Illustration: Joyce Hesselberth


Moral of the Story 

The Morality Lab will spend the next two years researching how to influence people to be more ethical consumers.

Psychologists have long known that our behavior is influenced by the actions and reactions of those around us. This influence is so powerful that, over time, it creates social norms, affecting the behavior of people in a group and creating informal rules for how we act. But what if social norms could be used for the betterment of the world? That’s the question at the center of the latest research being conducted at Boston College’s Morality Lab.

The lab, created by BC Psychology Professor Liane Young in 2011, uses psychology, biology, and neuroscience to study what happens when people are confronted with a decision that requires them to make an ethical choice. Morality Lab studies over the years have examined topics such as how we choose the friends we keep in our lives and how our impressions of others change based on their behavior. Now, thanks to a $2.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Young and a team of thirty researchers from five universities will spend the next two years studying, among other things, if people can be peer pressured into behaving better. 

The new research project, titled “The Impacts of Social Norms on Virtue,” began last year and is scheduled to continue through 2024. “What we’re trying to do with this grant is leverage the power of social norms to influence people for good,” Young said, explaining that the grant will focus on promoting virtuous behavior in everything from education to environmental stewardship. Showing people that lots of others in their peer group are doing something, she said, can be a powerful way of getting them to join in. For instance, when a billboard shares statistics about the number of residents in a community that have adopted a plant-based diet, it can make others want to do the same.

A different study funded by the grant will examine how religious teaching can affect which social beliefs young children internalize, and yet another will look at how a person’s intersecting identities—like being a gay conservative or a liberal gun owner—might affect their opinions. 

Gregg Sparkman, an assistant psychology professor at BC, is a co-principal investigator on the grant, and Schiller Institute Executive Director Laura Steinberg is a primary co-investigator. Thirty field partner organizations will help carry out the research.

Young said that an area of the grant-funded research that is particularly fascinating to her focuses on people’s anxieties about whether their public displays of “morally good” behavior will be seen as performative rather than authentic. She hopes the lab’s research will eventually help people overcome their insecurities about living according to their morals. “If people are worried about how they’re going to be perceived, then they’re not going to do the behaviors in public that they believe in,” she said. “If people are only doing what they believe in while in private, then social behavior can’t really spread.”  


The Lynch School’s Julia DeVoy, Brian Smith, and Martin Scanlan are studying the public health implications of textile waste, thanks to a grant from BC’s Schiller Institute. The team found that Americans’ annual thirty-six billion pounds of discarded clothing is not only thrown in US landfills, but also often shipped overseas under the guise of being reusable, polluting the environment in the Global South and most often affecting impoverished communities of color.

Two BC faculty members have received 2023 Sloan Research Fellowships, which are awarded annually to leading early-career scientists in the United States and Canada by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The recipients were Assistant Professor of Physics Qiong Ma, who specializes in quantum materials research, and Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Gregg Sparkman, who primarily researches the psychology of social change.

The School of Social Work’s Research Program on Children and Adversity is collaborating with the University of Illinois–Chicago to study families that have recently evacuated from Afghanistan. The project will evaluate the participants’ mental health and the needs of their families as they settle in the US, and identify effective strategies that refugee-assisting organizations can use to help these populations in the future.


More Stories