Prenatal Stress May Make Children More Verbal

A new study finds that pregnant women with a high level of the stress hormone cortisol have children who learn language faster.


By Susan Pinker

Cortisol floods your bloodstream every time you feel stressed out. This biochemical messenger heralds an incipient attack—real or imagined—and instructs your body to gird itself for danger. But the hormone can have contradictory effects; it plays the role of hero or antihero, depending on the context. Doctors prescribe it to reduce inflammation and tamp down the immune system when it goes haywire, for example. But cortisol released during periods of extended psychological stress can also damage your heart and kickstart a major depression.

“Cortisol has a bad reputation,” says Anja Fenger Dreyer, a physician and a research fellow at the University of Southern Denmark. Studies have repeatedly linked high levels of stress-related cortisol to preterm births, extremely small newborns and postpartum depression in mothers. At the same time, Dr. Dreyer explains, “It increases during [a healthy] pregnancy and is good for fetal development. In preemies [cortisol] is used to help mature the organs, like the lungs, brain and heart.”

Dr. Dreyer is a lead co-author of a remarkable new study, presented in May at the annual European Congress of Endocrinology, which adds yet another dimension to the cortisol paradox. Researchers found that pregnant mothers who were anxious during their last trimester, and thus secreted lots of cortisol, gave birth to babies who became excellent listeners and talkers as toddlers. The more cortisol circulating in the mother’s bloodstream late in pregnancy, the more advanced the toddler’s understanding of words, and the more words they said between one and three years of age.

The researchers drew their data from the Odense Child Cohort study, which began with 2,500 healthy, pregnant women living in the Danish city of Odense from 2010 to 2012. After dropouts, 1,093 children remained in the study. To study the developmental effects of prenatal cortisol, blood samples were collected from the mothers during pregnancy. Researchers monitored the children in utero and examined them every two years after they were born, as well as taking samples of their blood and hair.

When the children were between the ages of 1 and 3, every three months the parents completed a standardized language survey, the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory, which required them to tick off which words their toddlers understood or said from a list. According to this new study, the more cortisol produced by a pregnant mother during her third trimester, the more advanced her toddler’s language abilities.

The findings suggest that prenatal cortisol may be a bigger player in human development than previously thought. But there’s still much to untangle, including the role of sex differences. Intriguingly, the researchers found that boys whose pregnant mothers secreted more last-trimester cortisol produced more words, while girls exposed to greater cortisol understood more words. This may be connected to the fact that pregnant women carrying girls generally secrete more cortisol than pregnant women carrying boys. On average, girls’ language skills tend to be more advanced than boys’ in all populations, and cortisol may give us a clue as to why that is.

The Power of a Good Neighborhood

Research shows that children achieve higher levels of education when they grow up with affluent neighbors nearby


By Susan Pinker

Sociologists have long known that growing up surrounded by poverty is corrosive for a child’s life chances. The 2020 book “The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life,” written by a team of four developmental psychologists, showed that children who grow up in disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to remain antisocial and badly behaved when they get older, while their peers in better neighborhoods mature and stop acting out. This is especially true of boys.

Similarly, the Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown that the zip code a person grows up in helps to predict the likelihood that they will drop out of high school, get pregnant as a teenager or be incarcerated. Now a new study from the Netherlands has found that a key factor in a child’s ultimate level of education, even more important than their own family’s economic situation, is whether they grow up with affluent neighbors nearby.

Researcher Agata Troost and her colleagues at Delft University of Technology used a national database to track the address of every Dutch baby born in 1995, a total of 140,338 people, from birth to age 23. Using geolocating software, they drew up a socioeconomic profile for each child’s immediate neighborhood, calculating the percentage of neighbors who were affluent, middle class or disadvantaged.

