Competence is a fundamental ethical principle, "the lynchpin enabling psychologists to fulfill other ethical obligations …” (Fisher, 2009, p. 69). The APA Ethics Code (http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx) says, "Psychologists provide services, teach, and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study, or professional experience” (Standard 2.1a). Sounds great. But how do we define the boundaries of competence? What is the threshold of being good at what we do?
To introduce this question in my introductory classes, I present a case (from Handelsman, 1998) in which a new psychologist treats a woman with panic disorder even though he only has a little training and he knows of another psychologist who has more skill and experience. Students usually say something like, "If the psychologist knows somebody who can treat the patient better, he should refer the patient! He’s not competent!”
"Not so fast,” I respond. "Let’s look at it this way: How competent do I need to be to teach this course? After all, I know people who teach much better than I; am I obligated to tell you all to drop my course and take those others?” My class then grapples with thresholds of competence that range from adequacy to perfection. The question may not be whether there’s somebody better, but whether there’s a professional who will (a) not do damage and maybe (b) provide minimally acceptable service.
Driven to an Analogy
We can compare different thresholds of competence to different kinds of cars. At one end, we have cars like the Yugo (which is no longer produced, so I’m hoping not to get sued for defamation), which had the reputation of being totally unreliable. It might not start—it might even fall apart in your driveway. A professional with this clearly unethical level of performance might be called "quack” or "charlatan.” (Remember: I’m talking about reputation to help you remember the levels of competence. I’m not making any claims about the performance or safety of any of these cars!)
The level of minimal competence is represented by a Chevy, which is good enough to get you where you need to go. It’s adequate, pretty reliable, maybe even with a cup holder or two, but nothing fancy. The therapist in my case example might be a Chevy.
At the "perfection” end of the continuum is the Cadillac, which represents consistent excellence. Cadillac professionals are noted authorities in their fields—the kind of people who populate the "Top 100” lists in national magazines. They might even write columns.
Appreciating these levels leads to the next question: When does a Yugo become a Chevy? What constitutes minimal competence may be different for different activities. For example, the threshold may be higher for psychologists performing forensic neuropsychological assessments than for instructors teaching introductory courses. The goal of state licensing, by the way, is to weed out Yugos, not to guarantee Cadillacs.
Complexities of Competence
Let’s touch on three other issues. First, competence is not a personality trait. It is more like a judgment we make based on behavior. Thus, few professionals are equally good at everything. For example, some professors may be Cadillacs at research but Chevys at teaching. Should they be fired? Promoted? Most professionals are hybrids—good on mileage but lacking power. For example, an instructor may be good in small seminars but not in larger classes.
Second, competence is not a stable attribute. For example, psychologists may provide less competent (or incompetent) psychotherapy when they are going through a divorce or other difficulties in their lives. Even Cadillacs break down occasionally.
Third, standards themselves change over time. What was competent practice 20 years ago may not be competent today. Thus, "psychologists undertake ongoing efforts to develop and maintain their competence” (APA Ethical Standard 2.03).
I leave you with this question: How can you determine if I’m competent to write a column on competence?
American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx
Fisher, C. B. (2009). Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Handelsman, M. M. (1998). Ethics and ethical reasoning. In S. Cullari (Ed.), Foundations of clinical psychology (pp. 80-111). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.