Rubén Ardila
RUBEN ARDILA received his degree in psychology from the National University
of Colombia (in Bogotá) and his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (U.S.) in
Experimental Psychology. His research areas are the experimental analysis of behavior,
psychobiology, and history of psychology. He has been Chair of the Psychology
Department at the National University of Colombia, Chair of the Psychology Department at
the University of the Andes, and Director of the Psychology Graduate Program at the
University of St. Thomas. Dr. Ardila has written 27 books and more than 250 scientific
papers, published in several countries and in several languages. He has been visiting
professor in Argentina, Germany, Puerto Rico, Spain, and the United States. Dr. Ardila is
also a member of the executive committee of the International Union of Psychological
Science, the International Council of Psychologists, and was president of the Interamerican
Society of Psychology. He is the founder and editor of the Latin American Journal of
Colombia is located in northwestern South America, with coasts on the Atlantic
(Caribbean Sea) and the Pacific oceans, and with the Amazon River at the south. The area
encompasses 439,737 square miles (1,138,914 square kilometers).
Colombia’s natural resources include oil, coal, natural gas, most of the world’s
emeralds, fertile soil and plenty of water. The climate is cool in the mountains, where the
majority of the population lives, and tropical on the coast and in the east. The population
was 42 million in 2003; the literacy rate is 90.9% and 71% of the people live in urban areas.
Ninety-five percent of the people are Roman Catholic, and the national language is
The Human Development Index (HDI) was developed by the United Nations
Development Program to serve as a composite measure of a country’s health vis-à-vis other
nations. The HDI is comprised of three key variables: life expectancy, knowledge (as
measured by the adult literacy rate and school enrollment), and per capita gross domestic
product. Colombia ranks 57th among 174 countries on the Human Development Index.
Table 1 shows the main demographic indicators comparing Colombia and the rest of the
world for the year 2000.
Colombia has a long tradition in education, above all in the humanities and in the
arts. In the major cities there is an elite class with a high level of education; members of
this class are very well-informed about what is happening in the world, above all in politics,
art, literature and economics.
A very good relationship with the United States and with Europe exists. There are
many colleges and universities in Colombia, but these schools vary widely in quality. A
university education is thought to help with social ascent, and it is clearly a status symbol.
The high value of education has caused the proliferation of universities, and within
them there has been a proliferation of service and health programs such as medicine, law,
business administration, and psychology.
Table 1
Demographic Indicators for the Year 2000
62 years
Annual per
over 65
6000 million
Females Males
70 years 69 years
75 years
67 years
72 years
22 years
25 years
Adapted from: Population Reference Bureau (2002), Wartenberg (2003).
Psychology in Colombia is a well-established discipline. It has a long tradition that
goes back in a broad sense to the primitive inhabitants of the current territory of Colombia,
and in the strict sense to the founding of the first professional program of psychology (i.e.,
a major in psychology) in 1947. At present, there are 12,000 graduated psychologists,
20,000 students of psychology, and 77 professional training programs. There are 43
psychologists per 100,000 people in Colombia.
The development of psychology in Colombia can be divided into five phases
(Ardila, 1973, 1993):
1. Before the arrival of the Europeans, in the territory that today is called Colombia,
several cultures existed with medium levels of social and cultural development. They were
not as advanced as the Mayas, the Aztecs or the Incas. These early inhabitants of Colombia
had clear ideas about behavior, the family, the raising of children, the soul, sexuality, the
normal and the abnormal, and harmony among people. The study of the indigenous
psychologies of Colombia is just beginning.
2. After 1492, following the arrival of the Spanish, the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas
was introduced, which included the study of the faculties of the soul. The Spanish colonial
period lasted three centuries, during which many universities and centers of higher learning
were created. There were scientific expeditions (led by Humboldt, La Condamine, Mutis,
and other European scientists), which shed light on aspects of astronomy, botany,
geography, zoology, and the behavior and social organization of several human groups.
3. In the 19th century, many scientific advances were made in psychology. Some
physicians wrote theses on psychological topics, educators carried out pedagogical
innovations, and philosophers were concerned with studying perceptual and
epistemological problems, the nature of the mind, etc.
