Children Need Teachers They Can Trust

New research shows that a warm relationship with a teacher can help at-risk preschoolers thrive.



By Susan Pinker

After a year of online learning, how do you quantify the benefits of sitting in a real classroom, taught by a flesh-and-blood teacher? This question should be front and center for parents concerned about infection risk. Is the proximity worth it?

For vulnerable small children, the answer is a resounding yes. The opportunity to form a trusting relationship with a teacher is the best predictor of high-functioning among preschoolers who are at risk, according to a new study of homeless youngsters. “The study includes children we don’t know a lot about, children who are doubled-up”—that is, in families who are living with others because they lack resources to obtain their own housing. “These are kids who are a little more invisible,” said Mary Haskett, the lead author and a psychology professor at North Carolina State University.

The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that 1.4 million American children under age 6 were homeless in 2017-2018, a record high. The number has surely climbed due to pandemic-related job loss, but the rise of remote learning makes it harder to track. “There are no eyes or ears of teachers to see signs of homelessness, no buses to reroute, no places for quiet conversations with parents,” said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit devoted to reducing homelessness.

Upheaval and the loss of stability, privacy, and reliable access to the internet typically bounce many homeless children into a red zone, research shows. Yet a significant proportion do exceedingly well in school, and Prof. Haslett wanted to know why. “What are the protective factors? If we identify the buffers, we can promote resilience,” she said. For the study, which took place pre-pandemic, her research team began by selecting 314 “doubled-up” children in Head Start classrooms. Information about student performance was gathered through parent and teacher surveys, classroom observations and individual child assessments.

About two-thirds of these preschoolers made friends easily and learned well in the classroom. Despite their unstable living conditions, they seemed to be humming along nicely. The remaining one third showed various degrees of difficulty. Only 3.2% of the group was classified as “struggling.”

Success turned out to be tied to the quality of the bond between child and teacher—specifically, the degree of warmth and affection between them. “The probability of a child being classified as resilient increased dramatically as the quality of teacher relationships increased,” Dr. Haskett wrote.

It’s not the first time that a good teacher emerged as the most powerful predictor of a child’s success. In a landmark 2011 study of 2.5 million American students, a superb middle-school teacher presaged a preteen’s ability to finish college, live in a good neighborhood and earn more over a lifetime.

In this study we can’t say for sure what comes first, school success or relationships with teachers. Perhaps the teachers were responding to existing qualities in the thrivers—or as Tom Boyce, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, calls them, “dandelions.” In his 2019 book “The Orchid and the Dandelion,” Dr. Boyce refers to the 80% of children who can grow and succeed nearly anywhere as “dandelions,” while the 20% who are exquisitely sensitive to their environment he calls ”orchids.”

No matter the flower, “there’s an abundance of evidence that a teacher’s influence is very strong,” Dr. Boyce said, and I agree. When family life is uncertain, there’s nothing like a trusted teacher to help a child feel that the world is turning as it should.

A Live Feed of the Arguing Brain

Using novel imaging techniques, researchers can see how agreement and opposition stimulate our neurons in different ways.



By Susan Pinker

Most people would agree that verbal sparring feels more taxing than simply nodding and agreeing. Defending a position while attacking your opponent’s is stressful. So how does the human brain register that tension?

Until recently, no one knew. Capturing in-the-moment psychological states has long been the role of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. As miraculous as this brain imaging technology can be, the machines can accommodate just one person. As such, they are not ideal for assessing the social brain.

Joy Hirsch, a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, and a team of colleagues and students came up with a workaround that allowed them to peer under the metaphorical hoods of two people while they were interacting. The team used an alternative neuroimaging method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, which deploys light to capture the changing energy requirements of the brain. Instead of lying alone and immobile inside a massive electronic doughnut, as happens with fMRI, fNIRS simply requires the conversation partners to don wired-up bathing caps. They are out in the open, free to gesticulate and move naturally.

In a study published last month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dr. Hirsch and colleagues used this technique to assess the neural function of two people discussing controversial topics such as same-sex marriage and the death penalty. They discovered that “there’s a profound difference between our brains when we’re arguing versus when we’re agreeing,” Dr. Hirsch told me. It’s not just that arguing takes more effort; the difference is also qualitative, recruiting different swaths of neural real estate.

