Teaching psychology: infusing human rights

Promoting a focus on human rights and ethics in education and training.

By Linda M. Woolf, PhD

The APA Board of Directors recommended a list of actions to respond to the Report of the Independent Review. Among those actions, the board recommended that the Education Directorate “promote a focus on human rights and ethics as a core element of psychology education and training from high school through continuing education offerings.”

The following article by Linda Woolf, PhD, is the first of a series of articles examining human rights and ethics.

Psychologist Carolyn Payton was the first woman and first African-American to be named director of the U.S. Peace Corps. She believed psychology should play a fundamental role in understanding and confronting social issues and inequalities, the rights of women and minorities and the development of greater international cooperation. In 1983, APA recognized her work with the prestigious award for public service. In her convention address, she asked an important rhetorical question: “Who must do the hard things?” to which she replied, “Those who can.” She further noted a colleague who expanded her query with, “Who must do the impossible things? Those who care” (Payton, 1984, Page 397).

In teaching psychology, I stress the importance of the scientific method, the value of empirical research and the necessity of critical analysis and thought. However, I also recognize that many of my students are attracted to psychology because they care about and are fascinated by people. Personally, my love of teaching and psychology is fueled by my passion and care for humanity. Hence, I rigorously teach the science of psychology infused with research and knowledge about fundamental human rights.

What are human rights?

Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, international leaders recognized the need for codifying a human rights policy and international law. Eleanor Roosevelt was tasked with chairing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was ratified. This groundbreaking declaration opens with a statement acknowledging “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” representing “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (paragraph 1). UDHR contains 30 articles, which focus on economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights — inherent and fundamental rights, freedoms and protections all humankind is entitled to regardless of gender, ethnicity, national origin, race, religion or other classification. These rights are universal, inalienable and indivisible.

UDHR is largely aspirational in nature. As such, U.N. has added 10 core international human rights treaties to further define and codify into law the concept of human rights (U.N., 2015a). Treaty examples include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966); Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979); Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (2006); and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984). Protocols have been written concerning the rights of additional populations (e.g., older persons; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals; indigenous communities). The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has compiled extensive resources that can be used to learn more about various human rights treaties and issues (U.N., 2015b).

Why should we teach human rights?

Why should we infuse human rights into our psychology classes? Chances are, many are reading this question and thinking they already have too little time and too many concepts to cover during the term. Although there are myriad reasons, I will highlight the three most salient rationales. First, the world is challenged by a host of human rights concerns, such as institutionalized racism, anti-LGBT violence, human trafficking, torture and genocide. Students care about these issues, and psychology has much to teach them. It is imperative that students learn about human rights concerns based on information grounded in research and scholarship as opposed to “what I have heard” from media pundits.

Second, the third learning goal and outcomes of APA’s Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major: Version 2.0 focus on the development of ethical and socially responsible knowledge and behaviors in a diverse global community. Specifically, learning outcome 3.3d/D states that students will “describe psychology-related issues of global concern (e.g., poverty, health, migration, human rights, rights of children, international conflict, sustainability)” and “consider the potential effects of psychology-based interventions on issues of global concern” (Guidelines, 2013, Page 26). Exposure to human rights education results in increased positive attitudes and commitment to human rights and higher perceived value for social justice activities (Stellmacher & Sommer, 2008; Torney-Purta, Wilkenfeld & Barber, 2008). With human rights knowledge, our students are more likely to accept the mantle of social responsibility and become involved actively as global citizens and future psychologists. Conversely, they are less likely to be apathetic bystanders only serving as fuel for human rights violations at home and around the globe.

Third, in 2010, APA revised the APA Ethics Code. The change occurred, in part, because of the controversy over psychologists’ roles in national security settings. Previously, for example, when a psychologist faced conflict between law (e.g., following military orders) and the Ethics Code, the law held precedence. Now, when psychologists find themselves in compromising situations, they must use the fundamental tenets of international human rights as their ethical compass. Specifically:

  • 1.02 Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority
    If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations or other governing legal authority, psychologists clarify the nature of the conflict, make known their commitment to the Ethics Code, and take reasonable steps to resolve the conflict consistent with the General Principles and Ethical Standards of the Ethics Code. Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.

  • 1.03 Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands
    If the demands of an organization with which psychologists are affiliated or for whom they are working are in conflict with this Ethics Code, psychologists clarify the nature of the conflict, make known their commitment to the Ethics Code, and take reasonable steps to resolve the conflict consistent with the General Principles and Ethical Standards of the Ethics Code. Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.