4. The professionalization of psychology began in 1947 with the creation of the first
professional training program at the National University of Colombia. It was founded by
Mercedes Rodrigo (1891-1982), a Spanish immigrant who had left her country because of
the Spanish Civil War: Rodrigo was invited to Colombia by the rector of the National
University and arrived in 1939. She founded the Section of Psychotechnics and, in 1947,
the Institute of Applied Psychology. She established the importance of psychometric
investigation, adapting many psychological tests and creating new ones. She also made
progress on the professional application of psychology to education and to the world of
work. Rodrigo trained many collaborators and students.
When Rodrigo disembarked in Colombia, a certain research tradition in psychology
already existed, as evidenced by the modest body of published work at the time. The
applied work of Rodrigo was very important and fulfilled social needs that already existed
in the family, community, schools, and industry. On November 20, 1947, she created the
Institute of Applied Psychology for the purpose of training professional psychologists. It is
relevant to point out that, at the time, the profession of psychologist did not exist in any
country of South America.
5. Growth and consolidation. Psychology has grown considerably between 1952 (the year
that the first psychologists in Colombia received their diploma) and today. Seventy-seven
programs exist for professional training in psychology, among which 20 are graduate
programs. All of the main cities of Colombia (Barranquilla, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali,
Cartagena, Manizales, Medellín, and Pereira) have psychology-training programs.
The majority of psychologists live in large, metropolitan centers that have potential
for the greatest development. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a tendency to fill
the existing shortage of psychologists in small towns. In general, however, psychology is a
predominately urban profession.
The professional organization which represents psychology in Colombia is the
Colombian Society of Psychology. Founded in 1979, it organizes and hosts the Colombian
Congress of Psychology every two years, publishes a newsletter, serves as the voice of the
profession in Colombia, represents the country before the International Union of
Psychological Science, maintains a Code of Ethics (Sociedad Colombiana de Psicología,
2000), and carries out many other activities to promote psychology as a science and
Other organizations exist, dedicated to specific areas, including the Association for
Behavior Analysis and Therapy, the Colombian Association of Clinical Psychologists and
Psychotherapists, the Colombian Association of Neuropsychology, the Colombian
Association of Social Psychology, the Society of Industrial/Organizational Psychologists,
and the Society of Sport Psychologists. There is also an association of faculties of
psychology, the Colombian Association of Psychology Faculties. In general these
professional associations have good relationships with one another, and are complementary
rather than competitive.
The professional associations serve psychologists in many ways: they defend the
profession, support its inclusion in society, foster positive relationships with the
government, and address problems associated with the recruitment and training of
psychologists. These associations have multiple links with the government and with NGOs.
There is little tension between scientists and practitioners in Colombia. The status
and role of psychologists are high vis-a-vis other disciplines. There was an obvious
struggle for power between psychiatrists and psychologists a few decades ago; today, that
struggle no longer exists. The salaries earned by psychologists are similar to earned by
other Colombian professionals, but are very low by international standards. Some
psychologists have several jobs in order to maintain a decent standard of living. However,
other professionals also work multiple jobs, so this is not unique to psychology.
To enroll in a Colombian university, a student has to take a national exam (similar
to the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the United States). It is an aptitude and knowledge test.
This entrance examination includes abstract reasoning, verbal reasoning, knowledge of
history, philosophy, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, etc. All high school
graduates must take this state exam (called the ICFES national exam). In addition, some
university careers (for instance, art and music) require special exams. The required score
for admittance varies in each university and from program to program, but admissions
criteria are generally very high across university programs. In the case of psychology
programs, admissions criteria are especially high. Psychology students are highly selected
and are among the best qualified in the whole country. Some universities (e.g., the National
University of Colombia) enroll less than 10% of the candidates who apply for admission to
psychology programs.
There are no scholarships available at the undergraduate level, although some
students will qualify for financial aid. In contrast, at the graduate level, students often
qualify for financial aid and grants, although less than the 50% of students qualify for
At an organizational level, psychology programs are almost always embedded in a
college of psychology (Facultad de Psicología), although a few universities have
departments of psychology. The college structure usually allows more independence and
autonomy than the department structure. The tendency in Colombia, and in the rest of Latin
America and Spain as well, is for psychology to be studied in autonomous colleges, which
are part of universities. These universities can be public or private. The “professional
school of psychology” model also exists in Colombia, but is more limited, and there are
few professional schools independent from Universities.
