An Argument Against Competencies

Kirk Honda, M.A., LMFT

September 9, 2011


A colleague and close friend of mine recently said to me, “It is unethical to provide forms of psychotherapy that are not evidence-based.”  His positivist view is becoming more common within the mental health field and within the broader society (Cushman, 2009; Hoge et al., 2005; Kaslow, 2007).  To some, the evidence-based movement is a beneficial progression away from charlatans and snake oil.  To others, this current scientistic trend is antithetical to the humanness of psychology.  In this paper, both sides will be discussed along with a model that might bridge the ever-widening gap between positivists and anti-positivists.

The Argument for Competencies

In the 2007 article Guiding Principles and Recommendations for the Assessment of Competence, Kaslow et al. present the guiding principles for the assessment of competence within the field of psychology developed by the members of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Assessment of Competence in Professional Psychology.  They assert that their method of assessing competence fosters learning, evaluates training programs, advances the field, and protects the public.  In support of the competency movement, they claim that consumers demand and deserve empirically-proven treatment.


Within the statements made by Kaslow et al. are the following assumptions:

  • Competencies are inevitable
  • Their competency model is universally     good and without question
  • Logical positivistic methods     can measure what is good in psychology
  • Policymakers are making decisions     that will benefit those who adopt competencies and this is not something     to question
  • Psychology should strive to be     like the medical field
  • We cannot and should not oppose     our credentialing bodies

The Argument against Competencies

Phil Cushman’s talk in 2009 at the Antioch Educational Convocation raises grave concerns about the psychological field focusing on competencies.  He explains that by imposing competencies and surveilling psychology educators, it is claimed that education will improve, professors will be prevented from being lackadaisical, corrupt, and abusive, students will be satisfied consumers of education, the public will be protected, psychology will secure a place in the healthcare market place, and the right kind of psychologist will be created.  However, Cushman asserts that competencies provide a dubious solution to those within psychology who are merely reacting to fears of losing wealth and influence.  Because American psychology has never been unable to secure a place in the physical sciences (and thereby securing monetary and social value), it strives to secure approval from the medical profession, insurance companies, or the federal government.  Since these institutions influence health care policy and since these institutions value positivism and procedure, psychology is currently adopting competencies, regulations, and scientistic justifications. 

Cushman also claims that competencies are now taken for granted and are accepted as the sole valid measure within our field.  Consequently they are affecting our everyday moral understandings.  Competencies attempt define graduate learning about human healing only to that which can be reduced to behaviors, lists, and calculations.  However, Cushman asserts that no single competency can begin to capture the miraculous process of learning.  Furthermore, even though the competency model that Kaslow et al. propose is contested by many, there has seemingly been no discussion about the model’s moral goodness or its political influences. 

Cushman goes on to explain that science has indeed given us wondrous advances, but psychology’s adoption of scientism may reduce humans to data points.  The assumptions inherent within logical positivism treat social and psychological reality as something fundamentally stable, enduring, measurable, and replicable to allow for generalizations; this is contrary to socio-rationalism, hermeneutics, social construction, post-modernism, and other philosophies (Bushe, 1995).  Adopting the medical model and rejecting the humanness of psychological philosophies such as romanticism and humanistic psychology might just make psychology irrelevant to society (Schneider, 1998).


After reviewing the articles the following questions emerge:

  • Are competencies actually     inevitable?
  • What is the argument for the moral     goodness of competencies?
  • What political movements are     contributing to this trend toward scientism?
  • Should competencies be the sole     manner of evaluation?
  • Does the public actually demand     competencies?
  • Can psychology sustain itself     without adopting the medical model?
  • Should customer satisfaction     drive the field?
  • How does one oppose the     competency movement?
  • Are competencies a panoptic     method of control?

Panoptic Control

Processes of surveillance have often been traced to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (Eparu, 2010).  The Panopticon is an all-seeing device with a tower of vigil at its center, surrounded by a peripheral ring of the eternally watched.  According to Bentham’s principle, power must always be visible and must be seen as constantly surveilling (Eparu, 2010).  The perpetually felt, but never seen, watchful eye regularizes the individual because it creates the illusion that subjects are being examined and scrutinized.

