My research

My name is Cliff. I’m an NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow in the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, located at the University of Pennsylvania and directed by Professor Anjan Chatterjee. My research investigates the dark side of morality. Morality refers to the values and customs that guide social behavior within and between groups. When morality works properly, it enables compassion for those in need, it provides the courage to stand up to bad guys, and it stops us from hurting the people who anger us, and much more.

What happens when morality fails to work properly, though? For example, can our moral intuitions sometimes impair our social functioning? Are some of our moral intuitions about ourselves and others susceptible to features that aren’t relevant (or shouldn’t be, at least), like the attractiveness of our social partners? Why do some people but not others feel so convicted about moral issues that they believe the need for violence outweighs social rules against physically harming others? Can individuals unlearn this belief and, if so, how? With these questions in mind, I am currently working on projects examining:

  1. The neuroscience of moral cognition (e.g., beliefs), emotion (e.g., guilt), and motivation (e.g., underpinning altruism), and how these facets of morality are shaped by learning.

  2. Relations between morality and beauty (e.g., how moral emotions influence aesthetic evaluations), as well as their neural substrates and the extent to which they are shared.

  3. Disturbances to normal moral functioning in healthy (e.g., supporting sociopolitical violence) and disordered populations (e.g., symptomatic guilt in major depression).

Are beauty and morality related? (~4 minutes)

What is the neuroscience of aesthetics? (~54 minutes, with my interview starting @ 30:50)

How does symptomatic guilt in depression influence helping behavior? (~1 minute)

Academic profiles: