Carnegie Mellon University
October 17, 2023

Exploring the Invisible World: Identity and Perception

By Marissa Pekular

Dietrich College’s Stigma, Health Equity, and Resilience Lab is running a new series of studies to understand social experiences. Led by Michael Trujillo, assistant professor of psychology, the studies aim to understand how people with different social identities interact and how that knowledge shapes perceptions of each other.

“The type of identities I’m especially interested in are those that are often not visible to the naked eye,” he said. “That’s what makes these studies especially important and unique.”

Trujillo developed this series of studies while conducting postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco. During the early stages of the pilot study, the pandemic halted Trujillo’s work, but they soon reestablished the studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

“A lot of the work I do currently and foresee doing in the future integrates medicine and technology, and Pittsburgh is a growing city with technology and health at its core,” Trujillo said. “Working at CMU seemed like the perfect place to harness the amazing skills of experts in these spaces and collaborate with them on this project.”

Trujillo’s research explores how people with differing social identities perceive each other and how those perceptions influence how well people work together and trust each other when developing decisions.

During the observation portion of the studies, there will be a period in which participants disclose their identity to someone. Trujillo explains that some people may feel more or less comfortable with this, which ultimately has implications for how someone receives this information and what their perspective or bias is against people who hold certain identities.

“For example, if you have a bias against people who have disabilities, and someone discloses to you that they have a disability, how does that shape your perception of them?” he said. “Do you find them as friendly as you would if they said they did not have a disability? As smart, as capable?”

These biases have implications for when people work together, whether it be in workplaces or school settings. This can impact the capacity in which group members trust someone to carry out a project or perform a specific task. The results of the study will have wide-ranging implications, beyond the health space.

“I hope to understand how understanding people’s invisible identities can foster connection with others,” Trujillo said. “This work is really important to me and to the communities that I research.”

According to Trujillo, getting a sense of how your partner perceives you can be stressful (emotionally and physically) and have powerful implications for a person’s health. It can also play a role in when and how people choose to disclose their identity, which can shape the types of relationships that people form.

Trujillo plans to start collecting data this coming fall.

“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to bring my studies to CMU,” said Trujillo. “The topics of the studies feel like they are happening on the heels of a lot of national conversations we are having.”