Inspired by Benthem’s Panopticon concept, Foucault observed segments of contemporary society that emulated this form on social control.  He proposed that when individuals are constantly aware of the possibility of being monitored from above, people self-adjust their behavior to match institutional norms (Cushman, 1995; Eparu, 2010).  In this way, those in power can control by passively and sporadically watching rather than actively disciplining or coercing.  The illusion of constant monitoring controls the masses with very little effort.

Kaslow et al. (2007) promote competencies by explaining that assessing competence determines how one does things through behavioral observation, and it holds educators and practitioners accountable.  In light of Foucault’s ideas, competencies might be seen as a panoptic method of control.  The APA accrediting body watches university administration who in turn monitors faculty who likewise watch the students; all of whom watch themselves for fear of being indentified as incompetent.  This organizational mechanism likely leads to anxiety, undue distress, and paranoid isolation.  Therefore an alternative method of quality enhancement should be considered before adopting competencies.  Cooperrider and Srivastva’s (1987) method of appreciative inquiry is one such alternative.

Appreciative Inquiry

Competencies are rooted in a logical positivist paradigm that treats organizational reality as something fundamentally pre-existing (Thatchenkery, 1999).  On the other hand, appreciative inquiry is based on a socio-rationalist paradigm which treats organizational reality as a social construction and a linguistic achievement made possible by our engagement in a social discourse (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987; Thatchenkery, 1999).  Those who promote appreciative inquiry promote the idea that groups have images of themselves that underlay self organizing processes and that social systems have a natural tendency to evolve toward the most positive images held by their members (Thatchenkery, 1999).  This philosophy reflects the principles of humanistic psychology that human beings cannot be reduced to components, such as competencies, and that human beings will naturally actualize under growth-promoting circumstances (Bugenthal, 1964; Rogers, 1961).

The appreciative inquiry method has three components: 1) appreciative interventions begin with a search for the best examples of organizing within the experience of members; 2) the inquiry then seeks to create insight into the forces that lead to superior performance, as defined by organizational members; what is it about the people, the organization, and the context that creates peak experiences at work? 3) And finally, through the process of the inquiry itself, not through a process of authority, the elements that contribute to optimal performance are reinforced and amplified (Bushe, 1995).  This established method might benefit from a fourth component: a discussion of the historical understandings and meanings that inform the moral underpinnings involved throughout the appreciative inquiry process.

The method of appreciative inquiry, along with a hermeneutic understanding, can be a different model for optimizing student development that emphasizes discussions of meaning rather than the panoptic method of competencies (Thatchenkery, 1999).  This method asks questions, considers contextual meaning-making, and trusts that people will progress toward their hermeneutically self-defined moral good as opposed to the competency method that authoritatively watches for weakness.  Through inquiry and discourse, students, teachers, and administrators can discuss the subtleties of meaning and morality.  Why enforce panoptic competencies when we could just ask people what is good and how they want to better themselves?


I was at the 2009 Antioch Convocation when Phil Cushman cautioned us about competencies.  At the time, I was immersed in the couple and family therapy specialization’s accreditation process.  Adhering to the competency model was a major requirement for reaccreditation, and the moral goodness of this model was never, to my knowledge, questioned or discussed.  I remember thinking Phil is telling us that competencies are not necessarily a good thing, but what can I do about it? I’m just a cog in the machine.  Cushman’s commentary on current movements in psychology education compels me to rethink my passive acceptance of the competency movement.  The taken-for-grantedness of competencies is an indication of its danger.  Without a moral justification and without a full understanding of the hidden effects, the competency model runs the risk of doing harm.  In Cushman’s words: “… no single competency or cluster of competencies can begin to capture fully the learning and personal development that each student achieves in a particular course, or for that matter the miraculous process of learning itself.  Student achievements … are always, necessarily, more nuanced, and especially more unbidden, than any competency can convey or, especially, ensure” (2009, p. 7).


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