How to integrate the teaching of psychology with concern for human rights

As a result of recommendations related to the Report of the Independent Review (IR), the APA Board of Directors developed a list of recommended actions that should be taken in response. Among other 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 Sam G. McFarland, PhD, is the second of a series of articles related to human rights and ethics.

Late one night in the winter in 1940, in the small French village of Le Chambon, a shivering Jewish woman knocked on the door of André and Magda Trocmé, the local Lutheran minister and his wife. The woman was fleeing from the Nazis and desperate for food and shelter. Magda quickly took her in, fed her and started thinking how to help her. The woman needed false identification papers and a place to hide. Over the next few weeks, Magda and André talked with their parishioners and neighbors and soon the entire village was providing refuge for fleeing Jews. Some were smuggled to safety in Switzerland. Others were given false identities and hidden on nearby farms. Many were children. Despite a murderous Gestapo raid that killed several members of the community, over the next four desperate years, Magda and André led Le Chambon in saving about 3,500 Jews from the Holocaust. When André was arrested and pressed to name all the Jews he had helped, he responded, “We do not know what a Jew is; we only know human beings” (Trocmé, 2007, p. vii).

A goal of education should be to help us transcend our natural egocentrism and ethnocentrism. The Trocmés had clearly transcended both. They were able to value the lives of the Jews they saved as strongly as they valued their own, and they saw them simply as fellow human beings. As Gandhi said, they believed that, “All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family.” Martin Luther King, a follower of Gandhi’s philosophy, added, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

I want our students to embrace the Gandhi and King philosophies. I want them to learn to think about issues, not in terms of how they affect themselves, or members of their own religion, ethnic group or country, but in terms of how they affect all humanity.

When students learn to view themselves and the world as did the Trocmés, Gandhi and King, they will care about human rights. If they do not, they won’t. It really is that simple.

During the last few years, my students and I developed a measure of Gandhi’s belief, called the Identification With All Humanity Scale (IWAH; McFarland, Webb, & Brown, 2012; McFarland, Brown, & Webb, 2013). A sample item reads:

How much do you identify with (that is, feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for) each of the following?

  • People in my community.
  • Americans.
  • People all over the world.

We have tried to study the roots and effects of caring about human rights, and how Gandhi’s belief in the single human family might be expanded. Among other findings, those scoring high on the IWAH seek to understand the broader world, value American and non-American lives more equally, support human rights more strongly and give more to international charities.

How can the sense of humanity as one family be expanded, and with it, concern for human rights? I suggest three methods that can be used in high school and college psychology classes.

A Classroom Exercise: How Would the “Most Mature and Moral Person” Respond?

In one study, we asked students to complete the IWAH. Then, we asked them to complete it again as the “most mature and moral person you could imagine anyone being.” For 86 percent of the students, the scores as the “most mature and moral person” were higher than the scores for themselves: The students’ own IWAH item average was about 3 (labeled “somewhat”) on the 5-point scale, but their item average for the “most mature and moral person” was above 4, a full point higher. Many students, it seems, can envision identifying with all humanity as a moral ideal, even if they don’t yet identify with all of humanity.

From that finding, Dewall and Myers (2013) created a valuable classroom exercise: Students complete the IWAH first as themselves, then as an ideal romantic partner and finally as the “most mature and moral person.” The students compare their own three scores, then reflect on the differences, often in small groups. Because students can now grasp identifying with all humanity as an ethical ideal, they can next brainstorm in small groups how their view can be expanded and present their ideas to the class. After a week or two have passed, students complete the IWAH again and observe and reflect on any changes in their scores. A colleague who used this exercise wrote to me that “completing the scale based on how the most mature and moral person would respond was an “aha moment” for many students. This assignment really helped them grasp the point of identifying with all humanity and why it matters.”