When the two participants agreed, an unexpected brain synchrony emerged. “There’s more looking at each other’s faces, there’s more social, sensory and motor cortex involvement,” Dr. Hirsch said. But when they argued, “there’s more engagement of the language and cognitive areas of the brain. A massive amount of thinking and strategizing goes on during disagreement.”

The study involved 38 people under age 30 who were recruited through fliers distributed around the Yale campus. Though the participants were all Yale students, their backgrounds were diverse and many had opposing opinions on controversial topics.

The researchers divided the subjects up into pairs and asked them to discuss an issue where they concurred and another on which they held opposing views. Each participant argued for their point of view while wearing a cap studded with fNIRS sensors for detecting shifts in blood flow in the brain, as well as a head-mounted camera and a microphone.

The study’s most striking finding was that when people agreed with each other, “their gestures, their facial expressions and their neural signals matched,” said Dr. Hirsch. The activity in their respective social and attentional neural networks and visual fields, as well as the engagement of the bits of the cortex that control touch, posture and empathy, began to mirror each other. Researchers call it neural coupling.

It should come as no surprise that there were fewer neural look-alikes during disagreements. When two brains are in conflict, Dr. Hirsch said, they engage many emotional and cognitive resources, like a symphony orchestra playing two different scores, whereas in agreement, the social interaction between them is more like a musical duet. “If synchrony is the hallmark of agreement, then through eye contact, gestures and the sensory system, perhaps certain topics might become less charged,” she ventured. One can only hope.

Do Dogs Really Make Us Happier?

New research shows that the psychological benefits of dog ownership are real —and especially valuable during the pandemic.

Person with dog

Owning a dog promotes the flow of oxytocin, a hormone that fosters feelings of well-being. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES


By Susan Pinker

Last summer my life was upended when I was given an oversize 4-month-old puppy for my birthday. Otis’s arrival created joy and anxiety in equal measure. Already well into the pandemic, my husband and I wondered what effect this shaggy, disoriented creature would have on us. Would he provide comfort? Or would his chewing, nipping, soiling, lunging and barking only multiply our stresses?

By April 2020, the adoption rate for dogs in the U.S. had increased by more than 30%, according to Sara Kent, CEO of the nonprofit database Shelter Animals Count. By year’s end, spending on pet care and supplies had reached a record $99 billion. Lots of Americans expect dogs to lift their spirits, it seems.

We’re not alone: A new study of the human-dog relationship during the early days of the pandemic, by Liat Morgan and her research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of British Columbia, found that in Israel, too, dog adoptions ramped up as social and economic restrictions increased. Disasters like earthquakes and floods usually prompt people to give up their pets, but the study found that during the pandemic, far fewer people relinquished their pets to shelters—a trend echoed in the U.S., said Ms. Kent.

I soon became besotted with Otis, who is now an 80-pound adolescent. Still, I wanted some proof: Do pets really reduce our loneliness and make us feel happier?

In 2019, a study led by Lauren Powell, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at whether getting a dog improved the owner’s activity level, cardiovascular health and psychological state. The researchers used advertising and social media to recruit 71 people living in Sydney, Australia, and separated them by inclination: People who planned to get a dog within a month, people who wanted a dog but agreed to wait until after the study was complete, and people who had no interest in ever acquiring a dog.

All participants were evaluated at three junctures: at baseline; three months later, after those in the first group got a dog; and again after eight months. Each time they were poked, prodded and scanned to test their physical activity, substance use and cardiovascular levels. Their psychological states were checked too, via standardized evaluations of anxiety, loneliness and depression. The researchers then compared the dog-owners to members of the two dogless control groups, statistically manipulating factors such as education, age and appetite for exercise, to make sure that the canine alone accounted for any differences.

The results showed that after three months, people with dogs walked 2,589 more steps a day than the control groups. “But at eight months there was a drop-off, so the difference was no longer significant,” said Dr. Powell, speculating that “people were really excited at first, but maybe the novelty wore off.”

The psychological impact of a dog packed a bigger punch. “Basically we found that the loneliness in the group that got a dog decreased by 40% and stayed at that lower level at eight months,” said Dr. Powell.