The most prestigious public universities that train psychologists are the National
University of Colombia (established in 1947), the University of Valle - Cali (established in
1976), and the University of Antioquia – Medellín (established in 1977).
Many private universities also train psychologists. Some of them are excellent,
whereas others are less than stellar. The private universities that offer the best psychology
training programs include the University of the Andes, Javeriana University, Konrad
Lorenz University, Autonomous University of Bucaramanga, Catholic University of
Colombia, University of Manizales, University of the North (Barranquilla), University of
St. Buenaventura (Medellín), and the University of St. Thomas.
The typical curriculum for undergraduate training lasts five years. It is very
professionally oriented and very different from the typical undergraduate psychology
curriculum in the United States (B.A. or B.S.). It is actually more similar to the professional
training that is offered in various European countries, for example in Germany, Spain, and
Sweden. During the five-years of training, instruction in all areas of psychology is provided
at a basic level (perception, cognition, learning, social psychology, research methodology),
as well as at an applied level (clinical psychology, community psychology, educational
psychology, industrial/organizational, health psychology). In addition, students take
courses in related disciplines (anthropology, biology, English, informatics, neuroscience,
physiology, sociology, statistics).
During the last three semesters, students focus on one area, for example, clinical,
educational, industrial/organizational, or sport psychology. Students also have a year of
supervised practice and a graduation thesis. This thesis is typically very demanding, and it
is intended to be an empirical contribution to the profession.
A generic degree in psychology is awarded at the undergraduate level. This degree
is similar to the master’s (M.A., M.S.) in the United States. No specialized degrees are
offered at the undergraduate level.
In Colombia, the curriculum at the master’s level is very specialized, and is also
oriented towards scientific research. It is expected that a graduate student will master an
area of psychology (e.g., forensic psychology) and go on to conduct scientific research in
that area. Graduate programs are available in clinical psychology, behavior analysis,
neuropsychology, educational psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, social
psychology, forensic psychology, health psychology, family psychology, and cognitive
Doctoral programs in psychology do not exist in Colombia as of 2003, but there are
advanced plans for the development of doctoral programs at two Colombian universities.
Colombian psychologists with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. have most often received their advanced
training in the United States, Belgium, Mexico, Russia, or Spain. Out of the 12,000
psychologists working in Colombia, perhaps 300 hold an M.A. or a M.S., and 40 or 50
have a Ph.D. or Psy.D.
The pedagogic methods used in training programs in psychology are very broad,
and include lectures, seminars, practicum, lab sessions, and fieldwork, among other
techniques. The emphasis on theory, research, and practice varies across training programs
at different universities in Colombia.
Students use a variety of resources in learning about psychology, including books
written by Colombian psychologists, books translated from other languages (mainly from
English, by U.S. authors), international journals, journals edited in Colombia, indigenous
and translated psychometric tests, hardware and software, audiovisual materials, etc.
University libraries possess good collections of books and journals, primarily those
published in the United States and Europe, but also from other Latin American nations
(e.g., Argentina, Mexico).
A small percentage of psychologists receive their education and training outside
Colombia, mostly in the United States, Spain, Canada, and Mexico.
The professional practice of psychology requires a degree in psychology and
registration by the Secretary of Health. Licensing and certification are based on one’s
professional training. There are no formal requirements for continuing education, although
many Colombian psychologists participate in conferences, seminars, and /or workshops.
The major continuing-education event is the Colombian Congress of Psychology, which
meets every two years.
The profession of psychology has been regulated by law in Colombia since 1983.
However, this law is currently being revised. In addition, the Code of Ethics was updated in
2000 (Sociedad Colombiana de Psicología, 2000). It is a comprehensive code, and one that
covers most situations, helping psychologists resolve the most vexing ethical dilemmas
they encounter. The Code of Ethics was originally promulgated in 1974 (see Federación
Colombiana de Psicología, 1974) and was revised and updated in 2000 to conform to
changes in society and to new challenges that confront the profession.
The Code of Ethics has the following sections: professional competences, integrity,
professional and scientific responsibility, social responsibility, respect for others,
confidentiality, avoiding harm, interference in professional activity, delegation and
supervision, fees and financial arrangements, advertising and professional promotion,
therapeutic relationships, evaluation, assessment and diagnosis, scientific research,
applications and social context, relationships with colleagues and other professionals,
relationships with the society and the state, and disciplinary regime.
