Faculty Profiles

James Cornwell Headshot

James Cornwell, Ph.D.

Director of Research, Associate Professor of Psychology

On Faculty since 2023
BGH M205


James Cornwell is the Director of Research for the doctoral psychology program, as well as an Associate Professor of Psychology. Prior to joining the faculty at Wheaton College, he was a member of the faculty at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, teaching and researching in the management and psychology programs. He has also conducted organizational behavior research in industry as a senior analyst for Edward Jones, the financial services company.

As a member of the West Point faculty, Dr. Cornwell received awards for his teaching, research, and service. He is enthusiastic about bringing these skills to the students and faculty in all of the psychology programs, graduate and undergraduate, at Wheaton College, and loves talking about and working through questions of theory, methodology, and analysis. In terms of research focus, his work is centered on the roles that ethics and character play in our social identities, how individuals and groups seek to understand the truth, and how different fundamental motivations compete and integrate leading to either psychological distress or human flourishing.

Dr. Cornwell spends most of his time outside work with his wife, Sarah, and their seven children. He loves reading broadly, challenging himself with new house building projects, experimenting with recipes, teaching his kids to play soccer, baseball, and the piano, and celebrating feast days with his church.

Columbia University
Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Department of Psychology, 2014

Columbia University
Ph.D., Psychology, 2014

Columbia University
M.A., Psychology, 2014

New York University 
B.A., Politics and Psychology, 2007

  • Moral Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Personality Psychology
  • Statistics
  • Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), Government Relations Committee Co-Chair
  • Society for the Science of Motivation (SSM)
  • Motivation Science Center, Columbia University
  • PSYC 746  Research and Statistics I
  • PSYC 748  Research and Statistics III: Data Interpretation and Qualitative Analysis
  • PSYC 774  Advanced Social Psychology

Dr. Cornwell’s research is centered on motivation, with a particular emphasis on moral motivations and motivations to establish what is true. He is especially interested in the function that ethics and character have in our lives and in the organizations to which we belong, both religious and secular. He is also interested in how individuals, dyads, and groups work together to establish what is true, particularly with regard to ambiguous or inherently non-empirical realities, such as moral theories or beliefs about God and the supernatural. Finally, he is interested in motivational theory more generally, and how the strengths and weaknesses of fundamental motives, as well as their integration or conflict, can lead to either psychological distress or human flourishing.

Cornwell, J. F. M. & Higgins, E. T. (2019). Beyond value in moral phenomenology: The role of epistemic and control experiences. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2430.

Cornwell, J. F. M., Franks, B., & Higgins, E. T. (2017). Shared reality makes life meaningful: Are we really going in the right direction? Motivation Science, 3(3), 260-274.

Cornwell, J. F. M. & Higgins, E. T. (2017). The tripartite human essence and its organization: Value, control,  and truth as fundamental motives. In van Zomeran, M. & Dovidio, J. (Eds.), Handbook of the Human Essence (pp. 71-81). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cornwell, J.F.M. & Higgins, E.T. (2016). Eager feelings and vigilant reasons: Regulatory focus differences in judging moral wrongs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(3), 338-355.

Cornwell, J.F.M. & Higgins, E.T. (2015). The “ought” premise of moral psychology and the importance of the ethical “ideal.” Review of General Psychology, 19(3), 311-328.

Cornwell, J. F. M., Franks, B., & Higgins, E. T. (2015). Distress from motivational dis-integration: When fundamental motivations are too weak or too strong. In Simpson, E. & Balsam, P. (Eds.), Current Topics in          Behavioral Neurosciences (pp. 1-22). New York, NY: Springer.

Higgins, E.T., Cornwell, J.F.M., & Franks, B. (2014). “Happiness” and “The Good Life” as Motivations Working Together Effectively. In Elliot, A. (Ed.), Advances in Motivation Science. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Cornwell, J.F.M., Franks, B., & Higgins, E. T. (2014). Truth, control, and value motivations: The ‘What,’ ‘How,’ and ‘Why’ of approach and avoidance. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 8.

Dr. Cornwell directs the Morality, Truth, and Motivation lab, which scientifically studies the ways in which morality provides us with a guiding framework for life in our social world, how the pursuit of truth provides our lives with meaning and strengthens relationships, and how differences in motivational dynamics can predict human flourishing as well as patterns of psychological distress. The lab’s research is based in psychological theory developed in conversation with insights from theology (particularly Christian theology), philosophy, literature, as well as other sciences.

Current projects: 

  • the psychological moderators and mental health consequences of the experience of moral injury  
  • the relationship between outcomes of behaviors and perceptions of agency, as well as the psychological distinction between fault and responsibility 
  • leadership, such as ethical leadership, and organizational dynamics, such as organizational justice, and their effects on subordinates 
  • the causes and consequences of the differences between the motivations to maintain moral obligations and to achieve moral virtue 
  • developing valid and reliable measures of moral vice, and examining its causes and consequences
  • the psychological structure of virtuous character and the effects of character development programs
  • assumptions about outgroups’ motivations and how they drive intergroup prejudice 
  • epistemic needs and how they can lead to systematic distortions of reality 
  • shared reality motives and the quality of clinical and other relationships 
  • well-being and meaning in life as expressions of motivational dynamics, particularly truth motivation 
  • disorder symptomology as an expression of strong and weak fundamental motives