But how exactly do dogs make us happier? In a previous study, Dr. Powell’s group had shown that owning a dog promotes the flow of oxytocin, a hormone that decreases our heart rate and fosters feelings of well-being and relaxation. Plus, she adds, dogs “encourage their owners to get out in nature, maintain a sense of routine, and stay in touch with their neighbors. All the things that benefit our mental health in normal times are just more important during Covid.”

I’m a witness, and couldn’t agree more.

A Musical Cure for Covid-Related Stress and Sadness

New research shows that playing or listening to music is the most effective way to cope with the lockdown blues.



By Susan Pinker

Nov. 25, 2020 3:26 pm ET

What’s the most popular fix for the Covid-19 blues? The Italians and Spaniards who ventured out onto their balconies last March to sing and play instruments have at least part of the answer. Emerging evidence shows that the more the world gets us down, the better music feels.

So says a new study involving 1,000 participants from the U.S., Europe and Latin America. Carried out by Pablo Ripollés and Michael McPhee of New York University in collaboration with Robert Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University, the study looked at what people considered their most effective coping mechanisms during the shelter-in-place orders at the beginning of the pandemic last spring.

The researchers began by assessing how profoundly the pandemic affected each participant. Did that person get very sick? Did they lose a spouse, a parent, a friend or a job? How anxious did they feel? The researchers then looked at which activities worked best to lift people’s moods. Sex and drugs were among the 43 options participants could choose from, along with exercise, cooking, social media, video calls and various types of entertainment.

The participants, who were fairly representative of their countries in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and social status, also completed standardized personality tests, as well a questionnaire designed to assess their sensitivity to rewards. “The sensitivity to reward questionnaire assesses how much enjoyment you get out of certain activities. It could be eating, sex, staying in the shower or smelling the flowers,” said Prof. Zatorre. In addition, the participants completed a survey assessing their emotional expressivity, or how readily they reveal their feelings.

The study found that music, exercise and entertainment were the most potent stress relievers for the greatest number of people. But of those three activities, music—singing, dancing, playing an instrument, or just listening to a favorite playlist—was the only one that led to a reduction of depression symptoms. A fifth of all the participants reported it as the most effective way to reduce their pandemic-induced blues. Music’s palliative effects were particularly potent for people who were highly sensitive to rewards.

“That’s super interesting,” said Prof. Zatorre, “because as a neuroscientist, I’ve known for quite some time that music provokes pleasure. When we scan your brain [while you listen to music], we can see dopamine molecules released in the striatum and the ventral striatum. Fifty years ago, when you gave a hungry rat food, you saw that response in the striatum,” Prof. Zatorre explained, inferring that humans are similarly wired to get visceral pleasure from music. “Now we find that the more pleasure you get from music, the more it reduces your depression symptoms.”

Cooking, baking and eating also helped tamp down the blues, especially for people who find it easy to express their emotions, the study showed. Though the study didn’t address why that is, one possibility is that cooking provides a creative outlet when emotions are running high and so many external venues have been closed. “Cooking might allow you to cope with the stress that you are feeling without burying it,” wrote Prof. Ripollés, one of the paper’s authors.

This study is so new it hasn’t been published yet, so it hasn’t been peer-reviewed. Plus, it hinges on participants’ self-assessment; there’s no independent party measuring whether people’s depression symptoms did, in fact, abate. But for now, these preliminary data suggest that music and food might well cure what ails us, especially in these turbulent times.

Appeared in the November 28, 2020, print edition as ‘A Musical Cure For Pandemic Sadness.’

The Lasting Benefits of Preschool

A new study confirms that pre-K education gives young children significant advantages in language, literacy and math skills

Children who attend preschool are far more likely to graduate from college. PHOTO: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES


By Susan Pinker

Oct. 22, 2020 10:57 am ET

Multiple studies show that going to preschool gives young children a leg up on all kinds of learning, not just academics but social skills, listening, planning and self-control. But how big is that early boost and how long does it last? The answer matters because, despite bipartisan support for early childhood education, preschool is unevenly funded in the U.S., resulting in lower levels of attendance than in other countries. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, 34% of American 4-year-olds attended preschool last year. Compare that with 60% in Canada and 90% in the EU.

