Research interests

Morality and partisanship

One of my main areas of interest is 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.

Morality and possibility

Another area 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 theory of mind

Previous research examines factors that impact what options spontaneously come to mind. When generating possibilities, options are generally constrained by statistical frequency and prescriptive goodness: something needs to be both common and valuable for it to come to mind. Another line of research explores how we interpret meaning from our own, and others’, spontaneous thoughts. Previous studies show that we believe spontaneous thoughts reveal more insight than deliberative thoughts, and that we attribute a high degree of control to others’ mental states. My forthcoming paper with Dr. Jonathan Phillips asks whether people use theory of mind to infer others’ moral values, and as a result make character inferences, based on potential actions that come into others’ minds.

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).



Tips for finding a post-grad job

Check sites like HigherEdJobs and HERC for research positions at universities. These websites pull from university job postings. You can also find jobs on job boards, organizational listings, and through listservs (more information below).

Positions may be listed under different job titles. Some common titles are “Lab Manager”, “Research Coordinator”, “Study Coordinator”, “Research Specialist”, and “Research Technician”. Some labs may also have paid “Research Assistant” positions that look similar to lab manager jobs in terms of responsibilities, so don’t discount a job just because the title is “Research Assistant”.

If you find a job through an external website, don’t just submit your application through that website because your application might not ever make it to the PI. Instead, apply through the university website, and also email the PI directly to express interest. Your email should be short and polite, and should contain your application materials in attached documents.

Try cold emailing the PI, even if there isn’t a job posting for a lab of interest. Keep your email short and polite, and demonstrate a genuine interest in their work. Try to reference specific research, especially recent publications since these topics are likely what they are currently studying in the lab. Attach your CV to the email, and follow up once with the professor after 2 weeks if you have not heard back.

If you spot a job you want, apply quickly. The turnaround time is often very fast, so don’t miss your chance by trying to perfect your application materials. Of course you should still tailor your submission to the job, but try to submit your application asap.

Highlight relevant skills, especially technical skills. If you have experience with data and coding, make sure that’s immediately apparent on your CV.

Job search sites, listservs, and wikis: SPSP job search Social Psychology Network job posting forum; Cognitive Development Society Listserv; Psychology job wiki; Post-grad lab positions wiki.

Feel free to contact me directly with any questions.



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