Project Overview

The pain of falling behind: Exploring how race-class stereotypes (e.g., perceptions that White people are wealthy) inform subjective perceptions of status, emotional experiences, and, thus, health

Faculty Sponsor

Erin Cooley (


Psychological and Brain Sciences


Project Overview:
Economic inequality within the United States is a pressing issue. As of 2019, the median wealth of White families was approximately eight times the median wealth of Black families and five times the median wealth of Hispanic families. This racial wealth gap has persisted relatively unchanged for 20 years, and economists warn it will remain so without policy reform (Harris & Wertz, 2022). These striking economic disparities have helped to shape race and class stereotypes, namely that Americans associate White people with wealth and racially minoritized groups with poverty (Brown-Iannuzzi et al., 2017; Brown-Iannuzzi et al. 2019; Gilens, 1996; 1999). Research has established that race/class stereotypes can harm minoritized racial groups, such as by reinforcing stereotypes that Black people are lazy, and that their low status is earned (Bobo, 2011)--perceptions that then predict reduced support for policies that aim to redistribute wealth and address inequity (Brown-Iannuzzi et al., 2017).

Although racial economic inequality, and associated race/class stereotypes, most clearly harm racially minoritized groups, they may harm White people as well by making them frequently compare their own status upward to the perceived “wealthy” standard of their racial group. Indeed, across multiple representative samples, our lab has found that White Americans tend to feel like they are falling behind the perceived high status of their racial group, independent of their objective status (i.e., income and education; Cooley et al., 2021; Cooley et al., 2023a; Cooley et al., 2023b). We further find that these feelings of falling behind then predict worse mental and physical health, both as reported in cross-sectional samples (Cooley et al., 2021) as well as longitudinal samples (Cooley et al., 2023a; Cooley et al., 2023b).  The current research hopes to extend upon this prior work from our lab to assess whether perceptions of low within-group status predict physiological markers of mental and physical health among a sample of White people living in and around Madison County. This study will involve both a 90-minute lab visit and 7 days of follow-up at-home data collection.

What will it be like to work on this project this summer?

My hope is that we can work together to recruit participants, collect data, and analyze data. Because this study is a very big undertaking, we are likely to run into situations that require problem-solving; for that reason, I would also really value your help and input when those cases arise. Although this project will continue for probably a year or more, as a summer research student working on this project, you will be actively involved in all steps of the data collection and data preparation during the summer. This will include recruiting and scheduling participants; guiding participants through a 90-minute lab visit; learning to collect, and collecting, psychophysiological measures (e.g., respiratory sinus arrhythmia; cortisol assays) multiple times during each lab session; helping participants understand and feel prepared for at-home follow-up data collection; helping follow-up with participants to get their at-home data; helping program surveys for data collection; and pre-processing of the heart rate variability data. Although I know this will not always be possible, it would be extra lovely if you would be interested in potentially remaining involved in this study for the following year as a paid research assistant and/or training new members of the team in data collection and analysis over the following year.

I think this project would be really well matched for anyone who might be interested in pursuing research as a career and/or who is interested in pursuing a PhD in social psychology or another subdiscipline of psychology. Please note that because the psychophysiological measures will involve placing sensors on participants' torsos that a high degree of maturity, respect for members of our community, and conscientiousness are important attributes that I am looking for with collaborators on this project. 

If these ideas interest you, please apply!

Student Qualifications

-Need to be a Major in PBSC (or intending to declare before the summer)
-Ideally have taken Psyc200
-Have taken classes related to race/inequality, or have an interest in such courses
-Comfort with programs such as SPSS, R, Qualtrics, and/or computer programming languages
-I will also be looking for maturity, conscientiousness, strong communication skills (both in writing and speaking), respect for our community, and a passion for learning about the research process in social psychology

Number of Student Researchers

3 students

Project Length

8 weeks

Applications open on 10/03/2023 and close on 02/28/2024

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (