My dissertation research was advised by Dr. Liane Young and conducted at the Morality Lab at Boston College and the Harvard Center for Brain Science. In this work, we investigated the cognitive mechanisms and consequences associated with people’s diverse views on morality.
Most people endorse norms that stipulate that each individual has the right to be unharmed and treated as an equal (universal-rights values). But there is considerable variance in the extent to which people also include in their conceptions of “right” and “wrong” whether someone has disobeyed authority, been unchaste, or failed to stand by their partner or team. Prohibiting these sorts of behaviors reflects the moral values of respect, obedience, purity and loyalty — norms aimed at preserving relationships and groups, referred to as “binding values”.
Binding values can be at odds with universal-rights values, since they place conditions on care and mandate treating people unequally. The capacity of binding values to undermine universal-rights values likely contributes to our findings across several studies showing that binding values are linked to a range of attitudes and actions most people would not consider “morally praiseworthy,” including (Part 1) Machiavellianism:
- Niemi, L. & Young, L. (2013). Caring across boundaries versus keeping boundaries intact: Links between moral values and interpersonal orientations. PLOS ONE, 8(12);
And, in (Part 2), blame and stigmatization of victims:
- Niemi, L. & Young, L. (2016). When and why we see victims as responsible: The impact of ideology on attitudes toward victims. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(9), 1227-1242.
In Part 3 of my dissertation, studies on moral diversity within the domain of fairness using a behavioral and fMRI approach showed similar consequences:
- Niemi, L. & Young, L. (submitted). The behavioral and neural signatures of distinct conceptions of fairness.
- Niemi, L. & Young, L. (submitted). Who sees what as fair? Individual differences in fairness judgments.
My research also investigated the cognitive and neural processes behind links between moral values and attitudes and actions. I found roles for representations of causation and theory-of-mind, which I am investigating in current work.
Other research has focused on how individual differences in conceptions of right and wrong relate to reasoning about crimes and personal mental health outcomes. A description of some of this work is included in the following commentaries:
- Niemi, L. & Young, L. (2014). Blaming the victim in the case of rape. Psychological Inquiry, 25(2), 230-233.
- Niemi, L. & Young, L. (2016). Justice and the moral lexicon. Psychological Inquiry, 27(1), 50-54.
Current work involves a psycholinguistics approach, including investigation of the moral dimension of implicit verb causality: