Is the Goldwater Rule Outdated?

December 14, 2017

A recent analysis finds the rationale behind the Goldwater Rule, which prevents psychiatrists from commenting publicly on the mental health of public figures they have not examined in person, is neither scientifically well-supported nor relevant in today’s media-saturated environment.

The authors published their paper online in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

“We conclude that although the Goldwater Rule may have been defensible several decades ago, it is outdated and premised on dubious scientific assumptions,” wrote lead author Scott Lilienfeld, PhD, a psychology professor at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues from the University of Georgia, Atlanta, and Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. “We further contend that there are select cases in which psychological scientists with suitable expertise may harbor a ‘duty to inform,’ allowing them to offer informed opinions concerning public figures’ mental health with appropriate caveats.”

A review of published scientific literature shows that in-person examination is not necessary in the presence of other valid sources of information, the authors state. Extensive public records in the form of interviews with the media, biographies, social media accounts, and YouTube videos as well as interviews with friends, family, and others well familiar with the person can reveal longstanding behavioral patterns. 

Furthermore, direct interviews with the person can present factors—such as efforts to create a positive impression—that contribute to bias.

The American Psychiatric Association implemented the Goldwater Rule in 1973 after former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater successfully sued the now defunct Fact magazine over a 1964 article with the headline “1,189 Psychiatrists say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President.” The piece attributed psychiatrist-issued diagnoses of schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder and descriptions including “grossly psychotic,” “paranoid,” and a “dangerous lunatic” to Goldwater, who later lost the election to Lyndon B. Johnson.

“Many psychiatrists who commented on Goldwater in that article crossed an ethical line,” said Dr. Lilienfeld. “A lot of unfair statements were made about him that were poorly supported or unwarranted.”

In recent years, the Goldwater Rule gained new attention during the campaign and election of President Donald Trump.

“If someone is running for the most powerful position in the world, behavioral professionals should be able to speak out if they take the time to properly investigate a candidate,” Dr. Lilienfeld said. “There should be a high threshold for doing so, but psychologists and psychiatrists should not feel gagged if they want to contribute to a national conversation about a presidential candidate or current president.”

—Jolynn Tumolo

References

Lilienfeld SO, Miller JD, Lynam DR. The Goldwater Rule: perspectives from, and implications for, psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2017 October 12;[Epub ahead of print].

Clark C. Goldwater rule ‘gagging’ psychiatrists no longer relevant, analysis finds [press release]. Atlanta, Georgia: Emory University; December 5, 2017.

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