Scholar alumna exploring moral cognition in children and adults

Jeff Rice
January 13, 2021

If someone knocked over a child’s sandcastle, how would that child react? And to what extent would that reaction be influenced by whether the person who knocked it over intended to do so or did so accidentally?

Those are the sort of moral cognition questions Larisa Heiphetz and her team at the Columbia University Department of Psychology explore on a regular basis. Recently, the Penn State alumna and former Schreyer Scholar has been working with children and families via Zoom, allowing her to reach a wider range of people as she conducts her studies.

“Everything that we study has something to do with that basic question of ‘How do kids and adults think about right and wrong?’” said Heiphetz, an assistant professor of psychology and the director of Columbia’s Social and Moral Cognition Lab, which she started in 2016.

Heiphetz, who graduated with honors in psychology from Penn State and went on to earn a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University, has been fascinated with social psychology since she was in high school. During her graduate studies and a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston College, she explored moral cognition, moral psychology, and philosophy.

“I found that morality was fascinating and also a good way to connect a lot of my different interests,” she said. “They were all about morality in one way or the other.”

In the study mentioned above, Heiphetz and other researchers set out to discover what children thought about intentional versus accidental transgressions. They also explored what participants thought others would think about the outcomes and potential consequences of those transgressions.

“Adults will say it’s worse if there’s intention behind it,” Heiphetz said. “There’s some evidence suggesting that kids in later elementary school also have that same view, where younger kids sometimes care much more about outcomes and place less priority on what’s happening in someone’s mind when it comes to transgressions.”

Heiphetz and her team, which also includes two graduate students, two post-doctoral fellows and roughly a dozen undergraduate researchers, also research how people in various age groups think about connections between morality and the criminal justice system and morality and religion. They most often work with children ages 4-9, occasionally up to age 12. They’ve partnered with local schools and museums to connect with those groups in the past, but since the coronavirus pandemic have been working with children and families online and are open to accepting new participants.

“One of the silver linings of this is that allows us to work with families who don’t live in New York. We can work with families from all over,” Heiphetz said. “That’s a big benefit to our lab, because we know that whatever we’re finding isn’t just limited to people who happen to live in New York, and I hope it’s also a benefit for people who want their kids to have the science experience but might not have gotten a chance to get involved before.

“Families are saying it’s helpful to have something online that their child can do that’s a fun activity for them, that’s engaging for them.”

Heiphetz looks back fondly on her time at the Schreyer Honors College as an opportunity to conduct research – she worked in two social psychology labs as an undergraduate student – and having the chance to work with a variety of faculty. Today, she enjoys working with students and simply the research process itself.

“I love science,” she said. “I can have a question in my mind, and I can go answer it, and I can just know the answer to my question even though nobody before me knew the answer or even thought to ask the question. That I get to be doing that basically every day I come to work is just amazing to me.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.

  • Penn State alumna Larisa Heiphetz

    Larisa Heiphetz, who graduated with honors in psychology from Penn State, now leads the Moral and Social Cognition Lab at Columbia University.

    IMAGE: Photo provided
Last Updated January 13, 2021