Samuel Knapp, EdD, ABPP
Director of Professional Affairs
The names and titles that psychologists use, the clothes that they wear, and the decor in their offices are part of the “public self-disclosure” of the psychologist. That is, psychologists convey something about themselves and their relationships with their patients by the names and titles they use, the way they dress, and the way their offices are decorated.
How should psychologists refer to themselves in professional settings? Should psychologists who have doctorates always refer to themselves as “doctor;” should they refer to themselves by their first name; or should they use some other mode of address? Do psychologists who fail to insist on using the title “doctor” diminish the profession or fail to recognize the substantial academic and personal accomplishment involved in becoming a psychologist? After all, physicians refer to themselves as “doctor.” Or, does insisting on the title “doctor” reflect elitism, classism, or an assertion of power or privilege over another person?
The use of titles and names depends a lot on context, and it is impossible to establish one rule for all situations. Although insisting that patients use the title “doctor,” in and of itself, is unlikely to cure many patients, at times it may be clinically indicated to do so. One attractive woman psychologist initially refers to herself as “doctor” when working with men to ensure that they do not misconstrue the use of her first name as an invitation to enter into inappropriate boundary crossings. However, she allows women or men she knows well who do not appear to have boundary issues to call her by her first name. Also, it is generally considered bad manners for children to refer to adults by their first name (other than relatives, such as “Aunt Sally,” or “Uncle John”), although this standard has become weakened in recent years. Some psychologists will allow children to call them “Dr. First Name,” which balances familiarity with respect for the adult.
Of course, patients who usurp the right to use first names may be showing clinical features of relevance. For example, a psychologist who conducts child custody evaluations notes that some fathers will use his first name at their first meeting or even the first phone call, which he interprets as an effort to create a male-to-male bond or alliance in the relationship. Rebellious adolescents may also use first names as a way to assert power or defiance of authority. The appropriate response may vary according to the situation and patient dynamics, but the overriding goal should be to respond in a manner consistent with overarching ethical values that promote professional goals in the context of a supportive but structured relationship.