After controlling for a number of other factors, including parents’ earnings and levels of education, the researchers found that a child’s own experience of wealth or poverty mattered less to their ultimate level of schooling than exposure to well-off neighbors. The data suggest that growing up in an affluent area, with well-maintained parks, libraries and soccer fields, as well as interactions with educated neighbors, could boost a poor child’s ability to see beyond her immediate horizon.

“Affluent families create neighborhoods and activities that create opportunities,” said Ms. Troost, and these advantages are shared with other children who happen to live nearby. The finding echoes an earlier study by Mr. Chetty and colleagues, which showed that having even one inspiring teacher in middle school can enhance a student’s career prospects. Whether in the classroom or on the street, it seems that social interactions outside the family can kickstart a young person’s motivation and ambition.

At the same time, the study also underscored the importance of the home environment. When parents are well educated, children are likely to be, too. Whether the family lives in a depressed, about-to-be-gentrified corner of a city or in an isolated rural town, the parents’ education acts as a protective halo.

And that’s the moral of the story: Neighborhoods can have different effects on different children, depending on how educated their parents are, whether they are male or female, and how much casual contact they have with people who are different from their own families. “Location, location, location” may be a real estate cliché, but we’re learning that it also holds true for children’s development.

Exercise Can Be the Best Antidepressant

New research finds that as little as 12 weeks of regular exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression as effectively as medication.


By Susan Pinker

One of the highlights of my pandemic workweek was the Zoom workout I did with a dozen fellow swimmers once we lost access to our pool. Most aspects of my life were upended, but the 7:45 a.m. home exercise session was a constant: a warm-up, two sets of resistance exercises designed by our loyal coach, then stretching and gabbing. None of us wanted to give up this routine when restrictions eased, and we’re still at it.

I feel more upbeat and quicker on the uptake on days when I do planks and squats. Now a new paper evaluating studies of the impact of exercise on mood shows that physical activity, of any kind, is just as effective as antidepressants at reducing feelings of anxiety and depression—and sometimes more effective.

Dr. Ben Singh, a research fellow at the University of South Australia, was the lead author of the study, which appeared in February in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. He and 12 other scientists combed the research literature for all randomly controlled studies published before 2022 that involved adding exercise to a person’s “usual care,” to see how physical activity might relieve psychological distress.

The group found 97 reviews, which together comprised 1,039 distinct randomly controlled trials and over 128,000 participants, many of whom had symptoms of depression. “Usual care” referred to whatever the person was already doing to stabilize their moods, whether it was taking antidepressants, seeing a psychologist, doing both or doing nothing at all. “We didn’t want them to replace their treatment with exercise but to add exercise into their day,” said Dr. Singh.

Statistical crunching revealed that as little as 12 weeks of exercise can mitigate depression, while often achieving faster results than antidepressants. “Any type of movement is effective: a bike ride, yoga or Pilates” said Dr. Singh. He mentioned that resistance training (like my Zoom workout) was best for reducing symptoms of depression, while yoga and Pilates were best at tamping down anxiety. “The higher the intensity, the better,” Dr. Singh said. “But just a walk around your neighborhood is effective, too.”

Exercise is free, rarely induces side effects and can muffle existing feelings of anxiety and depression, or even prevent their occurrence in the first place, according to a 2018 meta-analysis. Still, “It’s very rare that doctors say, ‘I need you to exercise three times a week, for at least 30 minutes, at a brisk walking pace,’” said Dr. Singh. A large Canadian study of 13,000 primary care physicians showed that while 70% mentioned exercise to their patients, barely 16% wrote a prescription recommending it. “Exercise is considered ‘complementary’ like acupuncture,” said Dr. Singh, but “there’s no evidence that acupuncture has any effect, yet there’s lots of evidence for exercise.”

Exercise isn’t a cure-all, and the study doesn’t establish how long the reprieve from depression and anxiety lasts. The authors write that the “effectiveness of physical activity diminished with longer duration interventions,” most likely because over time the participants exercised less often or stopped altogether.

And there’s the rub. Someone who is so depressed they can’t get out of bed might not be motivated to walk around the block, much less to do jumping jacks and burpees. That could be one reason why the uplifting effects of exercise are weaker for more serious forms of depression. Even if you do get started, if you’re feeling ill, making exercise a habit is so much harder than taking a pill.

Placebos Can Have a Real Effect on Guilty Feelings

A new study shows that taking a pill can have psychological benefits even when people know it contains no medicinal ingredients


By Susan Pinker

Placebos—medical interventions that contain no therapeutic ingredients—are a mainstay of randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of medical research. In these studies, one group of participants receives an experimental treatment and another gets a placebo, while both experimenters and participants remain in the dark about which group is which. That way, the results aren’t influenced by people’s expectations. It’s good research design, but if you were a patient enrolled in a clinical trial, how would you feel if you found out you were given a placebo instead of a possible treatment?

In fact, researchers have found that placebos can be effective even when they are “open.” Surprisingly enough, taking a sugar pill can be beneficial even when you know it’s a sugar pill. Now a new study published in Nature Scientific Reports last December shows that open placebos don’t just work for physical pain; they can also reduce negative emotions like guilt.

Led by Dilan Sezer, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Basel, the study recruited 112 healthy university students between 18 and 40 years old. “Then there was a baseline assessment of their guilt. Using a questionnaire, we asked, how guilty do they feel in general?” said Ms. Sezer.

At the next stage of the study, people were asked to write about a specific event in their past that made them feel shame for having treated someone shabbily, and the strength of their guilty feelings was assessed with a questionnaire. Then the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first was given a “deceptive” placebo: It contained no medicinal ingredients, but participants were told it contained herbs and essential oils that had been “shown to reduce guilt feelings.” The second group was given an “open” placebo and were told that it “does not contain any medicinal ingredients.” The third was a control group that received no intervention at all.

Afterward, each participant was asked to fill out the same questionnaire a second time. The findings were crystal clear: Both placebo groups showed a significant drop in guilt compared to those in the no-treatment control group. What’s more, “the difference between placebo groups was statistically indistinguishable,” Ms. Sezer said.

How can placebos work when a person knows they’re fake? Some researchers have speculated that a combination of hope and uncertainty leads the “brain to anticipate, seek out and identify new data or rewards,” writes Ted Kaptchuk, who leads the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School. The human brain is constantly testing hypotheses about what might come next, even if we are not overtly aware of this process. Certain environments and rituals also create expectations about how we are going to feel, whether we’re seeing a play in a theater or participating in a study in a lab or clinic.

Ms. Sezer’s study reinforces the notion that we aren’t always completely rational about what can help us. She notes that her sample was small and included only psychologically healthy people, but she hopes the findings will be investigated further. “We don’t know yet if this will work in a clinical population,” she says, “but for everyday guilt in young people, it works.”

Do We Really Get Mellower With Age?

New research suggests that most people experience less stress once they reach their 40s and 50s.


By Susan Pinker

In my favorite documentary film series, “Up,” 14 British children from various backgrounds are followed by a film crew over 56 years. The first film was made in 1964, when all of them were 7, the last in 2019, when they were 63. Every seven years the director, Michael Apted, offered a new glimpse of the latest chapter in the subjects’ lives.

Now, in a science-imitates-art moment, a 20-year-long study has been published in the journal Developmental Psychology that charts the lives of a much bigger sample: 3,000 randomly selected Americans between the ages of 22 and 77. Each subject participated in three interview “bursts,” in 1996, 2005 and 2017, in which they talked to researchers every day for eight days. The goal was to map out the number of stressful events participants faced at each stage of life and how they reacted to these challenges.

“One of the things I really appreciate is the value of talking to someone about their day, just hearing their voice, every night for eight consecutive nights,” said David Almeida, a professor of human development at Penn State University, who has led the study since the beginning. “We really wanted to capture the ebb and flow of daily life as it was happening.”

