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.

Morality and partisanship

I am also interested in the intersection between 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

My future research will examine political polarization and expressions of moral outrage on social media. More details coming soon.

Theory of mind

In forthcoming work with Jonathan Phillips, we ask whether people have an intuitive folk theory of option generation which allows them to make inferences of others’ values based on the options that come to their minds. To the extent that this phenomenon occurs generally, we can think of this kind of inference as a form of inverse Theory of Mind: people infer others' subjective values by inverting a decision-making procedure, where the probability that an option comes to mind is proportional to its perceived value and probability of occurrence. 


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

Primarily my interests 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).