The Ethicist on Whether Shrinks Should Lie to Keep their Clients


What should psychiatrists do when asked about their religion, knowing it's not the religion of their patient?

The following originally appeared on Shrink Rap.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! We've been busy brining, basting, baking, eating, and visiting with family. Sad to go back to the daily routine.


In today's NY Times Magazine the ethicist entertains the question of whether it's okay for a psychiatrist to lie to keep his clientele. (!)

I am a psychiatrist who happens to be an atheist. Occasionally a patient asks me what religion I follow and, displeased by my answer, seeks another psychiatrist. I am a physician, not a priest. Religious beliefs seem as relevant to my profession as they are to an accountant’s. Nevertheless, candor sometimes costs me a patient. May I claim a belief in God to avoid damage to my credibility and business?


If you want the ethicist's answer, check out the column here.

I think that most of us would agree that it's not okay to lie with the intention of keeping business. What if a patient asks how long you've been practicing, and your sense is that the patient wants an experienced psychiatrist-- would it be okay to say 10 years, rather than 1 year? Clearly not.

Personal questions can be awkward, however. In traditional psychodynamic therapy, the therapist doesn't answer personal questions---the "blank screen" is necessary for the treatment, and the meaning behind the question is explored. This can be very off-putting to some patients, and for myself, I find that it feels disingenuous, and I prefer to simply answer questions. It helps that I don't get many questions: Do you have children is the most common, I've been asked my religion a couple of times, if I have a dog (Yes, two, would you like one?). Here and there, I've been asked rather unusual questions (Do I have a cook? Who has a cook? No, but I'd like one!)

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