The researchers found that stress drops steadily as we get older. Life is particularly fraught in young adulthood, when we face more stressful situations and have fewer psychological resources to deal with them. By the time we reach our 40s and 50s, our emotional lives tend to settle down. While this period is often portrayed in popular culture as a time of midlife crisis, divorce and career upheaval, the researchers state that “our findings reveal a clear and robust benefit with age.”

The decline of stress over time is an average trend. It isn’t necessarily true for neurotic people who are always wound up or for people facing ongoing pressures, including members of some minority groups. (The team will analyze such differences in future studies.) But for the majority of Americans, aging brings less strife.

The researchers offer an explanation for this pattern. Young adulthood is marked by numerous transitions: graduating from college, finding a job, navigating financial independence, getting married and having small children. “Younger adults have more strain, more role conflict. But by midlife you’re more established in your career, and your children are growing up,” said Dr. Almeida.

Another explanation, he added, is that “When we don’t have as much life left, we want to maximize the time we have.” We’re more motivated to avoid jerks and futile conflicts. Finally, by midlife we have more experience in solving problems. “When I was younger, I would freak out if I had a plumbing problem,” Dr. Almeida said. “But now I know a plumber I can call.”

Stress is a biochemical reaction that evolved to help keep human beings alive when we were hunters and gatherers. Now that most of us work in cities, why is it still with us? “We’ve done a series of studies searching for its benefits,” Dr. Almeida explained. “One shows that stress forces you to solve novel problems; people who experience more daily stress also perform better on cognitive tasks.”

What’s more, on stressful days people tend to have more social contact. If you have a problem and call up your friend, she can’t necessarily provide a solution, “but you get the social support that you need to deal with it,” said Dr. Almeida. The benefit of that social interaction, especially in young adulthood, seems to outweigh the angst of stress.

How Happy Can a Windfall Make You?

A new study finds that receiving an unexpected cash gift can improve well-being, but only up to a point.


By Susan Pinker

How would you feel if an anonymous benefactor gave you $10,000 to spend within the next three months, no strings attached? Would suddenly being flush with cash fill you with joy?

That question sparked a remarkable study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lead author Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, along with her doctoral student Ryan Dwyer, knew from prior research that there tends to be a correlation between receiving a sum of money and being happier. But those studies didn’t untangle the direction of causation—whether happier people made more money, or whether money made people happy.

The opportunity to dig deeper fell in their laps in 2020, when two anonymous donors offered to give Chris Anderson, the CEO and chief curator of TED, $2 million to distribute to worthy individuals around the world. Mr. Anderson then contacted Prof. Dunn. Might she be interested in studying the impact of these gifts? “Hell, yeah,” she answered.

The TED organization, which ran the study, found participants for the “mystery experiment” by reaching out to English-speaking Twitter users. Individuals from three low-income countries—Brazil, Indonesia and Kenya—and four higher-income countries—Australia, Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.—were invited to participate in “a unique social science experiment…Before you are told the nature of the experiment, we will ask you specific questions regarding your behavior, background, personality and other matters,” the message began.

After weeding out those whose lives might be endangered by a sudden influx of cash, the study ended up with 300 participants. Two hundred were randomly chosen to receive $10,000 via PayPal. The remaining 100 respondents served as the control group. All participants had completed a baseline survey about their psychological well-being and annual earnings at the beginning of the experiment, then completed follow-up surveys one, two, three and six months after the cash was distributed. Members of the control group received $25 each time they filled out a survey.

The researchers found that, as might be expected, a big windfall made people happier than the drip-drip-drip of repeated $25 gifts. But the money didn’t have the same effect on everyone. “The gains were greatest for recipients who had the least,” the paper found. People in lower-income countries who received $10,000 gained three times more happiness, based on the self-reported surveys, than those in higher-income countries. For recipients whose annual income was $100,000 or above, the gain in happiness was diminished.

