. Another psychologist who attends a government-funded seminar might be convinced, without sufficient evidence, that taking vitamin supplements is unhealthy – because it reflects the politics of the agency. Finally, a psychologist might accept a government grant and feel obligated to further the sponsor’s interests even though he privately abhors its agenda.

Why does the APA task force worry about a stream of corporate funding but fails to mention that the profession is swimming in an ocean of government money? The government has not escaped their attention, but they see it as benign.

The missing piece is that the task force has neglected to articulate its political philosophy. The leadership of the APA ardently endorses an activist, positive role for government. The best way to solve problems in society is through the wise, guiding hand of government. When a government policy is wrong, you fix it with a different government policy. To the APA task force, government money does not count as “external funding” since the government is a trusted friend, not an outsider.

And even as they embrace interventionist politics, the members of the task force view private companies unsympathetically. While corporations might do some good things, they are all suspect because they are working for private profit, rather than for the “public good.” The safe way to deal with profit-oriented institutions is to keep them at arms length.

As professionals, members of the APA task force should be on guard against conflicts of interests. They may want to reexamine what motivates their antipathy towards private corporations.

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