A new study published in the journal Developmental Psychology clarifies some of the differences between children who go to preschool and those who stay home. Though the researchers didn’t randomly assign children to each group, they ensured that the preschool attenders and nonattenders were demographically similar. The 2,581 children in the study lived in the same ethnically diverse U.S. county, and all came from families whose income put them below the poverty line, making them eligible for subsidized pre-kindergarten. A quarter of the families received public assistance and 10% had no full-time wage earner.

Researchers measured how attenders and nonattenders stacked up against each other at the beginning and the end of kindergarten. In general, they found that “children who attended pre-K outperformed the others in terms of language and literacy and math. We’re talking about the very basics,” said Arya Ansari, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of human sciences at Ohio State University.

At the beginning of kindergarten, preschool attenders were far more advanced than nonattenders on assessments of vocabulary, background knowledge, letter identification, short-term memory and other areas. For example, the pre-K attenders were approximately 8 months ahead of nonattenders in academic learning and about 5 months ahead in executive function skills, such as listening, planning and self-control.

By the end of kindergarten, the nonattenders were beginning to catch up, but more in some subjects than others. Eighty percent of the starting gap in pre-literacy skills was erased by the first year of instruction, but only 55% of the gap in math skills and 45% in general knowledge. Given that all subjects in a classroom were taught by the same teacher, the disparity can be attributed to the nature of the subjects themselves, as opposed to the quality of the teaching. Other independent factors such as the child’s feelings about the teacher or the amount of attention they received were assessed and controlled for by the researchers.

And the advantage of preschool attenders may actually increase as they get further away from kindergarten. Earlier studies on the impact of preschool programs have often shown lukewarm results in the first few years, but decades later, dramatic sleeper effects emerge. Even when controlling for their parents’ income and education levels, preschool attenders have been found to be less likely to become teenage parents or receive public assistance and far more likely to graduate from college and get good jobs as young adults.

Childhood isn’t a race, of course. Still, the pace of learning is important because knowledge builds on itself. Think of any skill: playing the piano, shooting hoops, driving a car—even impulse control. It’s almost never too late to start, but the earlier you do—within limits—the better your chances of getting better all the time, as Paul McCartney put it.

The (Gifted) Kids Are All Right

A new study suggests that teenagers who take challenging courses and skip grades are happy and well-adjusted in later life, contrary to stereotypes

Jim Parsons as socially inept genius Sheldon on ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ PHOTO: RICHARD CARTWRIGHT/CBS/GETTY IMAGES


By Susan Pinker

Sept. 17, 2020 12:52 pm ET

What do Lady Gaga, Rep. Katie Porter of California and Fields Medal-winning mathematician Terence Tao have in common? As teenagers, they were all selected to participate in programs for the gifted and talented. Or they got the chance to enter college early. Or both.

It’s widely thought that being identified as different or skipping ahead academically at a young age comes at a social cost. “There is the belief that individuals who are academically talented are emotionally vulnerable, and changes in routine such as grade-skipping will trigger that vulnerability,” says Frank Worrall, director of the school psychology program at the University of California, Berkeley. Examples abound in popular culture, he notes, citing the brilliant but socially inept main characters in the TV series “The Big Bang Theory.” In this view, it’s better for gifted children to stay in class with their age-mates instead of being bumped up a grade or challenged by an advanced curriculum.

But the idea that intellectual prowess makes young people vulnerable snowflakes is a myth, according to fresh data collected and analyzed by David Lubinski and Camila Benbow, professors of psychology and education at Vanderbilt, who have followed the lives of gifted kids for decades. In a study published last month in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the two professors, along with doctoral student Brian Bernstein, followed over 1,600 highly gifted American teenagers who were identified in the 1970s and ‘80s as among the top 1% in their age group in math and verbal abilities. These students were selected for advanced educational opportunities before they graduated from high school. Did early acceleration interfere with their happiness in the long term?

To answer that question, the researchers looked at how these students are doing at age 50. Using several standardized tests, the team found that there was no relationship between an accelerated academic program—such as being targeted for an enrichment program, skipping a grade, entering college early or taking an outsize number of AP courses in high school—and the students’ ultimate psychological balance.

