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The Difference Between Multiple Role Relationship and Dual Relationships

Dual relationships are often seen as a subcategory of multiple role relationships, but that view is incorrect as they are both different types of relationships that can occur in the field of psychology (Gunderson, 2015). Dual relationships are typically caused intentionally by at least one party, while multiple role relationships are created by an unintentional overlap of roles; these relationships need to be carefully managed in accordance with the APA code of ethics principles in order to avoid the occurrence of unethical behavior.

Dual Relationship

Dual relationships are relationships where two or more connections or relationships exist between the practicing psychology professional and their client (Zur, 2014). An online college teacher who is also an industrial and organizational psychologist could easily end up in a dual relationship. Since online students often pursue jobs and careers at the same time as they pursue their degrees and they often have access to their professor’s online bio, the student might decide that they would like to work at the same place as their professor; the student could end up hired at the same organization as their professor. The industrial and organizational psychologist who teaches college courses online could potentially end up filling the dual role as teacher and supervisor for one person.

If this situation occurred a dual relationship conflict could be caused if the industrial and organizational psychologist was in a supervisory, evaluative, or collaborative role with the student. In this situation the industrial and organizational psychologist could allow the student’s performance in his or her class to influence their view of the student at the work place. Likewise, the industrial and organizational psychologist could allow the student’s professional work to influence their grading decisions. The fact that the two would be interacting outside of the digital environment that all the other students in the class use could allow the student to obtain better insight into the course assignment which might allow for accusations of favoritism or bias.

The dual relationship described could quickly result in a violation of the APA Code of Ethics. If the dual relationship was started intentionally by the student and the industrial and organizational psychologist learned that the dual relationship was intentionally initiated, he or she might allow emotions of anger to manifest in his or her grading of the student. This would be a direct violation of the APA code of Ethics Principle B: fidelity and responsibility which states: “Psychologists uphold professional standards of conduct, clarify their professional roles and obligations, accept appropriate responsibility for their behavior, and seek to manage conflicts of interest that could lead to exploitation or harm” (American Psychological Association, 2017). If the industrial and organizational psychologist allowed his or her anger to affect the professional relationship of supervisor and employee or teacher and student, then that would be a violation of the fidelity and responsibly he or she had towards their employee or student.

Multiple Role Relationship

According to the APA multiple role relationships occur when a therapist is in a professional role with a person while also being in either a second role for the same person or is having a relationship with a person that is closely associated with the person; this can also include the intent to begin another relationship in the future with the person or person closely related to the person (Behnke, 2004). An industrial and organizational psychologist college professor could end up in a multiple role relationship with his or her students quite easily if the professor and the student were both active members of the same community. For instance, the professor could join a community center yoga class without knowing that one of his or her students had also opted to join the same yoga class. This would be a multiple role relationship because the pair would be both professor and student as well as fellow students in the yoga class.

This multiple role relationship could have ramifications for the professor and the student as it could have professional, personal, and ethical implications. Professionally, in regard to the teacher, it could lead to accusations of favoritism and bias; while the student might find his or her grades effected based on his or her behavior at the yoga class. Personally, it could lead to the professor and the student seeing each other as friends which might compromise their professional relationship as professor and student. The student might find the change in relationship uncomfortable but might be afraid to say anything out of fear of the professor causing harm to the student’s grades. If this multiple role relationship was not handled professionally, this could cause ethical issues for the professor, as the professor’s multiple role relationship with the student could be an impairment in objectivity regarding the professor’s dealing with the student’s grades and learning (Behnke, 2004).

The multiple role relationship described could lead to a violation of the APA Code of Ethics if the professor allowed the interaction with his or her student outside of the classroom to allow a friendship to develop with the student or in any way influence their impartiality regarding the student. If this occurred, it would be a violation of the APA Code of Ethics Principle C: integrity which states:

Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology. In these activities psychologists do not steal, cheat or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact. Psychologists strive to keep their promises and to avoid unwise or unclear commitments (American Psychological Association, 2017).

In allowing a friendship to occur, or in allowing the out of the classroom relationship to affect the professor’s impartiality towards the student, the professor has failed to promote accuracy and has engaged in intentional misrepresentation of fact if they have allowed their out of classroom relationship to affect their teaching or grading of the student.

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APA Code of Ethics Principles

The APA Code of Ethics Principles and Standards is an ethical code that applies to all “psychologists' activities that are a part of their scientific, educational, or professional roles as psychologists” (American Psychological Association, 2017). The APA Code of Ethics shows that not all dual relationships and multiple role relationships are unethical, but that they can become unethical if there is impairment in objectivity that is caused by the dual relationship or multiple role relationship (Behnke, 2004).

Dual Relationships vs Multiple Role Relationships

Dual relationships and multiple role relationships are both very similar, yet they are also very different. Dual relationships are generally relationships that are intentional, and they often occur after an overlap of roles or intersection points has already taken place between the two parties (Southern New Hampshire University, n.d.). Multiple role relationships often occur after an unintentional overlap of roles takes place, or is about to take place, and are often seen as being caused by unavoidable conditions. The primary difference between dual relationships and multiple role relationships are that dual relationships are often the consequence of an error having been made while a multiple role relationship requires the utilization of problem solving skills to avoid an error.


American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of

conduct. Retrieved from

Behnke, S. (2004) Multiple relationships and APA's new ethics code: values and applications. Ethics Rounds, 35, 6.

Gunderson, G. (2015). Dual or multiple relationships in psychotherapy. Retrieved from

Koocher, G. P., & Keith-Spiegel, P. (2016). Ethics in psychology and the mental health professions: Standards and cases (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Southern New Hampshire University. (n.d.) Multiple role relationships and dual relationships.Retrieved from

Zur, O. (2014). Not all multiple relationships are created equal: Mapping the maze of 26 types of multiple relationships. Independent Practitioner, 34, 15–22.

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