RESEARCH INTERESTS

Morality and possibility

One of my main areas of interest is how judgments of morality rely on representations of possibility and vice versa. Previous work establishes that a default representations of possibility often exclude events that are prescriptively and descriptively abnormal (i.e., immoral, irrational, and statistically improbable). My recent work with Dr. Jonathan Phillips extends this by asking whether moral judgments rely on a default representation of possibility. We find evidence of a common default template for moral judgment that becomes differentiated upon reflection. Further, our results suggest that default representations of moral permissibility reflect default representations of possibility.

Acierno, J., Mischel, S., & Phillips, J. (2022). Moral judgments rely on default representations of possibility, Philosophical Transactions B.

Additional work with Gokul Srinivasan utilizes large language models to investigate how people generate options when faced with open-ended problems. Across three experiments, we apply semantic similarity and sentiment analyses to the options that participants sequentially generate for real-world decision problems, and find that the first options generated tend to be sampled from a relatively local region of semantic space and are typically of high value. As additional options are generated, they become increasingly dissimilar and are of lower value. These patterns hold at both the level of individual option generation trajectories within a given participant and at the level of individual differences across participants.

Srinivasan, G., Acierno, J., & Phillips, J. (2022). The shape of option generation in open-ended decision problems. Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society.

Social norms

My graduate work examines how we learn about socials norms and whether we can harness them to bring about positive social change. In one line of research I seek to understand how individuals actively learn from their social environments to form and update their beliefs about injunctive and descriptive social norms. Using a modified information foraging paradigm (preview here) participants are given the opportunity to open-endedly sample information about other Americans' beliefs and behavior. We ask whether individuals differentially search for information when learning about injunctive and descriptive norms, and whether information gathering behavior varies based on visible messenger characteristics such as political party affiliation.

Acierno, J., Wylie, J., Liang, N., Handley-Miner, I., Young, L., & Constantino, S. (June 2024). Information Sampling for Social Norms. Society for Philosophy and Psychology, West Lafayette, IN.


Additional work asks whether the influence of social norms varies as a function of cultural tightness—the degree that people adhere to shared cultural norms. We combine national metrics of cultural tightness with data experimentally testing online pro-environmental interventions across the globe. Across 42 nations we test the effectiveness of three norm messaging intervention approaches (injunctive norms, working together norms, and dynamic norms) on climate attitudes and behaviors to assess this fundamental theory of social norms and culture.


Acierno, J.*, Tedaldi, E.*, Ginn, J., Goldwert, D., Vlasceanu, M., Geiger, S.,, Sparkman, G., & Constantino, S. (under review). A Global Test of Whether Cultural Tightness Moderates Conformity to Norms in an Experimental Setting.


* denotes shared first-authorship.

Morality and partisanship

I also conduct research at the intersection of political identity and moral cognition. I completed an honors thesis studying vicarious moral licensing in political ingroups. This project built on previous studies demonstrating that people point to the moral behavior of close ingroup members to justify their own immoral actions. My research tested for licensing and consistency effects when participants are primed with the moral actions of a political ingroup member. I also examined the potential moderating effects of the strength of participants’ political and moral identities.

Acierno, J. (2020). Can Good Groups Create Immoral Individuals? Examining Vicarious Moral Licensing in Political Ingroups

Theory of mind

I am interested in whether we have an intuitive understanding of two-stage decision making models. In forthcoming work with Jonathan Phillips, we build on research showing that the options we generate are influenced by subjective value and probability, and demonstrate that individuals are able to invert the decision making process to infer subjective values and make character inferences based on the options that come to mind. 


Acierno, J., Kennedy, C., Cushman, F., & Phillips, J. (June 2023). Character inferences based on what comes to others’ minds. Society for Philosophy and Psychology, Pittsburgh, PA.

Psycholinguistics: idioms and Chinese reading

My interests primarily lie within the realm of moral cognition, but I have a separate interest in psycholinguistics. I spent 3 years in Macalester College’s iLab, an NSF-funded eye tracking lab, studying idiom comprehension in English and semantic processing in Chinese. One of the lab’s main lines of research examined whether idioms are proceeded independently from literal meanings. Our research finds that both literal and figurative meanings are immediately activated, but literal meanings remain active longer and are less affected by supporting context than figurative meanings.

Sanford, E., Shaffer, O., Acierno, J., Harmon, E., & Lea, R.B. (July 2019). Interpretation on the Fence: Do Idioms Activate Figurative and Literal Meanings Equally? 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Text & Discourse, New York City, NY.

Sanford, E., Harmon, E., Acierno, J., Spanos, N., Shaffer, O., & Lea, R.B. (2018). When You Kick the Bucket, Do You Pick Up the Pail? 59th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, New Orleans, LA.

As Lab Manager I created a project studying foveal load effects in Chinese reading through manipulations of lexical ambiguity. We examined how information density influences parafoveal preview effects by manipulating the density of the parafoveal word (e.g., a word contains several meanings vs. single meaning; or a two-character word where both constituent-characters have similar meanings as the whole word vs. the two constituent-characters have different meanings individually, but form one meaning when combined).