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Cultivating Psychology in Int. Legal Education - Should Psychology Be Included in the Syllabus

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

by Charles Ho Wang Mak, Ph.D. Candidate in International Law at University of Glasgow


Unlike other disciplines, the study of law purports to be based solely on reasoned analysis, devoid of ideological bias or unconscious influences. Inspired by “The Psychology of International Law: An Introduction” written by Prof. Anne van Aaken and Prof. Tomer Broude, cognitive research and behavioural economics have been overlooked by public international law scholarship for years. This is a pity since they can uncover the unconscious influences on legal rules that so often go unobserved.

International legal education is important to train foreign policymakers. International political psychology and the applications of behavioural economics are becoming more important in the discipline of international law. Therefore, psychology is one of the significant disciplines of international law and ought to be included in the syllabus for international law subjects.

Currently, psychology is not included in the syllabus of international law modules in the vast majority of law schools. This blog post will critically analyse the importance of psychology as a subject matter in international legal education.

Psychology and International Relations in the Context of International Law

Psychology is a scientific study of human behaviours and minds. Behind every political decision-making process and action, there are sophisticated psychological mechanisms. However, those psychological mechanisms are overlooked constantly by mainstream international relations and international law scholarship.

International law and international relations are closely associated. International law is the set of rules, norms, and standards that are generally accepted in relations between nations, which are significant in the policy-making process and guide the behaviours of countries. As a set of studies examining the driving force behind the behaviour of states (i.e. both international cooperation and conflict), international relations play an important role in shaping the content of international law.

Historically, there are many examples of international legislation in the United Nations that could not enter into force because not enough member states of the United Nations were willing to ratify it. The Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of State Property, Archives and Debts of 1983, for example, has not yet entered into force for this very reason. Hence, it is crucial to understand more about international relations for a better understanding of international law-making processes.

But a basic understanding of psychology, in particular political psychology, is essential for students to understand the underlying principles of international relations and international law. This is because political psychology is a study of psychological processes that shape political behaviour and of the process by which political events influence the psychological reactions of individuals and groups (Sasley, 2016).

The study of international law involves an in-depth analysis of the applicable legal framework in conflicts between states. However, international law scholarship often focuses on the legal framework itself and neglects the legislative intent of the law. Since the search for legislative intent is crucial for statutory interpretation, it ought to be focused on as well. Additionally, judges and counsel often use legislative history in the interpretation of statutes.

A comprehensive understanding of legislative intent requires not just the use of legislative history but of international relations and political psychology theory as well. This is because the legislative intent of international law is often driven by political wrestling that could be analysed from a political psychological perspective.

Should Psychology be Included in the Syllabus for International Law Subjects?

Along with the combined study of other social sciences (such as international relations) and the law, psychology and the law has been expanding markedly over the last few decades. Law schools often offer courses in both law and international relations at the same time. Yet, psychology, in particular the political psychology of international relations, is not included in the syllabus of international law modules in the vast majority of law schools.

Since international law is significant in the policy-making process, guiding countries’ behaviours, international legal education is important to train foreign policymakers. A successful learning process for law students to understand the underlying principles of international law consists not only of the ‘law’ itself but both of international relations and of political psychology.

It is worthwhile for law schools to consider teaching about psychology, particularly political psychology in their international law modules.

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