In a second study conducted by the same team to see if their findings would replicate, nearly 500 former teen participants in Vanderbilt’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth were assessed at age 25, when they were first- or second-year doctoral students in science in prestigious American universities, and then again at age 50, when they were well-ensconced in their careers. The results showed once again that early academic acceleration did not predict later maladjustment. In fact, “this group had scores that were above average on psychological well-being…on psychological flourishing, positive affect and life satisfaction,” according to the paper.

I asked Dr. Lubinski whether qualms about the educational privileges enjoyed by gifted students make his findings contentious. “People say, why are you studying the top 1%. They wouldn’t say that about studying schizophrenia,” which affects the same percentage of the population, he replied. “We talk about celebrating diversity. If you look at special populations that require different opportunities for optimal development, the gifted are members of that group.”

Dr. Lubinski also notes that “the funny thing about a lot of giftedness education is that it doesn’t cost any extra. All it requires is providing kids with resources at an earlier age.” And all of society has an interest in making sure these students flourish: “When you think of fighting pandemics, cybersecurity or climate change, you’re looking at the top 1%. That’s why this is important—they have the greatest potential to solve these problems.”

As a Communications Medium, Email Ranks Low and Sows Doubt

Face-to-face meetings, video chats and phone calls all beat email when it comes to perceptions of authenticity, a study shows



By Susan Pinker

Aug. 13, 2020 12:02 pm ET

The medium is the message, wrote the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in 1964. TV, print and radio don’t all convey the same meaning, even if the script they’re using is identical, he argued. But if that’s true, how can we take what we see, read and hear at face value? That question is even more apt now that we have so many novel technologies for communicating. It’s easy for the message to misfire if we get the technology wrong.

A recent study adds weight to that argument. Published this month in the Journal of Applied Psychology, it shows that email is perceived to be the least authentic way to interact. “It’s seen as lower effort,” says author Andrew Brodsky, an assistant professor of management at the University of Texas, Austin. “If something is easy to fake, we don’t trust it. And email has a base rate of being the most inauthentic.”

Prof. Brodsky did three studies to reach that conclusion, one involving 519 full-time American employees, another with 400 American managers, and a third with 600-odd parents and teachers of students at an international school. How is someone in each of these contexts perceived when communicating via email, telephone, video chat or in a face-to-face encounter?

Realistic scenarios were presented to the 1,500-plus subjects, who then had to evaluate the credibility of the sender. If the message is identical, how sincere does the sender seem to be when communicating via email versus telephone, for example? How ruthless a negotiator? How much effort did the sender seem to invest in the interaction?

The best way to communicate turns out to depend on how transparent you want to be about your emotions. “If you have nothing to hide, the richest medium is best,” said Prof. Brodsky—a face-to-face meeting if possible, a video chat when it’s not. “But if you have to fake it, you’d choose email,” he added, because “there’s less emotional leakage.”

Emotional leakage sounds like something to be avoided at all costs, like a toxic spill. But the reality, according to this study, is more nuanced. The more heartfelt emotion you reveal when you use technology to get your message across, the more authentic and trustworthy people perceive you to be, Prof. Brodsky explained.

Still, there’s a tradeoff between showing one’s emotions and mastering them in a professional context. In some situations it’s graceless to reveal your true feelings. Let’s say your colleague’s promotion to a managerial position makes you feel envious, if not downright annoyed and vindictive—a scenario explored in the study involving employees. Showing your cards wouldn’t be advised when attempting to congratulate your teammate. In person or on a video call “your emotions leak through. People can figure it out. With telephone, it’s easier to hide that you’re faking it,” said Prof. Brodsky.

“Telephone is the best if you have to be inauthentic. It’s a nice middle ground,” he added. “Email is seen as massively inauthentic in comparison.” Email is the best form of communication for hiding your true colors and the worst in terms of how honest the sender is perceived to be, the study shows.

That finding rings true to me. At high and low moments in my life, an email of congratulations or condolence didn’t cut it—especially from my intimates. Tapping out a message seemed cheap. So what about texts or messages on social media? Previous research has found that comforting texts do nothing to relieve a loved one’s stress, and seeking solace from social media makes a person feel worse than she did before. The solution now is likely the same as it was in Marshall McLuhan’s day. Just pick up the phone and call.

