Standards and Competencies in Psychology

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the main ethical principles as presented in the APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct


Competencies have been defined as “a measurable pattern of knowledge, skill, abilities, behaviors, and other characteristics that an individual needs to perform work roles or occupational functions successfully” (Rodriguez et al., 2002, p. 310). Thus, competencies specify what individuals need to do and the behaviors they should undertake for certain activities, tasks, or roles to perform their professional responsibilities effectively (Schippmann et al., 2000). Competencies are often combinations of the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to perform a given role (Campion et al., 2011). In practice, various competencies often overlap and cannot be acquired or attained easily in a linear fashion.

Prahalad and Hamel (1990) first introduced the concept of a core competency as a concept in management theory and defined it as “a harmonized combination of multiple resources and skills that distinguish a firm in the marketplace.”[1] A multitude of authors have subsequently proposed various combinations of core competencies for psychology (e.g., Rodolfa et al., 2005; Fouad et al., 2009); however, until recently, no unified set of core competencies existed.

Figure 1. Competencies identified by the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) and International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) (2016)

The Ethics Code

The first version of a code of ethics was published by the APA in 1953. The need for such a document came after psychologists were taking on more professional and public roles post-World War II. A committee was developed and reviewed situations submitted by psychologists in the field who felt they had encountered ethical dilemmas. Since its origin, there have been nine revisions with the most recent published in 2002 and amended in 2010.

Despite the development and use of a complete ethical code, there have still been ethical violations and controversies. For instance, although the APA takes an explicit stance against conversion therapy, this treatment remains controversial amongst many psychologists and religious groups and is still being practiced by some.

Conversion Therapy and Controversy

Gay or straight: are people “born that way”? The consensus in the medical community is, “yes, people are born that way.” People can’t change who they are, and they shouldn’t even try.

Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological, physical, or spiritual interventions. The term reparative therapy has been used as a synonym for conversion therapy. There is no reliable evidence that sexual orientation can be changed, and medical institutions warn that conversion therapy practices are ineffective and potentially harmful.

Some fundamentalist religious groups have used religious justification for the therapy. However, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims describes conversion therapy as a form of torture, and now various jurisdictions around the world have passed laws against conversion therapy.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) opposes psychiatric treatment “based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation” and describes attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation by practitioners as unethical.

There is evidence that LGBT persons resort to psychotherapy at higher rates than the non-LGBT population (Bieschke et al., 2000; King et al., 2007); hence, they may be exposed to higher risk for harmful or ineffective therapies, not only as a vulnerable group, but also as frequent users. There is an identified need for clinicians to be able to work effectively with minority clients, namely LGBT people. The APA’s guidelines for psychotherapy with lesbian, gay, and bisexual client (American Psychological Association, 2000, 2012) serve as a main reference. These ethical guidelines highlight, among several issues, the need for clinicians to recognize that their own attitudes and knowledge about the experiences of sexual minorities are relevant to the therapeutic process with these clients and that, therefore, mental health care providers must look for appropriate literature, training, and supervision.

There is also some disagreement within the field about the ethical implications of using a treatment that may be less effective than another known treatment, although some psychologists argue that all therapy treatments are equally effective (see: the Dodo bird verdict). The APA was also implicated in helping the Central Intelligence Agency to continue “enhanced interrogation techniques” of detainees under the Bush administration. This presented an obvious violation of the organization’s code of ethics and has been addressed by the APA in the form of reports, responses to media outlets, amendments to policies, and rejections of the allegations.

Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct

The APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (often referred to as the Ethics Code) “provide(s) guidance for psychologists and standards of professional conduct that can be applied by the APA and by other bodies that choose to adopt them.”

Areas covered include but are not limited to the clinical, counseling, and school practice of psychology; research; teaching; supervision of trainees; public service; policy development; social intervention; development of assessment instruments; conducting assessments; educational counseling; organizational consulting; forensic activities; program design and evaluation; and administration. The Ethics Code applies to these activities across a variety of contexts, such as in-person, postal, telephone, internet, and other electronic transmissions. These activities shall be distinguished from the purely private conduct of psychologists, which is not within the purview of the Ethics Code.

General Principles

There are five general principles that serve as the ideals to which psychologists should aspire within the profession. The principles represent ethical goals but do not explicitly inform or instruct adherence to the goals; instead, the principles aim to influence and to guide professional behavior with respect to the psychologist, research subjects, students, and the individuals who seek psychological services.

Principle A: Beneficence and Non-maleficence

The beneficence and non-maleficence principle of the APA general principles guides psychologists to perform work that is beneficial to others yet does not hurt anyone in the process of carrying out that work. Psychologists are to remain aware of their professional influence and the potential consequences therein on individuals and groups who seek counsel with the psychologist, especially with respect to preventing misuse or abuse, while additionally maintaining awareness of how the psychologist’s own physical and mental health may influence their work. Among professional interactions and research, psychologists ought to respect and protect the rights and welfare of patients and participants.

Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility

The fidelity and responsibility principle of the APA general principles inspires psychologists to cultivate a professional and scientific environment built upon trust, accountability, and ethical considerations. Psychologists are bound to the community by way of their profession and must conduct themselves in a responsible and ethical manner while also maintaining a similar check on colleagues. Furthermore, psychologists are expected to altruistically devote some of their time to the community.

Principle C: Integrity

The integrity principle of the APA general principles aims to encourage psychologists to engage in honest, transparent practices within all aspects of the field of psychology. That is, psychologists should not engage in behavior that could be misconstrued as dishonest, exploitative, or otherwise malicious. When deception is appropriately used (most likely during psychological research), psychologists have a responsibility to mitigate the effects of its use on the overall field.

Principle D: Justice

The justice principle of the APA general principles states that people are entitled to the advances made within the field of psychology and to the services offered by professionals within the field. Furthermore, psychologists should prevent unjust practices by remaining aware of their biases, level of competence, and area and limits of expertise.

Principle E: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity

The APA general principle concerning respect for people’s rights and dignity recognizes individuals’ rights to privacy and confidentiality. Psychologists are to respect the individuals’ rights while also acknowledging the worth of the individual by taking judicious precautions and engaging in positive, professional interactions, avoiding the influence of any personal bias towards the individual or group. This entails awareness of the vulnerabilities experienced by any particular population of people and necessitates understanding of and respect for diversity, including, but not limited to, factors concerning gender, race, religion, disability, and socioeconomic status.

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competencies: a measurable pattern of knowledge, skill, abilities, behaviors, and other characteristics that an individual needs to perform work roles or occupational functions successfully

  1. Prahalad, C.K. and Hamel, G. (1990) "The core competence of the corporation Archived 2014-07-14 at the Wayback Machine", Harvard Business Review (v. 68, no. 3) pp. 79–91.