This post was co-authored by Sharon K. Anderson, whose own blog is "The Ethical Therapist."

In previous posts (e.g, "Why Bother with Ethics?") we've argued that knowing about ethics can make people better professors (and therapists). In this post we suggest that knowing some psychology may help professors as they strive to act more ethically towards students. (Some professors may be on the sociopathic side and don't care to behave ethically-our guess is that they're not spending their time reading this particular blog.)

Here's the latest incident that inspired my (Mitch's) thinking:  Last month I attended a workshop for professors who teach freshmen. One of the attendees, who has been a professor for over 20 years (and who shall remain anonymous because of my respect for their privacy), immediately started complaining about her students. Her first complaint was that they text in class. She went on to catalog all the ways they were disrespectful, which centered on the theme: "They don't listen to the brilliant things I say." It didn't take long before she referred to her students as "those jerks." My immediate response was to say something like, "What percentage of your students are jerks?" I think the number we came up with was about 10%. I remember thinking, "I know you're not a psychology professor, but don't you know about the pernicious effects of stereotyping and labeling? Of self-fulfilling prophesies?" She may have made more than 10% of her students feel like jerks.

For the rest of the workshop I kept my mouth shut, reminding myself that this professor did come to the workshop and was sincerely trying to learn things that would make her teaching more effective. I noticed, however, that this complaining professor often turned to the person next to her to make jokes or comments about what the presenters were saying. She was demonstrating the same type of behavior that she had been complaining about in her own students! Although her little side comments were getting on my nerves, I tried not to think of her as a "jerk," because then I'd be doing the same thing she was doing-labeling people on the basis of a small sample of behavior.

That's when it struck me: Awareness of basic psychological principles could help this professor recognize when she's not understanding students' behavior or not being as respectful as she could be. If she were more respectful of (and to) her students, they might respect her more. Here are a few principles we think could help.


Research suggests that when we label people and treat them according to the label, they will behave as if the label fit. Over half a century ago, Beatrice Wright wrote about spread effects, referring to our tendency to see a person's disability as related to all their behaviors, and to assume that the presence of one disability is evidence of others. Thus, if we label students jerks we may see even their positive or unrelated behaviors (e.g., asking questions) as evidence of being a jerk rather than being a student. Rosenhan's famous "pseudo-patient" study showed similar effects regarding mental illness. We also know that people, including professors, tend to overattribute behaviors ("chatting to classmates") to personality characteristics ("laziness") rather than situational factors ("boring lecturer"). This tendency is so common it's called the fundamental attribution error. When we label students or misattribute their behavior we increase the risk of being disrespectful.

How do we show more respect to students? One relevant principle is self-awareness. At least from Freud on, psychologists have known that personal insight has the potential to influence behavior. These days, lots of psychologists (e.g., Jon Kabat-Zinn) are embracing the concept of mindfulness, and even studying the neuroscience behind it. It's a good idea to be aware of our reactions. For example, it helps me (Mitch) to know that my own intense reaction to the word "jerks" might be a reaction, in part, to my own feelings of frustration with some students. For me (Sharon), I've had strong internal reactions to negative feedback on student evaluations. My challenge is to look for the truth in the feedback and see what I can do differently to be a better teacher.

Another useful psychological principle is cognitive dissonance, the idea that if our behaviors and attitudes are in conflict, our attitudes will change to reduce the conflict. The practical application is straightforward: If we behave as if we respect our students, we will start feeling more respectful towards them. We will then see them as more worthy of respect. A positive labeling effect may occur and a new prophesy will be fulfilled!


Of course, psychology doesn't have a corner on these principles. For example: In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut captured the idea of changing attitudes by changing behaviors when he said, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

You are reading

The Ethical Professor

Coarse Evaluations of Course Evaluations

Professors consider students’ complaints about their college courses.

Ethics on Vacation

Check your ethics, or carry on.

Students Can Learn a Lot From Current Events

Four ways to think psychologically about electing a dog.