SPSSI Seminar Explores the Psychology of Human Rights

The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), a COSSA member, held the last seminar in its 2014 series, Psychological Insights into Legislative Issues, on October 8. The topic was “Who Cares about Human Rights? The Psychology of Human Rights Support,” and featured Sam McFarland of Western Kentucky University. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) sponsored the event series and shared how he first became passionate about human rights through his work during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s.

McFarland discussed how Americans think about human rights. He noted that in surveys, Americans tend to voice strong support for human rights (free speech, peaceful demonstration, free press, etc.) in the abstract and favor the promotion of human rights as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. However, this support quickly weakens when people are asked to prioritize human rights among other foreign policy goals, such as energy, trade, and national security. Commitment to human rights is further demonstrated to be superficial when people are asked to choose between two policy objectives (like preventing mass killings versus ensuring a strong immigration policy or maintaining a strong military versus ending child prostitution) or when they are given hypothetical scenarios and asked how to act.

McFarland explained that he wanted to identify some of the personality traits associated with a strong commitment to human rights. He found that negative predictors (which make a person less likely to support human rights) include ethnocentrism, an authoritarian personality, blind patriotism, and a fatalistic attitude. Positive predictors include a feeling of identification with all humanity, a sense of global citizenship, and dispositional empathy.

McFarland concluded by calling human rights the “most important untaught subject in U.S. education.” He observed that his college students rarely arrive with any knowledge of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is why he developed a college-level overview of the subject, Human Rights 101. McFarland urged policymakers to better incorporate discussion human rights into K-12 education.

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Posted in Issue 19 (October 20), Update, Volume 33 (2014)

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