Additionally, the British Psychological Society Code of Ethics and Conduct (2009) references UDHR, and the Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics (2007) General Principle A states, “psychologists engage in conduct which promotes equity and the protection of people’s human rights, legal rights, and moral rights” (Page 11). Without a deeper understanding of fundamental human rights, our students and future psychologists may unwittingly engage in faulty ethical decision-making and behaviors. 

How do we infuse human rights into our courses?

As psychology teachers, we are uniquely poised to integrate human rights education into our curriculum through lecture, discussions, activities and service learning projects. Many topics we already present in class can be framed to include information about human rights. For example, any discussion of prejudice and discrimination is fundamentally about the rights of all individuals and what happens when equality and social justice are denied. Teachers can augment discussions of child development with information from the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child — a convention currently not ratified by two countries, Somalia and the United States. When discussing research ethics, I trace the history of “informed consent” to the Nuremberg Code and provide a bit of history in relation to Nazi, Japanese and U.S. experimentation before, during and after World War II. This discussion highlights the evolution of our current informed consent standards but also raises important questions and discussion concerning the ethics of using data obtained unethically. The rights of LGBT individuals are often couched in terms of biological or social perspectives, but we can also frame the impact of structural violence and inequality in terms of fundamental human rights (Woolf & MacCartney, 2014). Ultimately, the ability to integrate human rights education into the classroom is only limited by a person’s imagination and breadth of knowledge.

In teaching human rights, it is seemingly natural to discuss issues of terrorism, war, genocide or torture — topics “ripped from the headlines.” Sadly, many who have been routinely disenfranchised by society are most frequently the victims of human rights violations. Yet, in many arenas, the rights of minorities, women, children, individuals with disabilities, older adults, migrants, etc., are not viewed as human rights concerns. Many cultures divide life, and hence a discussion of human rights, into public and private spheres. Rights violations that occur outside of the home or against only the right “kinds of people” are viewed as appropriate for prevention and intervention. Violations that occur against disenfranchised people are ignored. Violations within the home, the private sphere, are often culturally, religiously or through governmental dictate seen as outside the realm of public debate or action. Hence, domestic violence, against both women and children, remains the most frequently occurring category of human rights violation across the globe but often, the least discussed. Such violence occurs unabated daily, hourly and minute by minute. As psychology teachers, it is imperative that we put discussions of these topics and violence against marginalized populations into a human rights context.

Many resources are available for teachers who want to integrate issues of human rights into their psychology courses. For example, APA Div. 2's (Society for the Teaching of Psychology) Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology offers a range of resources including syllabi, bibliographic materials and activity guides on a range of topics from child maltreatment to peace/mass violence to prejudice and discrimination. APA’s Public Interest Directorate provides invaluable resources and reference information on socially relevant topics. APA provides general information about human rights. Additionally, U.N. and a host of human rights NGOs (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights) provide resource material that can be used in the classroom. Additional information about integrating human rights into the classroom and curriculum can be found in articles written by my colleague Michael Hulsizer and/or me including lecture suggestions, activities and social learning projects (Hulsizer & Woolf, 2012; Woolf, 2005; Woolf & Hulsizer, 2011).

Ideally, my hope is that students over single or multiple courses in psychology with human rights content will be able to:

  • Define “human rights” and analyze issues related to universalism and cultural relativism.
  • Evaluate the relationship between human rights and psychology through an examination of relevant international declarations.
  • Analyze the relationship of human rights to psychological health and well-being on both individual and community levels.
  • Apply the existing psychological research relevant to human rights to public policy.
  • Explain and justify the role of psychologists as change agents for the promotion of human rights both locally and globally.

So what can go wrong?

In these politically divisive times, most of us have been taught to avoid controversial topics in the classroom. Of course, many human rights topics are often construed as controversial. Although as teachers we value discussion, conversations about human rights should not devolve into uncritical political debate. To avoid criticisms of political bias or potentially explosive classroom situations, we might keep in mind the following recommendations:

