The term 'psychology' is derived from a Latin word which means the study of the soul or mind. Psychology is a science based on the study of human psyche, behavior, and mental health. The field of psychology is a vast arena, with a variety of sub fields like child psychology, clinical psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, industrial psychology, etc. With psychology being such an interesting and challenging field, many students are taking it up as a career. To become a psychologist, one has to gain a bachelor's degree and a postgraduate degree specializing in a particular field. Taking up a Ph.D. also helps. The field of psychology thrives on continuous research and every course requires students to write research papers on different subjects of psychology.
To make a research paper interesting, it is necessary to have a good topic in hand. Since psychology offers a plethora of topics, students may have a difficult time in choosing one. The most important criteria for selecting a research topic is the student's interest and area of specialization. Writing a research paper in psychology involves a lot of reading as well as field work -- therefore, the topic chosen becomes utmost important. Most sub-fields of psychology are broad, like the main subject, and research on a vast topic can become problematic. Hence, it is necessary to opt for a topic that is narrow and concise. For instance, memory is a vast topic and just opting for memory as a research title might be impossible to tackle. The student should narrow down the topic to something on the lines of 'How does age affect memory?'. Such topics can make the paper interesting as well as specific.
Psychological Perspectives on Competence to Make Decisions
In this section, psychological views of competence are examined in greater detail. The contributions of two distinct psychological perspectives to the question of competence are reviewed in detail: the forensic psychological view, which originates from legal requirements, and the cognitive psychological view, which originates from the study of human cognitive processes.
Both perspectives share a disciplinary emphasis of psychology, the science of the mind and behavior. The differences in the views will be reviewed further, but one critical distinction must be made before further examination. The forensic psychological perspective is concerned with “research that can lead to the development of improved and empirically based criteria for decision-making with respect to a number of difficult law and mental health issues” (S. Shah, quoted in Voit, 1995, p. 10). Competence questions are framed in terms of what relevant skills the law requires; the law is the springboard for investigation. In contrast, the cognitive psychological perspective is concerned with identification and measurement of cognitive processes such as problem solving, reasoning, memory, and knowledge representation (Craik & Salthouse, 1992; Datan, Rodeheaver, & Hughes, 1987). Most of the 1980s and 1990s definitions of competence reviewed above derive from a forensic psychological perspective. The next subsection expands on the meaning of a forensic psychological view, followed by a brief review of cognitive psychological perspectives on competence. Finally, the contributions of these two psychological views are compared.
7.06.4.1 Forensic Psychological Views of Competence
The forensic psychological view of competence is most often used by individuals with a combination of legal and psychological training. In most cases, these researchers have the express goal of enhancing psychological practice by attending to relevant legal issues and enhancing legal policy through empirical assessment. The forensic psychological view is distinguished from purely legal views by its emphasis on quantification of relevant variables.
One prominent feature of forensic psychological definitions is reliance on the term “decisional capacity” rather than “competence” as a means of improving specificity (Appelbaum & Grisso, 1988; President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1983). As discussed in the preceding review of definitions, a trend towards increased specificity is evident. Similarly, the American Bar Association (1991) notes the evolution in the legal concept of competence, from a global conception to a conception based on functional abilities; the American Bar Association report even recommends use of the specific term “decisional capacity” (instead of the more global term “competence”) in legal contexts.
The contribution of forensic psychology to definitions of competence is evident in the review of definitions presented above. For example, the forensic psychological view has advanced definitions from a simple, global level centered around understanding to a more complex, hierarchical set of standards or component abilities. The work of Appelbaum and Grisso (1995), Appelbaum and Roth (1982), Kapp (1988), and Tepper and Elwork (1984) all represent forensic psychological views. All share a sensitivity to the process of mapping legal notions of informed consent to actual situations. One of the main contributions of this work is the foundation it lays for assessment of legally based constructs in clinical situations. The assessment approaches developed within this perspective will be reviewed later in the chapter.
7.06.4.2 Cognitive Psychological Views of Competence
Cognitive psychology has made distinct contributions to the clarification of competence. Several caveats must be noted before reviewing this literature, however. First, “competence” has numerous meanings in cognitive psychology, only some of which relate to the informed consent component of interest here. For example, the subject index of an edited volume in cognitive psychology includes a listing for “competence” but says “see also Self-efficacy” (Lachman & Barrack, 1993). Similarly, in Sternberg and Wagner's (1986) volume Practical Intelligence, several different types of competence are referenced in the subject index, including cognitive, social, intellectual, and interpersonal. Applying a cognitive psychology perspective to the examination of competence to provide informed consent therefore requires vigilance regarding the concepts actually being discussed.
The literature on everyday problem solving has some important parallels to the development of the concept of competence to provide informed consent. Although definitions vary slightly, in general, everyday problem solving is defined as intelligence directed at practical problems, distinct from abstract or “academic” intelligence (Sternberg & Wagner 1986). Measures of academic intelligence have been characterized as holding little intrinsic interest for the individual, being disconnected from the individual's daily experience, and often having a single correct answer (Sternberg & Wagner). In contrast, practical intelligence has as a goal “the solution of problems which challenge the well-being, needs, plans, and survival of the individual” (Charlesworth, 1976, quoted in Sternberg & Wagner, p. 52).
Willis and Schaie (1994) list the following five aspects of everyday problem solving: relevant mental abilities and skills; domain-specific knowledge; understanding of personal circumstances and of interpersonal context; attitudes, beliefs, and preferences; and integration of these dimensions. An important feature of this type of problem solving is recursiveness, that is, solutions or decisions may be arrived at in a nonlinear manner (Willis, 1996).
Two of cognitive psychology's everyday problem-solving dimensions are notably absent from forensic conceptualizations, however. Within the forensic framework, the role of attitudes, beliefs, and preferences is not addressed, nor is the potential for recursiveness in the decision process. Arguably, legal requirements necessitate a single response on a single occasion, and the importance of attitudes, beliefs, and preferences to the decision is potentially minimized by this single-time focus: each may change over time, but if a one-time decision is the focus of the law, then at most the law will be concerned with the influence of each on the present decision. A single-time focus also obviates a temporally recursive perspective.
Among the core issues addressed by cognitive psychology are memory and attention, both of which are relevant to a consideration of competence. Not surprisingly, findings from cognitive psychology are immediately applicable to competence concerns. Salthouse (1996) notes that mental screening tests are one method of assessing “cognitive competency, and indirectly the capacity to make responsible decisions” (p. 36). Using the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE, Folstein et al., 1975) as an example, he notes that comprehension, short-term memory, and the ability to attend and concentrate are among the skills assessed by the MMSE. These skills are the minimum needed for “reasonable decision making,” and thus are applicable to views of competence. Salthouse identifies the main similarities between forensic psychology and cognitive psychology views of competence when he discusses competence assessment, which he says “should not only be context-sensitive or situation-specific but should also incorporate evaluations of the individual's comprehension and reasoning relevant to the decision” (p. 13).
Advances in conceptualizations of competence have led to attempts to assess competence empirically, since assessment follows from, and in some cases feeds back to, conceptualization. Assessment of competence is considered next.