The training of psychologists is very rigorous, and high standards are set for
professional practice. Psychology is considered to be a science of behavior, but this does
not mean that the predominant paradigm is behaviorism. In fact, the vast majority of
training programs offer instruction in all fields and in all approaches, including
behaviorism, cognitive psychology, humanistic psychology, psychobiology, and
psychodynamics. However, it is fair to state that the behavioral approach has had more
influence in the profession than the other theoretical approaches.
Psychologists attempt to harmonize their practice with the traditions of the
Colombian culture and with the sociopolitical undercurrents of the country. This is not
always simple, especially in a varied and heterogeneous developing country like Colombia,
a nation with multiple cultural traditions. Some traditional approaches have been adapted to
Colombian culture and society.
Colombian psychology has tried to be original, although at first it tended to mimic
or reproduce foreign models, as has probably occurred in all countries of the region (see
Alarcón, 1997, 2002). Most new psychological ideas came from the United States,
England, France, and Germany. Experimental psychology came from Germany. The ideas
of Piaget came from the French-speaking world. Psychoanalysis came from several
sources, including the Argentina, France, and the United States .
Original psychological research has been carried out by Colombian psychologists.
Theories have been postulated (e.g., the experimental synthesis of behavior; see Alarcón
[1997] for a description of the theory), books have been written, psychological tests have
been constructed, and important studies have been conducted in cognitive development,
comparative psychology, the experimental analysis of behavior, and social psychology.
Models of clinical intervention and new procedures in educational psychology also have
been proposed.
In spite of the leadership that Colombian psychology currently occupies in Latin
America , there is a long way to go. Colombian psychology maintains a delicate balance
between (a) the use of psychological theories and techniques of the developed world and
(b) the formulation of original proposals for a “local” psychology.
In Colombia,
psychologists are still grappling with the etic – emic distinction, a dimension that is taken
very seriously in the developing world. This issue refers to the universality of
psychological laws, in contrast to the “indigenous” approach that is relative to particular
cultures and epochs. Psychology in Colombia is more Western-oriented, and scientific
principles are accepted as universal and not necessarily unique to the people or the culture
of Colombia.
Colombian psychologists provide a wide variety of services in an equally wide
variety of settings:
In hospitals and clinics, psychologists carry out assessment, diagnosis, evaluation,
psychotherapy, prevention, and research. The relevance of health psychology is
increasingly recognized in these settings.
In the armed forces, psychologists have clinical, educational, and organizational
duties. Due to the Colombian conflict (with the guerrillas) and state of war that exists in
parts of the nation, the psychological work of the armed forces has emphasized
rehabilitation. Many psychologists offer counseling to soldiers who have been wounded in
combat or have become disabled in normal life.
In business and industry, psychologists participate in selection, motivation, training,
evaluating job performance, and enhancing the lifestyle of employees, among other things.
An ever increasing number of psychologists in Colombia are working in business and
industrial settings.
Psychologists also provide services in schools and institutions of higher education.
The psychological tasks important in these settings include aptitude testing, guidance and
counseling, professional orientation, research on the teaching-learning process, and training
in pedagogical competences.
Psychologists conduct research in a variety of settings, most often in specialized
centers or in universities. The work is most often done in multidisciplinary groups that
focus on specific problems or issues.
Psychologists working in academic settings are devoted to teaching, research, and
administration. In the larger, urban universities, academic life is much more intense than in
small institutions.
Colombian psychologists also engage in traditional clinical practice. An increasing
number of people feel comfortable consulting a psychologist for counseling and
psychotherapy without fear of being stigmatized.
In spite of the legal recognition of psychology in Colombia, there are still nonpsychologists who provide psychological services. Shamans, witch doctors, and even
Catholic priests act as psychologists without having had training in pastoral psychology. In
addition, some general physicians, social workers, speech therapists, and teachers often
provide psychological services without having appropriate training.
In various work settings described above, the relationship between psychologists
and non-psychologists varies, but it is generally congenial. Clashes, friction, and power
struggles occur, but these were more pronounced in the past. In general, psychologists in
Colombia work well with teams that include other professionals.
