Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

Group Identity and Social Perception Lab


In a new paper in PSPB led by GISP alumnus, Hyun Joon Park, we assessed undergraduate students' cortisol levels at the beginning and end of four classes around the first exam in a gateway STEM course. Because students reported the class to be stressful, we thought that their cortisol levels might increase in each class and as the exam approached. Instead, cortisol levels declined within classes and across classes. We also thought higher cortisol responses might predict worse performance. Instead, they predicted better performance and a greater likelihood of taking the next course in the sequence - but only for members of underrepresented racial/ethnic minority groups.

Congrats to Dr. Samantha Stevens, who on May 8, 2023 successfully defended her dissertation, A Longitudinal Inquiry into Ph.D. Student Experiences and How Social-Psychological Interventions Differentially Predict Performance and Psychological Outcomes!

GISP lab manager, Michael Ruiz, is a co-author on an article published in PNAS showing that discipline incidents escalate during the school year among middle school students, with the rate increasing more quickly for Black students, especially in schools that have a high degree of racial disparity early in the year.

Congrats to Kevin Wang, who graduated in May 2023 after having successfully completed an honor's thesis with Jonathan, entitled, Belongingness in Graduate School: The Effect of Belonging on the Relationship Between Advisor Trust and Burnout!

The GISP Lab welcomes Michael Ruiz, who joins us as our new lab manager!


Our research investigates people’s psychological and behavioral adaptations to social environments that pose ongoing psychological threats. For instance, in some work or academic environments, people may be concerned about being judged negatively, viewed stereotypically, or treated differently because of their gender or sexual identity, race, socio-economic status, religion, or a health condition. More generally, evaluative environments can be threatening for anyone concerned about the possibility of failure. We study the implications of these types of psychologically threatening environments for how people behave, for how they think and feel about themselves, and for their basic biological processes. A central tenet of our research is that experiences of psychological threat can undermine fundamental psychological needs, like a need for control and a need to belong. When these needs are imperiled, it is difficult to maintain the psychological foundation of safety and security critical for success and well-being.

Our theoretical perspective draws from classic psychologists like Lewin and Bronfenbrenner who emphasized the influence of embedded systems. People’s adaptations to social environments unfold dynamically over time and social environments themselves react to and reinforce the behavior of individuals. For instance, in response to concerns of bias or belonging, a student may decide to forgo studying or skip a class, contributing to a self-reinforcing feedback loop in which the risk of being under-prepared becomes a reality, and the student’s perception of the academic environment as threatening intensifies. When applied to members of stigmatized groups, this dynamic helps explain how abstract constructs like social stereotypes can embed themselves psychologically and perpetrate effects that contribute to intergroup disparities.

To help people navigate threatening environments successfully, interventions that help alter people’s appraisal of or reactions to threat can be an important approach. While objective environments may be difficult to change, psychological interpretations of environments can be malleable. Much of our research investigates this idea, using brief psychological interventions that help people to reframe their experiences in threatening social environments. By interrupting negative recursive processes that emerge in response to threat, these interventions can yield lasting effects. Our research supports the idea that psychological intervention approaches, particularly when well-timed (e.g., during important life transitions) and well-placed (e.g., in specific contexts that elicit threat), can lead to lasting individual improvements in performance and health. Our perspective is that over time, collective individual-level changes can create bottom-up change in larger social systems (e.g., increasing diversity) that helps to foster more equitable social environments.

Current and recent projects examine the social psychology of Ph.D. education, including longitudinal research that incorporates belonging and values-affirmation interventions, as well as research on  identity concealment, focusing particularly on religion, chronic illness, and sexual orientation. Ultimately, we aim to understand the basic processes and implications of psychological threat, how these can contribute to disparities between groups, and how to mitigate threat through psychological intervention.

Methodological Approach

Our research is situated at the psychological level with an understanding that psychological processes interact with other factors in a social system and unfold dynamically over time. We seek to better understand ongoing feedback cycles between individuals and their lived social environments. For example, our research suggests the importance of intervention timing in protecting against self-reinforcing downward trajectories that often characterize psychological and behavioral outcomes in chronically threatening environments. To investigate these processes, our laboratory relies on advances in research methods and statistical analysis. The research we conduct is methodologically diverse and includes cognitive, physiological, and behavioral measures. We conduct longitudinal experiments in the laboratory and field and incorporate momentary assessment designs that capture people’s everyday experiences over time.

Sample Publications

Park, H. J., Ruberton, P. M., Smyth, J. M., Cohen, G. L., Purdie-Greenaway, V., & Cook, J. E. (2023). Lower SES PhD students experience interpersonal disconnection from others both inside and outside of academia. Journal of Social Issues, 79(1) 79-107.

Stevens, S. M., Ruberton, P. M., Smyth, J. M., Cohen, G. L., Purdie Greenaway, V., & Cook, J. E. (2023). A latent class analysis approach to the identification of doctoral students at risk of attrition. PLoS ONE, 18(1): e0280325.

Pasek, M. H. & Cook, J. E., (2019). Religion from the target’s perspective: A portrait of religious threat and its consequences in the United States. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(1), 82-93.

Pasek, M. H., Filip-Crawford, G., & Cook, J. E. (2017). Identity concealment and social change: Balancing advocacy goals against individual needs. Journal of Social Issues, 73(2), 397-412.

Cook, J. E., Salter, A., & Stadler, G. (2017). Identity concealment and chronic illness: A strategic choice. Journal of Social Issues, 73(2), 359-378

Powers, J. T., Cook, J. E., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Cohen, G. L. (2016). Changing environments by changing individuals: The emergent effects of psychological intervention. Psychological Science, 27(2), 150-160.

Cook, J. E., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Meyer, I. H., & Busch, J. T. A. (2014). Intervening within and across levels: A multilevel approach to stigma and public health. Social Science & Medicine, 103, 101-109.

Shnabel, N., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J. E., Garcia, J., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Demystifying values-affirmation interventions: Writing about social-belonging is a key to buffering against stereotype threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(5), 663-676.

Cook, J. E., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., & Cohen, G. L. (2012). Chronic threat and contingent belonging: Protective benefits of values affirmation on identity development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(3), 479-496.

Cook, J. E., Calcagno, J., Arrow, H., & Malle, B. F. (2012). Friendship trumps ethnicity (but not sexual orientation): Comfort and discomfort in intergroup interactions. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51(2), 273-289.

Cook, J. E., Arrow, H., & Malle, B. F. (2011). The effect of feeling stereotyped on social power and inhibition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(2), 165-180.