Comparing participants in the same country, those who made $10,000 a year gained twice as much happiness from the windfall as those making $100,000 a year. “This is consistent with a mountain of research showing that the more we have of something, the less we feel about increases. Those with lower income get a better boost,” said Prof. Dunn.

In 2021, four billion people worldwide lived on less than $6.70 a day. The new study suggests that if any of them got a cash gift with no strings attached, a smile would likely appear on their face. Perhaps such giving should become a Thanksgiving tradition, along with turkey and football. “My fondest wish is that people will emulate what this couple did,” said Prof. Dunn. For people who have money to spare, giving it away creates “more happiness than if you kept it for yourselves.”

Dogs Can Sniff Out Human Stress

A new study shows that the canine nose is sensitive enough to pick out distinctive compounds in the sweat of a person under pressure.


By Susan Pinker

Dogs are champion sniffers, equipped with 100 to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses—compared with a mere 6 million in our own—and an olfactory cortex 40 times as large as ours. They can be trained to detect disease in human beings, including cancer cells, a latent epileptic seizure, or a Covid infection, just by sniffing—no blood samples, biopsies, MRIs, antigen or PCR tests required.

Can dogs smell something as ineffable as psychological distress? Mood disorders have surged since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demand for emotional support dogs has followed suit, with customers paying anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 for a dog trained to respond right before a panic attack, or when the owner’s PTSD or addictive cravings bloom. Until recently, evidence that dogs can sniff out our psychological states remained anecdotal. “The assumption that dogs can identify a person’s psychological state is the reason why we have service dogs for PTSD, anxiety disorders and depression,” says Clara Wilson, a researcher at the Animal Behaviour Centre at Queens University Belfast. “It seems so obvious that no one has tested the idea empirically. Until now.”

In a study published in September in the journal PLoS One, Ms. Wilson and colleagues tested whether dogs can read and respond to our emotional states, without the benefit of facial expression, tone of voice, or social context. The researchers trained four dogs to detect and react to the smell of human stress, depending on their sense of smell alone to distinguish between a person’s baseline scent and the unique cocktail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their sweat and breath when they’re feeling stressed out.

Using tasty rewards, the researchers trained the dogs to distinguish between three gauze samples. One was neutral, containing no human scent. The second had been breathed on and then wiped across the back of the neck of one of 36 human participants at a moment when they felt completely relaxed. The third set of sweat-and-breath samples was taken before and after the participant completed an arithmetic task under time pressure. The humans’ heart rate and blood pressure were monitored, to confirm that the smell of the gauze was indeed a sign of stress.

The goal was to teach the dog to pick out the “stress” sample from a set of three swatches and indicate it by sitting up in front of that sample, alert and attentive. To avoid giving the dog any inadvertent visual or social cues, each swatch was presented behind a grill, so it couldn’t be seen or touched, and no humans were present during the test. If the dog could pick out the stress sample from the distractors, he or she was rewarded with something good to eat.

The results offered overwhelming confirmation that dogs can smell psychological states as well as physical ones. On average, the four dogs picked out the stress sample 94% of the time, with individual dogs ranging between 90% and 97% accuracy. “There’s a smell to stress,” Ms. Wilson concludes. “If we can add it to the dog’s repertoire, we can use it to identify anxiety and panic attacks before they occur.”

Appeared in the October 22, 2022, print edition as ‘Dogs Can Sniff Out When a Human Is Stressed’.

The Risks of Having an Older Father

A new study finds that mice born to older fathers are more likely to struggle to communicate


By Susan Pinker

It is a source of envy for some women that older fathers can easily conceive healthy babies whereas older mothers, in many cases, cannot. When I had a child at the age of 35, my medical chart baldly stated that I was a “high-risk geriatric mother.”

Evidence is building, however, that older fathers also share some risk. Sperm cells generated later in a man’s life are more likely to feature genetic mutations that can lead to developmental disorders in children.