How You Feel Depends on Where You Are

New research uses GPS data from cell phones to draw connections between people’s location and their mood.



By Susan Pinker

July 9, 2020 12:20 pm ET

Do the places where we choose to spend time have any part in shaping our personalities? The answer lies in the GPS data captured by nearly every app on our phones, according to a new study by Sandra Matz, a computational scientist at Columbia Business School, and Gabriella Harari, a social psychologist at Stanford.

The study, published in June in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that people’s persisting characteristics as well as their fleeting states of mind can be reliably predicted by the geographic breadcrumbs they leave behind. “Where you are tells us something about who you are and how you currently feel about yourself. And that’s not something you necessarily want to reveal to everyone,” said Prof. Matz.

The researchers began by assessing the personalities of nearly 2,000 university students. Participants answered 44 questions, using a scale of 1 to 5 to rate their agreement with statements such as “I can be moody,” “I do a thorough job” and “I am sometimes shy and inhibited.” The goal was to estimate how the students’ assessment of their own temperaments aligned with the “big five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The researchers then kept tabs on the students’ locations, along with their thoughts and feelings, over a two-week period. (Data collection took place before the pandemic.) Four times a day, the participants were pinged on their smartphones. At each alert, they (and their phones) recorded their location, noting if they were at one of 12 commonly visited places, including a cafe, a friend’s place, the gym, their apartment, a class, a store, a religious environment, work or a party.

The students also answered five questions pertaining to their current state of mind, choosing among adjectives such as quiet, considerate, anxious, upset and lazy. These in-the-moment psychological states were averaged over the two weeks of tracking.

The researchers discovered that people’s longstanding psychological traits predict where they will spend their time. No surprise there: Under normal circumstances, it makes sense that our personalities dictate where we will be. Extroverts prefer bars, cafes, parties and restaurants, while introverts prefer to cocoon with their laptops at home.

What’s intriguing, especially now that so many people are stuck at home, is that the places we find ourselves in also shape us. ”Controlling for a person’s personality, we also saw that many of the places they spent time in affected how they thought and felt in the moment,” said Prof. Harari. “People feel more extroverted, more agreeable, more conscientious, when they are in other places, compared to when they are at home,” she said, while “people feel more disorganized and chaotic when they are at home.”

That’s a finding business leaders might ponder as they consider whether to make remote working the norm after the pandemic subsides. When people spent time in social environments, they also felt more compassionate, open-minded and kind compared to when they were at home.

Without doing a controlled experiment, the authors can’t prove which comes first, our personalities or the environments we consistently choose. Still, these findings confirm what many of us are feeling after nearly four months of lockdown. Whether frazzled or lonely, “our data suggest that if you just change your environment, you can change your psychological experience,” said Prof. Harari. Socially distant tennis, anyone?

Does Bilingualism Make You Smarter?

New research suggests that speaking a second language doesn’t affect overall intelligence, upending the conventional wisdom

Hello - Hello Bonjour



By Susan Pinker

May 21, 2020 12:58 pm ET

Perfect fluency in a second language can make someone seem so worldly and intelligent. But does knowing more than one language really make a person smarter?

The answer is a matter of debate, and the pendulum has swung back and forth. In the first half of the 20th century, hearing two languages at the same time was considered to be a bewildering experience for small children. In fact, many experts thought that speech delays and cultural confusion would be inevitable; bilingual education would thus create social and cognitive Frankensteins, as two psycholinguists put it.

But by the time I was a psychology student in the late 1970s, an about-face was under way. Early exposure to two languages was considered not a handicap but a cognitive advantage. My professors at McGill University, Wallace Lambert and Fred Genesee, published reams of studies showing that truly bilingual children did better than monolingual children on intelligence tests, were more able to inhibit unwanted thoughts and actions, and were more sophisticated abstract thinkers.

Now the consensus is changing again. A vast online study published last month in the journal Psychological Science suggests that bilingualism can be handy but doesn’t make you a whit more intelligent.

“If you ask people on the street, they will say that people who speak two or more languages are smarter,” said Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario and a senior author of the study. “I’m interested in challenging intuitive ideas. It’s fun to take on a bit of folk psychology.”

