Teaching Tips

Ethics in the Introduction to Psychology Course

The introductory psychology course is usually the students’ first formal introduction to the field, and for some it is the only formal academic view of psychology they will ever have. As students start to structure their lives and prepare for a career, faculty should begin to instill into their minds the expectations they will face as professionals. One of the goals of an undergraduate education is to prepare students to act ethically. In introductory courses there are many occasions to discuss ethical issues. Some are more appropriate in small classrooms for group discussions; however, most of the ideas may well be presented in a formal setting, like a lecture.Â

Introduction of the Course

The beginning of the course is one of the opportunities to discuss ethics from different perspectives. For instance, when the syllabus incorporates information about accommodations and inclusive language, an item could be added such as Respect for the Individual, in which ethical principles for the course are proposed. An illustration of such an item could be:

All members of this course are responsible for promoting and protecting the highest standards of academic integrity. Respecting everyone in the learning environment is the first step in the process. Impartiality and fairness in the presentation of facts, equality in the treatment of diverse groups, and responsibility and trustworthiness in meeting our obligations, while maintaining autonomy and respect for other people’s rights will be expected in this course.

Breaches of these ethical principles will be addressed by the professor in accordance with the situation, the Student Handbook, Faculty Handbook, and/or consultation with the department chair or the appropriate administrator.

Such an item can be discussed at the beginning of the course to identify what is expected for each of the principles and a list can be composed for a conduct code. Many problems such as phone ringing, text messaging, and side conversations can be prevented from the beginning when a professional expectation is proposed, discussed, and illustrated (Yorges, 2008). The professor should also list what the students should expect of him/her. This approach has the advantage of being general enough so that when something not discussed in class occurs, the student and professor can meet to discuss the particular situation and identify the problem and possible solutions.

Introductory Chapter

During the introduction of psychology, most textbooks initially present psychology as a profession. It is easy to extend the information to professional associations and their many services, one of which is to promote a code of professional ethics. Since many of the students may not be familiar with the American Psychological Association (APA) web site, and particularly the code of ethics (APA 2002), finding this information can be a homework assignment.  Students can be asked to browse the web page and the ethics code to answer questions such as:

What are the parts of the code of ethics?
What is covered by the APA code?
What is in the code that you did not expect?
Why does the profession need a code of ethics?
What is the function of a code of ethics?

Usually first-year students do not have concrete ideas about the role of professional associations and the existence of a professional code of ethics. When they learn about the code, their comments are related to their surprise of how much of it is based on “common sense.â€�Â

If the course is offered for non-majors, students may be asked to find the code of ethics that applies to the career path they plan to follow. As mentioned above, the students are asked to identify their professional associations, and then look for a code of ethics or conduct. They can participate in the same discussion as the one proposed for the psychology majors, with the bonus of having ethical codes of different professions available for comparison.

Research Methods

The presentation of scientific methods provides another opportunity to discuss the importance of ethics. In most textbooks, the code of ethics for research is mentioned specifically. A discussion may include the following questions:

What are the ethical issues involved in the research process?
What are IRBs? What is the current ethical discussion regarding IRBs?
Why do we need to have a committee overview research?
What are the rights of participants?
What are the responsibilities of researchers?
What is the benefit of the research for society and or the scientific community?

This can be an interesting discussion, particularly in colleges and universities that require or offer credits for research participation in the Introduction to Psychology class or research projects carried out in the department.

Additionally, in the discussion of scientific methods, there is usually a reference to animal research. This is a whole area of ethics that can be explored, and one in which students are usually quite interested. The APA code of ethics addresses animal research, and the APA web site offers some links highlighting the guidelines for animal use and care, as well as research with animals in psychology.