“There is evidence in humans that paternal aging is one of the risk factors for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders,” said Noriko Osumi, a professor of developmental neuroscience at Tohoku University in Japan. “But there are a lot of confounding factors in humans. Is paternal aging itself really the cause, or is it something else?”

A new study led by Prof. Osumi involving newborn mice sheds light on the question. The study shows that mouse pups with older fathers are smaller and cry differently than those with younger dads. This can have negative consequences for the babies, she explained on a video call: “Some other [research] groups have noticed that if the baby’s type of cry is different, then the mother’s retrieval pattern changes.” A weird cry may mean that the mother isn’t primed to respond to the baby’s calls, in other words.

The research team, which includes first author Lingling Mai, a doctoral student in neuroscience at Tohoku University, included 120 mice. Half had fathers who were 3 months old, the equivalent of a human baby having a father in his 20s, while the other half had fathers between 1 and 2 years of age, comparable to having a human father in his 50s or 60s.

The mouse pups in the two groups were then separated from their mothers and littermates four times, at 3, 6, 9 and 12 days old. Each time the pups were placed in the “separation box,” their distress cries were recorded and analyzed. Under ordinary circumstances a human ear can’t hear these vocalizations, so the research team used special equipment and software to translate and graph the sound patterns, including downward or upward shifts in tone, harmonics, phrase repetitions and octave jumps.

A comparison between the two groups revealed that mice with young fathers were far more likely to have rich and complex cries than those with older fathers. The patterns of sound they emitted were also more likely to resemble each other. In comparison, the pups with older fathers cried less overall. Their vocalizations were more variable, yet had a more limited repertoire of sounds.

The study also found that pups with older fathers weighed less, which I expect may be related to the way they communicate. An animal with a sporadic, weak cry is likely to attract less attention from its mother, so it would nurse less and gain less weight.

Extending this finding to humans suggests that if infants don’t cry much in their first year, and use fewer words than other babies by their second birthday, parents should take notice. Sometimes parents say “my child is easy to raise because he doesn’t cry so much,” but that might not be such a good thing, suggested Prof. Osumi.

Appeared in the September 17, 2022, print edition as ‘The Risks of Having an Older Father’.

Early Lessons in Self-Control Bring Lifelong Benefits

Aggressive boys who got behavioral training show more stability as adults 30 years later


By Susan Pinker

In the early 1980s, a group of psychologists, led by Richard Tremblay of the University of Montreal, set out to study early behavior problems in 250 boys living in poor Montreal neighborhoods. The boys had been nominated by their teachers as highly aggressive, oppositional or hyperactive. All were native French speakers whose parents had no more than a high school education.

Researchers divided the boys, ages 7 to 9, into two groups at random by drawing their names from a box. Those in the treatment group received two years of coaching in social skills and self-control—with classes that involved verbal instruction, modeling and rehearsing desired behavior—and positive verbal and material feedback from adults. The instructors met separately with the child’s teacher and parents to bolster these lessons. The idea was to help the boys develop non-aggressive strategies for dealing with common social situations, like what to do if a classmate bumps your desk.

The boys in the control group, meanwhile, received the treatment typically offered to disruptive students at the time—being exiled to the corridor or the principal’s office.

The study aimed to see how such training might affect these high-risk boys over time, so the researchers followed up with them from ages 10 to 24. They found a large improvement in the self-control, attention and social skills of the boys in the treatment group. By late adolescence, these boys also performed better academically. And in early adulthood, they were more likely to be members of a social group.

Now, more than 30 years later, Dr. Tremblay and a new set of colleagues, including the French economist Yann Algan and doctoral candidate Elizabeth Beasley, have returned to the experiment to examine the progress of the boys as they have become men. Their new study, recently published in the American Economic Review, used school and government records to see whether the original participants graduated from high school, had police records and were employed. They also looked at how much tax they paid, their marital status and whether they received social assistance.