  • Stay grounded in research and scholarship. Use the resources provided by U.N., APA, research articles, etc., and when in class, always come back to a critical evaluation of these sources. APA, for example, has a number of policy statements and papers that provide wonderful reference material. Research is your friend when it comes to controversial topics and can help protect you from charges of bias.
  • Draw on history for examples. Current topics may spark great discussions but may also lead to emotional thinking and arguments. As history tends to repeat itself, the past provides plenty of fodder for the psychological analysis of human rights violations. Once students develop skills necessary for analyzing past events, they can use those skills to evaluate current human rights concerns from a more critical perspective.
  • Be a bipartisan analyzer. Most human rights violations take place in a range of contexts and against a range of persons. For example, if you are discussing terrorism — a hot topic about which students want to know more — you can include examples related to hate groups in the United States, kidnappings by Boko Haram, drug cartel violence and other instances of domestic or international terrorism. Moving discussion and analysis away from a single, emotionally charged context might help students come to see the applicability of social psychological concepts to the broader human rights topic.
  • Model respectful dialogue. Establish and model what you expect of your students and the critical thinking skills necessary for evaluating psychological research from a human rights perspective. Fundamentally, it is imperative to know your own perspective and keep your biases out of the classroom.
  • Keep the “powers that be” in the loop. If you are going to be talking about a hot topic, make sure your chairperson, dean, advisor, etc., know what you are doing and why. Generally, if you focus on the research, are respectful, etc., you will not have a problem. Nonetheless, if you have already discussed any potentially challenging topic with your colleagues/supervisor, you can turn to them for support should a problem arise.

Psychology has a long history in addressing human rights. William James wrote about war and peace; Mamie and Kenneth Clarks’ research played a pivotal role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision; and Evelyn Hooker worked to break the stigma experienced by many gay men. Today, the work continues: Ervin Staub endeavors to bring reconciliation and reconstruction to communities in the wake of the Rwandan genocide; Michael Wessells aids children recovering from their lives as child soldiers; the list goes on. Our students care about human rights and benefit from learning about the pivotal role psychology plays in addressing human rights around the globe. Ideally, research, critical thinking and human rights represent essential and complementary elements to psychological science education. So in response to Carolyn Payton’s question, “Who must do the hard or impossible things?” perhaps our answer is, “We can because we care, and therefore, we should.”


American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx.

American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/about/psymajor-guidelines.pdf (PDF, 447KB).

Australian Psychological Society. (2007). Code of ethics. Retrieved from http://www.psychology.org.au/about/ethics/.

British Psychological Society. (2009). Code of ethics and conduct. Retrieved from http://www.bps.org.uk/what-we-do/ethics-standards/ethics-standards.

Hulsizer, M.R., & Woolf, L.M. (2012). Enhancing the role of international human rights in the psychology curriculum. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 11, 382-387.

Payton, C.R. (1984). Who must do the hard things? American Psychologist, 39, 391-397.

Stellmacher, J., & Sommer, G. (2008). Human rights education: An evaluation of university seminars. Social Psychology, 39, 70-80.

Torney-Purta, J., Wilkenfeld, B., & Barber, C. (2008). How adolescents in 27 countries understand, support, and practice human rights. Journal of Social Issues, 64, 857-880. 

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

United Nations. (2015a). The core international human rights Instruments and their monitoring bodies. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CoreInstruments.aspx.

United Nations. (2015b). List of human rights issues. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Pages/ListofIssues.aspx.

Woolf, L.M. (2005). Women and global human rights. In J. Apsel (Ed.), Teaching about human rights (pp. 125-135). Washington, D.C.: American Sociological Association.

Woolf, L.M., & Hulsizer, M.R. (2011). Peace and war. In R.L. Miller, E. Balcetis, S.R. Burns, D.B. Daniel, B.K. Saville, & W.D. Woody (Eds.), Promoting student engagement (Vol. 2, pp. 225-229). Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/pse2011/vol2/index.php.

Woolf, L.M., & MacCartney, D. (2014). Sexual and gender minorities. In C.V. Johnson (Eds.), Praeger handbook of social justice and psychology (pp. 155-176). Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

About the Author

Linda M. WoolfLinda M. Woolf is a professor of psychology and international human rights at Webster University, where she teaches a variety of courses related to the Holocaust, genocide, terrorism, torture, ethics and peace psychology. Her research and publication focus, with her colleague Michael Hulsizer, concerns a broad range of issues such as hate groups, LGBT and women’s rights, psychosocial roots of mass violence, torture and human rights education. She is an Institute for the Study of Genocide board member, a member of the Lemkin Book Award committee, former secretary of APA's Div. 2, and a former president of Div. 48 (Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence). Since 2006, she has co-drafted and been instrumental in APA’s adoption of several anti-torture policy resolutions aimed at the protection of human rights. Most importantly, she has been an Advanced Placement reader since 2006.