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:

And, in (Part 2), blame and stigmatization of victims:

In Part 3 of my dissertation, studies on moral diversity within the domain of fairness using a behavioral and fMRI approach showed similar consequences:

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:

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



This line of research asks: Just how separable are the cognitive processes that help us make sense of the world and the affective processes that contribute to our preferences?

With Dr. Sara Cordes, I’ve examined how emotion intermingles with cognition in behavioral studies. I’ve found that number is underestimated under the influence of emotion:

Numerical processing (both estimation and discrimination) can be disrupted by threatening content in the stimuli to be quantified.

  • *Hamamouche, K., *Niemi, L., Cordes, S. (submitted). Quantifying a threat: Evidence of a numeric processing bias.

Likewise, mathematical processing can be altered by the threat of a political opponent:

  • Niemi, L., Woodbridge, M., Young, L., Cordes, S. (submitted). Biased mathematical processing of political polling statistics.


In this line of work, I have explored the role of the arts in both cognitive and affective endpoints across development. As the primary investigator of an independent project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, I tracked the relationship between Americans’ interests in the arts relate to innovation in the workplace.

I found that an interest in the visual arts predicts innovation at work as measured by contributing to work that led to a patent application, history of business ownership, and considering oneself an entrepreneur. This relationship is retained even when controlling for math and verbal aptitudes, educational attainment, self-mastery, and a willingness to take risks.

  • Niemi, L. & Cordes, S. (in prep). The arts and economic vitality: Leisure time interest in the art predicts entrepreneurship and innovation at work. [NEA Research Report]

Two other papers in psychology of the arts:

*Contributed equally; Name changed from Laura Niemi Young (Young, L. N.) to Laura Niemi (Niemi, L.) in 2013.