It turns out that early intervention made a significant difference for the participants—and society—in the long run. Of the highly aggressive boys who didn’t receive special coaching, 69% dropped out of high school, and 32% had a criminal record. Among the boys in the treatment group, 55% dropped out, and 21% had a criminal record. As adults, men who had been in the treatment group were more likely to be married, earned some 20% more a year and were 40% less likely to rely on welfare or unemployment insurance.

The idea for the original study came from Dr. Tremblay, who started his career in Montreal at what was then the Pinel Institute for the Criminally Insane (now the Philipe Pinel National Institute of Legal Psychiatry). Then as now, most of the men at the Institute had committed violent crimes. “I worked for three years with these mentally ill offenders, and almost all of them had killed someone,” Dr. Tremblay told me. “I decided then to focus on juveniles and possible juvenile delinquents.”

This remarkable experiment shows that early treatment can have an outsize impact on the lives of vulnerable boys. The researchers conclude, “We estimate that $1 invested in this program around age 8 yields about $11 in benefits by age 39.”

It would seem that there is little to be gained and much to lose if we take the watch-and-wait approach with disruptive little boys. The stakes are just too high.

Appeared in the August 13, 2022, print edition as ‘Early Lessons In Self-Control Bring Life-Long Benefits’.

How the Upwardly Mobile Feel About Wealth

A new study suggests that people who become affluent have less sympathy for the poor than the born rich do


By Susan Pinker

The rags-to-riches story is such an enduring part of American identity that it somehow feels unpatriotic to doubt it. Consider celebrities like Dolly Parton, Ray Charles or Arnold Schwarzenegger—to name just a few—who grew up poor and succeeded through outsize talent and sheer grit. Those who were born rich, however, don’t get the same respect. In a 2012 Pew Research Survey, just 27% of respondents said they admired the rich, but when a follow-up question asked whether they admired those who had earned their wealth, 88% agreed.

This gap is explored in a recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The lead author, Hyunjin Koo, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Irvine, explained why she was drawn to investigating the nuances of the American Dream: “People seem to really like and admire those who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and expect them to care about the poor and about social welfare,” she wrote in an email.

Ms. Koo wondered whether people who started out at the bottom and achieved high status would support public policies to assist other strivers like themselves. Or, having successfully climbed the socioeconomic ladder, would they perceive upward social mobility as less difficult? “If I did it, why can’t they do it?” Ms. Koo asked rhetorically.

The research team, which included psychology professors Paul Piff at U.C. Irvine and Azim Shariff at the University of British Columbia, began with two studies designed to assess Americans’ attitudes to the rich. Six hundred randomly selected adults were asked to rate two groups: the “born rich,” who had inherited their wealth, and the “became rich,” who had earned it. Which group would be more likely to attribute poverty to external circumstances, for example, or feel empathy toward the poor?

The results showed that people considered the “became rich” more likable and also expected them to be more supportive of the less fortunate. A second set of studies, however, found that these attitudes aren’t in line with reality. This time the research group recruited 1,000 people whose earnings were in America’s top quintile, or more than $142,500 a year. The researchers then sorted this sample into two camps, the “born rich” and the “became rich,” by parsing their financial histories on a questionnaire.

Both groups were then asked to rate themselves on statements like “I demand the best because I’m worth it,” “I sometimes feel guilty about how much money I have compared to others,” and “In the U.S., it is difficult to improve one’s socioeconomic conditions.” In tabulating their answers, the researchers discovered that people who inherited their wealth were more likely to sympathize with those living in poverty and also more likely to support policies that would give the poor a leg up.

It’s the reverse of what one might expect. “People assume that those who had to climb the ladder better understand the struggle and therefore will be more sympathetic to the poor. Maybe they do understand, but the conclusion they come to is that it’s actually less of a struggle and thus less sympathy is in order,” said Prof. Shariff.