research: moral cognition

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 Machiavellianism:

Niemi, L. & Young, L. (2013). Caring across boundaries versus keeping boundaries intact: Links between moral values and interpersonal orientations. PLOS ONE, 8(12);

Binding values are also linked to blame and stigmatization of victims – as described in our New York Times piece “Who Blames the Victim?” which covers the following studies:

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 the final part of my dissertation, I examined the moral domain of fairness using a behavioral and fMRI approach, and found similar diversity there:

Niemi, L., Wasserman, E., & Young, L. (2017). The behavioral and neural signatures of distinct conceptions of fairness, Social Neuroscience, doi: 10.1080/17470919.2017.1333452. 

Niemi, L. & Young, L. (2017). Who sees what as fair? Individual differences in fairness judgments. Social Justice Research.

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.

This involves a psycholinguistics approach, including investigation of the moral dimension of implicit verb causality:

Niemi, L., Hartshorne, J., Gerstenberg, T., Young, L. (submitted). Moral values pervade causal attribution: Evidence from the implicit verb causality task and explicit judgments.

Other research focuses on how individual differences in beliefs about right and wrong relate to reasoning about crimes and people’s mental health. 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. 

 Niemi, L. & Graham, J. (in press). Acknowledging and Managing Deep Constraints on Moral Agency and the Self: Comment on Doris (2017). Brain and Behavioral Sciences. 

Work in progress:

Nizzi, M. & Niemi, L. (in preparation). How a sense of self predicts suicidal thoughts and behaviors in survivors of sexual assault.