The Basic Idea

When you seek out a professional—whether it be a doctor, a lawyer, or a tutor—you trust that the individual has the necessary skills and knowledge to help you. Oftentimes, individuals have credentials, like university degrees, that give them credibility and reassure you they have the adequate capabilities to get the job done. Although the degree doesn’t give you evidence based on experience in their role, it provides you with a sense of comfort that someone at least has the basic abilities to perform their work.

When someone does have the attributes and expertise to perform a task or embody a role, we say they are competent. Competence can be defined as the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, and judgment needed to perform the work of a particular profession.1 Competence, or at least the perception of competence, is crucial for experts in any field, as without it, others will not trust them to perform their job effectively. We must believe our politicians, psychologists, and scientists are all competent at what they do, and thus, that we should listen to their advice.

What makes an individual competent varies from field to field, and even from individual to individual. If you were asked what makes a good doctor, you might have a different answer than your friend. The things you list—perhaps empathy, knowledge, and good bedside manner—are the characteristics you personally believe make a competent doctor.

Our competence to excel in life depends on our ability to do what we can do.

– Chief Executive Officer of The WhistleMag, Sijin BT2

Theory, meet practice

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Key Terms

Drive Reduction Theory: a theory that explains motivation for behavior as a desire to diminish unpleasant drives. It is based on homeostasis, the idea that the body works to maintain a comfortable balance. If one of your drives—like hunger—disrupts that balance, you will engage in a behavior to restore the equilibrium, like eating.4

Effectance Motivation/Urge: a theory that explains motivation as a desire to be effective. The positive feeling someone experiences after conquering a task is why they engage in the behavior in the first place. Motivation, therefore, is a result of positive reinforcement, where one learns what tasks they are effective at and continuously engages in them.5

Behaviorisma psychological approach that emphasizes the study of observable processes (behavior). When it comes to measuring competence, many models take a behaviorist approach as they focus on the outcome (success or not) of behavior, not of the mental state which drove the behavior.6

Positive Reinforcementa method through which we learn. When we engage in behavior that has a positive outcome, we are more likely to repeat it. Thus, we are more likely to engage in behaviors that we are competent in.


Competence was first explored by Robert White, a clinical psychologist. His 1959 paper “Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence” which appeared in the Psychological Review was his most famous contribution to the field of psychology. In this paper, White suggested competence was a fundamental human drive which motivated individuals. 7 He suggested competence, and activities that make us feel competent, are motivating because competence is seen as a road to success.8

This might seem like a commonplace line of thought today, but at the time there was a great deal of focus on sex and aggression as the influences behind behavior in psychoanalytic theory.7 In the 1940s and 1950s, the drive reduction theory of motivation was the prominent theory used to explain why individuals engaged in particular behaviors. The theory, proposed by behaviorist Clark Hull, states that we engage in behavior to diminish a biological drive, like hunger, sexual desire, or a need for warmth. These drives create an unpleasant state, and Hull suggested that’s what motivates us to engage in behaviors that reduce them.4

In “Motivation reconsidered”, White also introduced another term related to competence: effectance motivation. White contextualized effectance as the motivation to be effective and competent. He defined it as a “tendency to explore and influence one’s environment”9 and suggested people learn to engage in behaviors where they successfully influence one’s environment through positive reinforcement. Competence, for White, was all about improving one’s self.

In 1978, psychologist Susan Harter expanded on White’s ideas in her paper “Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model”. While White suggested that people are motivated by the positive reinforcement of competence, Harter wanted to come up with a more robust model that showed that the degree of approval or disapproval attached to the behaviors of a child determines their sense of competence. People, especially children, gravitate towards what they are good at because it makes them feel good about themselves. The more they do it, the more competent they become. In a subsequent paper in 1981, Harter developed a scale for children that looked at three domains where competence can be achieved: cognitive, social, and physical.10

Later, competence began to be discussed in relation to one’s ability to succeed in their role within an organization. We might think of it as professional competence. People began investigating what made someone competent at work and ways to increase competence for the management development sector.


Robert White

The psychologist who first iterated the term competence academically. He suggested competence was not just the outcome of a task, but the driving factor in engaging in that behavior. He believed people engaged in behaviors in which they were competent because it made them feel good about themselves.

Clark Hull

A psychologist who attempted to give mathematical expression to psychological phenomena. He believed all behavior could be explained by conditioning principles. Hull developed the drive reduction theory, which suggested biological deprivation created motivation.11

Susan Harter

A psychologist who developed models of competence for various age groups. She began from White’s theory, that people were motivated to partake in tasks they were successful in because of positive reinforcement. She created scales to rate levels of competence so people could measure it, as White had only theoretically discussed competence. For children, she eventually developed her model to include five domains of competence: scholastic, athletic, social, physical appearance, and behavioral conduct. Later, she developed a similar scale for adolescents that included three additional domains: close friendship, romantic appeal, and job competence.12

Stuart Dreyfus and Hubert Dreyfus

An engineering professor and philosophy professor, respectively, who devised a model for skill acquisition in 1980, for people to self-assess their level of expertise. They identified five stages: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. The model assumes that skill acquisition is a matter of experience rather than inherent skill, and that over time, people progress from novice all the way to expert. According to their understanding of competence, they hypothesized that it takes a student two to three years before they are competent. When competent, they know many rules and procedures necessary for their role, but don’t always know how to apply them.13


Competence might be a better way to predict success than other markers, such as intelligence. While someone might have a very high IQ, that doesn’t necessarily tell us if they will be successful in a particular task or role. Since competence is measured as a result of behavior, it can be argued that it is a better measure of performance.14

Understanding competence can help organizations ensure their employees are motivated to perform their role through various strategies. If competence is a motivating factor, then managers can give praise when it is deserved. The positive affirmation will make an individual feel good, which in turn will make them more likely to repeat that behavior.

Moreover, being aware of what kind of skills or characteristics make someone competent in a particular role can help human resources recruit the right kind of individuals. In general, having a clear definition of what encapsulates competency within an organization ensures that everyone’s goals are aligned and that employees know what is expected of them. Although competence can vary from team to team, having overall core competencies makes it clear what the organization’s values are.15


Some people argue that looking at competence as a motivating factor is too behaviorist. It starts with the end feeling of behavior – a feeling that one has adequately succeeded in completing a task – and then attributes that end feeling as a motivating factor. Although the theory aligns itself with positive reinforcement learning strategies, competence itself cannot be directly observed – we are actually looking at performance as an indicator of competence.16  Additionally, if we assume Dreyfus & Dreyfus’ model of competency development is accurate, we have to ask what motivates someone to go above and beyond competency and work towards being an expert, if, competence is supposed to be what motivates individuals to engage in behavior – there must be other factors that motivate us.

Additionally, there exist multiple definitions of competence, and many models of competence, but is competence something one can really measure? One manager could have very high expectations for what competence means – being an expert or perfectly completing a task – while another might see competence as completing a task adequately. Since competence isn’t easily measurable, it is difficult to clearly set out expectations of competency in a task.

COVID-19 & Medical Competence

It is no secret many controversial debates  have arisen because of the COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory measures. Now, more than ever, people are beginning to question the competence of medical professionals and whether they are adequately prepared and educated to dictate what measures are put in place.

The COVID-19 pandemic exists on such a vast scale and is like nothing else we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. Many medical professionals had to take on tasks they never otherwise would have performed, and some thrived in the face of these challenges, while others were less competent. In his paper “Questioning medical competence: Should the Covid-19 crisis affect the goals of medical education?”, medical education researcher Olle ten Cate explores the causes behind these different responses, and questions whether we now need to rethink what medical competency is.17

As he mentions in the paper, one (of many) definitions of competence is “the capacity to respond to individual or societal demands in order to perform an activity or complete a given task.” 17 That is quite the grand ask from medical professionals – competence is essentially their ability to adequately respond to any kind of medical crisis. Cate criticizes this definition of medical competence, as it provides no indication of exactly what skills are necessary to make a good medical professional, which leaves the field ill prepared for pandemics like this one.17

Cate’s investigation and questioning of what medical competence should look like in 2021 demonstrates that doctors and other medical professionals have changing responsibilities, and with it, their training and education needs to ensure that they can be ‘competent’ at not just their speciality or situations they are familiar with, but competent in a more holistic medicinal capacity.

Related TDL Content

Who’s In There? A Behavioral Toolkit to Enhance Self Control

Some jobs require specific skills for us to consider someone competent for the role, but there are also more general skills that can make someone a competent person no matter the task. Self-control is an important skill that means people can focus on behaviors that are going to improve their lives, but how exactly to achieve self-control might be more complicated than sheer willpower. In this article, our contributor Tiago Rodrigo takes a deep dive on what exactly self-control is, how it can be achieved, and why it should be leveraged.

The Post-Truth Problem

We often rely on the competence of others to make decisions. We look up to medical professionals, politicians, and other figures of authority to guide us. This becomes problematic when we begin to consider how much misinformation is being spread – especially online – and that often, the interests of others are actually at odds with our best interest. In this article, our contributor Jason Burton explores the fact that our society seems to be devoid of epistemic responsibility and the consequences of the degradation of social capital.


  1. Alexander, A. (2018). Knowing What You Don’t Know. Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy.
  2. Competence Quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from
  3. Von Treuer, K. M., & Reynolds, N. (2017). A Competency Model of Psychology Practice: Articulating Complex Skills and Practices. Frontiers in Education2
  4. Cherry, K. (2020, September 17). Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior. Verywell Mind.
  5. Miller, K. (2017, January 14). 3 Effectance Motivation Examples. Future of Working
  6. Hyland, T. (1997). Reconsidering competence. Journal of Philosophy of Education31(3), 491-503.
  7. Robert Winthrop White. (n.d.). Harvard University – Department of Psychology. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from
  8. van der Kooij, K., In ‘t Veld, L., & Hennink, T. (2021). Motivation as a function of success frequency. Motivation and Emotion, 1-10.
  9. White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review66, 297-333.
  10. DiBello, M. (n.d.). Competence Motivation. Motivation at a Glance.
  11. Cherry, K. (2011, August 1). Psychologist Clark Hull Biography (1884-1952). Verywell Mind.
  12. Susan Harter Self-Report Instruments. (n.d.). University of Denver Portfolio. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from
  13. Zeeman, A. (2019). Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. Tools Hero.
  14. Sieck, W. (2021, September 17). What is Competence and Why is it Important? Global Cognition
  15. Competence and competency – are they the same? (2021, February 15). Centranum. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from
  16. Geller, E. H. (2011, April 15). Competence vs. Performance. Psychology In Action
  17. Ten Cate, O., Schultz, K., Frank, J. R., Hennus, M. P., Ross, S., Schumacher, D. J., Snell, L. S., Whelan, A. J., & Young, J. Q. (2021). Questioning medical competence: Should the COVID-19 crisis affect the goals of medical education? Medical Teacher43(7), 817-823.

About the Author

Emilie Rose Jones

Emilie currently works in Marketing & Communications for a non-profit organization based in Toronto, Ontario. She completed her Masters of English Literature at UBC in 2021, where she focused on Indigenous and Canadian Literature. Emilie has a passion for writing and behavioural psychology and is always looking for opportunities to make knowledge more accessible. 

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