The Goldwater Rule: Perspectives From, and Implications for, Psychological Science

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2018 Jan;13(1):3-27. doi: 10.1177/1745691617727864. Epub 2017 Oct 12.


When, if ever, should psychological scientists be permitted to offer professional opinions concerning the mental health of public figures they have never directly examined? This contentious question, which attracted widespread public attention during the 1964 U.S. presidential election involving Barry Goldwater, received renewed scrutiny during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when many mental health professionals raised pointed questions concerning the psychiatric status of Donald Trump. Although the Goldwater Rule prohibits psychiatrists from offering diagnostic opinions on individuals they have never examined, no comparable rule exists for psychologists. We contend that, owing largely to the Goldwater Rule's origins in psychiatry, a substantial body of psychological research on assessment and clinical judgment, including work on the questionable validity of unstructured interviews, the psychology of cognitive biases, and the validity of informant reports and of L (lifetime) data, has been overlooked in discussions of its merits. We conclude that although the Goldwater Rule may have been defensible several decades ago, it is outdated and premised on dubious scientific assumptions. 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.

Keywords: Goldwater Rule; assessment; diagnosis; politics; psychiatry.

MeSH terms

  • Health Personnel / ethics
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Mental Health*
  • Politics*
  • Psychiatry* / ethics
  • United States