Emily Nichols, the lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Western Ontario, told me that the study enlisted 11,000 people to complete 12 online cognitive tests. Participants included “people who hadn’t finished high school and others with professional degrees.” The researchers then selected 372 pairs comprising one bilingual and one monolingual subject, matching people who were equivalent in age, education, income and gender. Satisfied that they had controlled for these confounding factors, the researchers compared the performance of the pair in online tests of their intelligence.

The study found almost no cognitive differences between people who speak just one language and those who said they speak at least two. Bilinguals had a slight leg up on Digit Span, a task that requires a person to remember increasingly long strings of numbers by heart. Otherwise, the performance of the two groups was a wash.

That “no difference” finding might be partly explained by the fact that the study “treated all bilinguals as a single group,” said Prof. Genesee. In a 2015 study, he and his colleagues looked at neural differences between children who learned two languages simultaneously in infancy and those who learned a second language later. The very early learners, Prof. Genesee said, “engaged neural areas related to language but also areas of executive control,” such as planning and problem solving.

The degree of mastery of a second language also matters, said Richard Haier, author of “The Neuroscience of Intelligence” and a professor emeritus in pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine. “Proficiency can range from barely adequate to excellent; lumping everyone into the same group obscures effects.”

Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, as the aphorism goes. We don’t know all the details about this new study’s participants, so we can’t yet close the book on whether their bilingualism boosts their smarts. But there are clearly other benefits, said Prof. Owen: “You can speak to more people, qualify for more jobs and fall in love with more people.” And for most of us, that’s enough.

The Emotional Benefits of Getting Older

New research shows that older people enjoy greater emotional steadiness and self-control.


By Susan Pinker

There is no doubt that the coronavirus confinement has filled us with dread. It is also rife with temptation. The constant thrum of competing urges punctuates our days: We can work or we can scroll through our social media feeds and email. We can snack, drink coffee, eat, nap, take the dog for a walk and then work some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. With so much unstructured time on our hands, how do we control our urges, and who is likely to be best at the task?

According to a new study, the younger the adult, the worse they are at controlling their impulses. Published in the journal Emotion last month, the study shows that “the biggest predictor of successfully resisting your desires is age,” said Daisy Burr, the lead author and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Duke University.

You may be wondering whether time just erodes our urges so that there’s not much left to resist as we age. Nope. A study published in 2016 found that strong desires for leisure, sleep and sex, among other pleasures, endure at least until age 55. “What is even more interesting was that older adults also experience stronger desires than younger people. Yet they are still much better at resisting them,” Ms. Burr added.

Three times a day, the researchers sent smartphone alerts to the study’s participants, 122 adults between 20 and 80 years of age. Whenever their phones pinged, the participants had to rate how they were feeling and whether they were experiencing hankerings for food, drink, alcohol, cigarettes, social contact, entertainment, shopping, sex, sleep, social media, tobacco, drugs, exercise or work. They were asked to rate how powerful their urges were, from no desire at all to irresistible, and how much conflict they felt before giving in to their impulses or resisting them.

These repeated assessments continued for 10 days. “When you measure people multiple times a day you get how much they change from hour to hour,“ said Gregory Samanez-Larkin, one of the authors of the study and a professor of psychology at Duke. He wanted the study to reflect the emotional ups and downs of real people as they moved through their day, not just volunteers who come into a university lab, who may be happier and healthier than other people in the first place. How their moods affect their ability to tamp down their desires was another big question, he said.

Prof. Samanez-Larkin explained that previous experiments had shown that older people tend to be happier, and the new study confirmed that finding: “People at older ages had more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, and their emotional experiences were more consistent.” But which age group was more emotionally solid and showed better mastery of their urges? “The people who experience the most emotional instability are in their 20s,” he said, a volatility that gradually declines with every decade.

Though older people experienced intense desires, they were also more expert at delaying gratification when they put their minds to it. “It’s effortful,” said Prof. Samanez-Larkin. “I think older adults know when it really matters. It’s like choosing your battles.”

The study is small and tells us less about a specific generation—such as whether Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers are more impulsive or happier—and more about what happens in every generation. Just as we’re gradually losing our hair, our short-term memories and our athletic prowess, we gradually gain emotional stability, life satisfaction and self-control. And that’s a pretty good trade-off.