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How Competent is Competent?
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by Mitchell M.
Handelsman, PhD - University of Colorado Denver
Competence is a fundamental ethical principle, “the lynchpin enabling psychologists
to fulfill other ethical obligations …” (Fisher, 2009, p. 69). The APA Ethics Code
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 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
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
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
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.
Mitch Handelsman received his BA in psychology from Haverford College
and his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas. He is currently
professor of psychology and a CU President’s Teaching Scholar at the University
of Colorado Denver, where he has been on the faculty since 1982. He served for a
year (1989-1990) in Washington DC as an APA Congressional Science Fellow. In 2003-04,
he was president of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. He is a licensed
psychologist and a fellow of the American Psychological Association.
Mitch won the 1992 CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) Colorado
Professor of the Year Award, and the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Society
for the Teaching of Psychology (APA Division 2) in 1995. He has published several
book chapters and over 50 articles in journals ranging from the Professional Psychology:
Research and Practice to the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. His major
research area is professional ethics; he is the coauthor (with Sharon K. Anderson)
of a text on ethics in psychotherapy (Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors:
A Proactive Approach) from Wiley-Blackwell. His ethics blog, “The Ethical
Professor,” can be found at
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-ethical-professor. You can
contact Mitch at mitchell.handelsman@UCDenver.edu
Spring 2011 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 15, No. 3, p. 12), published
by Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright,
2011, Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.