Biology and Behavior

When the class is discussing neuroscience and behavior, a set of ethical and moral questions may be brought up regarding treatments for neurobiological disorders. Case studies could be used as recommended by Balogh (2004) and Shenker (2008). One example of a case study could apply to the method of neural grafting, which is considered one therapeutic strategy for the treatment of certain neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. This and other treatments bring up ethical issues in two different areas that need careful examination: first, ethical problems linked to the treatment itself (in this case the use of fetal and stem cells), and second, ethical issues concerning the recipients in clinical trials (i.e., one’s well-being and personality). For more information see http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/cases/fetal_tissue.html and http://neurosurgery.mgh.harvard.edu/Functional/oisacson.htm.

Human Development

In the chapter on human development, many textbook authors address moral development theories. The class may be asked to define and then discuss concepts such as ethical issues, legal issues, or social conventions. The students may be asked to identify dilemmas that they have had to deal with or have observed on a daily basis. In one activity, the class could determine whether the dilemma exists because of an ethical or a legal issue or a social convention. A discussion providing definitions and comparisons would help develop the distinctions between ethical, moral, and legal actions.

In a different activity, the situations that the students suggested may serve as a starting point to discuss critical thinking. For instance, the students could be asked about how they would solve the dilemmas they have described. The class could discuss the dilemmas and illustrate possible solutions and then compare the proposed solutions with the steps of critical reasoning. Further, the students could subsequently identify the reasoning level of their solutions with the different levels of moral reasoning proposed by theories of moral development.


Several textbooks raise the question of bias in testing. Some focus the discussion on intelligence quotient tests, others on projective tests of personality. One activity involves asking the students to find a test on the Web and determine the quality of the test. They may want to consult the International Testing Commission (ITC) web page to find help in identifying what are some of the issues to consider when taking a test. The ITC, in consultation with other international associations, has prepared and promulgated codes of ethics related to testing and tailored to different audiences. Although some are focused on the professionals who develop the test or use it to make decisions, other guidelines are available for the public as consumers who need to understand what test is being used; what the objectives, validity, and reliability issues are; and the consequences of taking or not taking the tests requested. Further, we should ask the students to find specific information about the test to determine what it is measuring, as well as the validity, reliability, and standardization of the measure. Questions may also be raised about the uses of tests and social consequences of such measurements.

Another activity for this topic could be a debate with one group supporting the use of a particular test, whereas another group supports the use of a different test to measure the same construct. The faculty or the students should find a couple of tests that assess a particular construct. Then, the groups should support the use of one test versus the other. The faculty could provide guidelines for what information the students would need to determine the quality of a test and how they can find the information and evaluate it. For example, many corporations now use personality tests to support the hiring decision. Students could debate what test would be most appropriate in the personnel selection process. This exercise is likely to resonate with students as they will be going out on the job market in the future.

Disorders and Treatment

In the chapter on disorders and treatment, one may return to the code of ethics. The code of ethics proposed by the APA is very detailed in regards to treatment of people with mental health needs. Students could discuss the care and treatment of patients who have a particular mental disorder. For instance, considering patients with dementia, a case study could be presented and the following questions could be discussed in groups:

What are the caregivers’ and families’ feelings and wishes?
At what point should the person’s driving be considered too great a risk?
When is it right to place a parent in a nursing home  and not feel guilty about it?
How do families deal with making these decisions?

Although the questions above are particular to a patient with dementia, a similar series of questions could be designed for most categories of disorders.

Social Psychology

In the chapter on social psychology, ethics in research can be discussed from a historical as well as a practical perspective. From a historical perspective, the instructor may start with the presentation of the obedience and prison experiments and then highlight some of the changes in the APA code of ethics since the 1950s. Also, instructors can relate this to the new book by Phil Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, on issues regarding the Abu Ghraib prison incidents and the debate surrounding the role of psychologists and torture.