Share the Stories of Human Rights Heroes

We learn so much through stories, and we tend to become like those we admire. There are many people like André and Magda Trocmé, and students who are told their stories (and shown their pictures) are often inspired. Many, like the Trocmés or Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered and saved more than 1,200 from the Rwandan genocide, risked their own lives. Others risked their fortune, as did Oskar Schindler, who saved about 1,200 of his Jewish employees from the Holocaust. Others devoted their lives to advancing human rights law. In London in 1765, Granville Sharp saw a slave child brutally beaten by his owner and then started the movement that led to outlawing the slave trade. In 1859, Henry Dunant witnessed Europe’s bloodiest battle in a half century and then led in creating both the International Red Cross and the First Geneva Convention to reduce the suffering caused by war. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled the Holocaust, coined the word “genocide” in 1944 and then helped write the Genocide Convention that made genocide an international crime. In 1961, after Peter Benenson read about two Portuguese students who were jailed for drinking a toast to freedom, he started Amnesty International, the most influential human rights organization in the modern world. Learn and share human rights heroes’ stories. Many of your students will develop new and worthy heroes and become more like them.

Teach a Little About Human Rights

We can’t care about what we don’t know about. So I encourage teachers to devote one day of their course to having students read and discuss the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You may wonder what teaching human rights has to do with psychology, but this could well be the most important day in your course, one that your students won’t forget.

The Universal Declaration, adopted in December 1948 by the new United Nations, is the foundation for all modern human rights developments. Nevertheless, few students know it. A survey on our campus found only 10 percent of our students could identify it in a multiple-choice quiz. Far fewer know its contents, that it proclaims in bold terms that human rights belong to every human being “without distinction of any kind” (Art. 2). Few know it includes civil and political rights, such as the right to a fair and public trial (Art. 10) and “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Art. 18), but it also declares economic and social rights, such as the right to education (Art. 25) and “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care … in circumstances beyond his control” (Art. 25).

For 20 years, while teaching psychology, I also taught a university honors course on human rights. These high-achieving students usually entered with virtually no prior knowledge of human rights. “I never knew any of that!” was a common reaction to the course. Because I regard human rights as the most important untaught subject in American education, both at the high school and college levels, and knowledge is so low, I recently wrote Human Rights 101: A Brief College-Level Overview (PDF, 483KB) (McFarland, 2015). This 16-page overview of modern human rights, available as a free download, is a resource for teachers and a one- or two-day reading and discussion in any class. A search of its title will lead the viewer to its location on the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Human Rights Coalition. Links offer detailed information on every topic.

To conclude, I encourage teachers to try these three methods to encourage their students to expand their concern for all humanity and for human rights.

Re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Teacher Network


Dewall, C.N., & Myers, D. (2013). The hidden key to virtuous behavior: We’re all on the same side. APS Observer. Available online at publications/ observer/2013/september-13/teaching-current-directions-in-psychological-science-5.html.

McFarland, S.G. (2015). Human rights 101: A brief college level overview. Available online at (PDF, 483KB).

McFarland, S, Brown, D., & Webb, M. (2013). “Identification with all humanity” as a moral concept and psychological construct. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 192-196. doi: 10.1177/0963721412471346.

McFarland, S.G., Webb, M., & Brown, D. (2012). All humanity is my ingroup: A measure and studies of identification with all humanity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 830-853.

Trocmé, A. (2007/1971). Jesus and the nonviolent revolution. Farmington, Pennsylvania: Plough Publishing House.

About the Author

Sam McFarland, a native of Tennessee, received his doctorate in social psychology from Vanderbilt in 1971 and then taught at Western Kentucky University (WKU) through 2013. His early research focused on the psychology of religion, authoritarianism and prejudice, while his more recent work has been mainly on human rights and “identification with all humanity.” During his career, he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in the former Soviet Union (1989), director of WKU’s University Honors Program (1990-1998) and president of the International Society of Political Psychology (2009-2010). From 1993 through 2013, he taught an honors seminar entitled “Understanding Human Rights.” He was named a WKU Distinguished University professor. Following retirement from teaching, he wrote “Human Rights 101,” referred to in the article, and is now writing a college-level reader about 20 people whose lives and work led to great advances in human rights.