Colombian psychologists frequently complain that too many psychology-training
programs exist (there were 77 in 2003), and that instruction in these settings is not always
adequate, as current graduates are not meeting the scientific standards that have been
traditional in Colombian psychology. The challenge of how best to train psychologists for
the new century, for Colombia and for the entire world, is a difficult and important
A related problem is the number of psychological professionals in Colombia. It’s
not that “too many” psychologists exist, but, due to the enormous popularity of psychology
at the undergraduate level, it is probable that unemployment rate for psychologists will
increase. Currently, about 12% of Colombian psychologists are unemployed; this rate is
similar to the unemployment rate in other professions.
Psychology has been traditionally a “female” profession in Colombia, and
approximately 60%-70% of Colombian psychologists are women. The contribution of men
and women has been equally important, but women tend to devote themselves chiefly to
applied activities. Managerial and research posts are generally taken by men (e.g.,
presidents of the Colombian Society of Psychology, deans of colleges of psychology,
researchers and authors in the science of psychology, conference organizers, and
spokesmen for the discipline).
The future of psychology in Colombia seems to be promising. However, for future
progress to occur, it will be necessary to develop new areas of work, organize doctoral
programs, surpass the isolation and provincialism of the majority of Colombians, and
improve the economic standards in all professions (this applies not only to psychologists,
but also to economists, engineers, physicians, etc.).
It is likely that the profession of psychology will continue to be viewed as a highstatus profession, and the social image of psychologists will remain positive. However, the
profession is still identified with the clinic and psychology is considered as merely a
helping profession. It is seldom that an ordinary person knows that psychologists also work
with animals, investigate chromatic perception, carry out studies on the localization of brain
functions, are experts in computer applications, and evaluate governmental programs for
illness prevention and health promotion. On the contrary, people think that psychologists
only work in clinical settings, helping adults to resolve problems of living and guiding
children who encounter school-related difficulties.
Psychologists are expanding the sphere of their contributions, particularly by
becoming more engaged in nontraditional settings and tasks. Rural psychology is an area of
growing importance in Colombia, as is the psychology of peace, reconciliation, and
problem solving, especially in the context of war.
In the past, psychologists were very involved in political issues, in social change, in
the search for social justice, and similar matters. Today, they are not as involved. Critical
psychology, "engaged compromise psychology," and “liberation psychology” were very
important in the decade of 1980s. These terms refer to enormous social issues related to
social justice. Many psychologists think that politics is too important to leave only to
politicians, but the majority of psychologists prefer to do their job well and not to involve
themselves directly with Colombian politics.
Opportunities for international partnerships are abundant, yet are not fully realized.
Few Colombian psychologists participate in international congresses, with the exception of
the Interamerican Congresses of Psychology, attend conventions of the American
Psychological Association, or publish in international journals.
It is obvious that Colombian psychologists can learn a lot from international
psychology, as all psychologists stand to benefit from international partnership. However,
communication needs to be bi-directional: south-to-north, as well as north-to-south. For
psychologists in the United States, it is always surprising to find that there are relatively
well-developed psychological communities in the developing countries. In the globalized
world of the 21st century, international cooperation and the exchange of ideas, products,
and people will increase dramatically. As Colombia becomes more involved in
international psychology, it will succeed in understanding its local problems in global terms
and contributing even more to the understanding of human behavior.
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orientations of psychology in Latin America]. Lima: Universidad Femenina.
Alarcón, R. (2002). Estudios sobre psicología latinoamericana [Studies about Latin
American psychology]. Lima: University Ricardo Palma.
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Colombia, historical development]. Mexico City: Editorial Trillas.
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Colombia, social and historical development]. Bogota: Editorial Tercer Mundo.
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life in old age). Avances en Psicología Clínica Latinoamericana, 17, 77-93.
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Colombia (Image of old age in mass media in Colombia). Bogota: Center for
Gerontological Psychology.
Gómez, V. (2000). Relación entre estrés e inmunidad : una visión crítica a la investigación
(Relationship between stress and immunity: A critical vision of research). Revista
Latinoamericana de Psicología, 32, 31-45.
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colombiano (Research about sexual and family health in the Colombian Caribbean).
Barranquilla, Colombia: Editorial Antillas.
Puche, R. (2000). Formación de herramientas científicas en el niño pequeño (Formation of
scientific tools in small children). Bogota: Arango Editores.
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