From a practical perspective, the instructor may present the topic of ethics in connection with changing attitudes, conformity, compliance, and their practical applications, mainly in relation to the marketing or sales industry. The instructor may bring up laws that have been passed recently, focusing on those intended to protect children from the influences of the marketing industry. What are the legal and ethical issues in this area? The APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls is just one of the examples that can be used to illustrate how psychological theory, research, and clinical experiences can be used for the betterment of society. It is interesting to relate the marketing strategies and techniques with their consequences. Further and most importantly, there is a chance to discuss advocacy issues when the public in general or a particular segment of the population can be harmed. What are the strategies available to make the public aware and take steps to change the particular situation?  Â

Other Activities

Although many of the above suggestions are tied to specific content matter, other ethical issues are relevant throughout the whole course.  For instance, what are the public policy implications that flow from the research conducted by psychologists?  How does our work influence legislative and judicial decisions?  Numerous sources exist to help students understand that psychology does not only happen in textbooks.  For instance, APS has a site on its webpage entitled Media Center (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media/) that provides information on psychological research that has made it into the newspapers and television.  In addition, APS publishes Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which is described as providing definitive assessments of topics where psychological science has the potential to inform and improve the well-being of society.  In addition, the APA Monitor in Psychology has a section titled “Public Policy Update.�

Other Teaching Tips articles address the ethical use of copyrighted materials (see Teaching Psychology Through Film, Video (Green, 2004) and Hot Off the Press: Using Popular Media in Instruction (Hollander, 2004). Such ethical issues could be easily and quickly shared with the class prior to the presentation of the material to provide the students with awareness of the concerns involved with presentation and use of copyrighted material, academic honesty, and plagiarism.

If your course involves service-learning, the book titled Service-Learning Code of Ethics addresses issues relevant for faculty, students, and administrators. The book provides case studies and is a useful guide to teach students how to identify and solve ethical problems in a service-learning setting.

Last but not least, be a model to your students. Follow the ethical guidelines proposed for teaching in the APA code, practice the ethical principles in and out of class, and discuss with the students, as appropriate, the dilemmas we face as professionals and how we resolve some of them.


Mission statements of colleges and universities, the Association of American College and Universities, and APA advocate the inclusion of ethics in the educational process. Psychologists must consider ethical principles in their practice, research, and teaching. This article is a call to share the ethical reasoning with our students in more ways than the usual discussion regarding ethics in research. The ideas highlighted in this article can be applied to courses other than Introduction to Psychology and the larger objective should be to familiarize the students with the language, concepts, and process of dealing with situations that may require a difficult decision. The main goal is to prepare the students to become professionals with the tools they will need in the real world.

References and Recommended Readings
Association of American Colleges and Universities. (1998). Statement on liberal learning. Retrieved July 20, 2008, from http://www.aacu.org/About/statements/liberal_learning.cfm
American Psychological Association (2002). The ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved July, 2008, from http://www.apa.org/ethics/
American Psychological Association. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved July, 2008, from http://www.apa.org.pi/wpo/sexualization.html
Balogh, D.W. (2004). Teaching ethics across the psychology curriculum.  In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Vol. 2 (pp. 231-240). Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.Â
Behnke, S. (2006). Beyond mere compliance: Three metaphors to teach the APA Ethics Code. Monitor on Psychology, 37, 11.
Green, R.J. (2004). Teaching psychology through film and video. In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Vol. 2 (pp. 103-110). Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.Â
Hollander, S.A. (2004). Hot off the press: Using popular media in instruction. In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Vol. 2 (pp. 111-118).Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.Â
Keith-Spiegel, P., Wittig, A.F., Perkins, D.V., Balogh, D.W., & Whitley, B.E., Jr. (1993). The ethics of teaching. Muncie, IN: Ball State University.
Koocher, G., & Keith-Spiegel, P. (1998). Ethics in psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Shenker, J.I. (2008). Teaching biology in a psychology class: using case stories and other methods to delight yourself and your students. In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Vol. 3 (pp. 253-262). Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.Â
Yorges, S. (2008, May).  Providing “realistic course previews� to enhance learning and satisfaction. APS Observer, 21(5), 35-38.


it is good article. An idea came to the mind that the ethical practices which are practiced in the West are different from East. Therefore, it is obvious that Ethics as a part of introduction to Psychology is a variable and not a constant. This can be proved

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.