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.

Babies can be More Altruistic than Adults

A new study shows that most toddlers will help a stranger, even if it means giving up a delicious treat.


By Susan Pinker

Toddlers are innocent and sweet, but are they good? Pint-sized autocrats who wake up at dawn, expect food and drink on demand, say no to everything, and who can kick, scream and bite if they don’t get their way are called Terrible Twos for a reason.

A new study tells a different story. Published recently in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports, it shows that toddlers will offer up food they really want to a needy stranger. Most adults don’t show that kind of altruism.

The researchers, led by University of Washington post-doctoral scholar Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, made that discovery by testing 96 toddlers. In the first experiment, the child met an adult who was sitting behind a desk. (The desk was gated and the toddler stayed on the other side with a parent nearby, so they wouldn’t feel threatened.) The adult selected a piece of freshly cut strawberry, banana, blueberry or grape, which then suddenly slipped out of his hand and landed on a tray on the child’s side of the desk.

In the “begging experimenter” group, the adult acted dismayed, grasping the air impotently to get at the fruit. “He reaches for the yummy fruit, expresses the desire for it, but can’t get to it,” explained Andrew Meltzoff, one of the authors of the paper and the co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. In contrast, the control-group adult nonchalantly tossed the fruit onto the tray.

There was a clear difference in the toddlers’ reactions. In the begging experimenter group, almost 60% of them retrieved the fruit and promptly offered it to the experimenter. In the control group only 4% did the same.

The second experiment raised the stakes by asking parents to bring their children to the lab when they were hungry. In this case, though more of the toddlers in the “begging experimenter” group gave in to their urges and ate the fruit, about 38% of them still handed it over to the stranger. “They would pick up the banana, look at the banana and hover over it. Some hungry children would even bring it to their mouths,” said Prof. Meltzoff. “Though there’s a biological push to act selfishly, there’s a social motivation to give it to the begging stranger,” he said. That social motivation evaporated when the hungry toddlers in the control group saw the experimenter intentionally toss the fruit away: 0% of those babies gave it back.

The knack for reading others’ needs and being motivated to help fulfill them is a distinctly human trait. “Chimpanzees don’t give up food to a stranger,” said Dr. Cortes Barragan. Mother chimps won’t even offer prized bits of fruit to their own toddlers, according to a 2004 study. They eat the best morsels themselves and leave the stems and seeds for the babies. (For their part, toddler chimps just grab a dropped chunk of fruit and run with it.)

There are evolutionary reasons why human babies behave altruistically. By sharing food with strangers, they help to cement bonds with non-family members that hold the group together. But altruistic instincts can also be enhanced by experience, said Prof. Meltzoff. In this study, for instance, the fruit-sharers were slightly more likely to have siblings, and Asian and Latino babies shared more often than those from other backgrounds. “The value of interdependence is picked up by prelinguistic babies,” he said.

Prof. Meltzoff has now spent decades studying how infants grasp others’ intentions. But discovering that hungry babies will give up treats to a stranger still astonishes him. “These are young human beings, not even speaking in sentences. Yet they care about others and act altruistically toward them. We think babies are selfish, egocentric and a slave to their biological needs. But this study shows they’re not selfish. They’re social!”

Humans and Other Dancing Animals

A new study shows that chimps can move to a musical beat, suggesting that primates have danced for millions of years

By Susan Pinker

Most of us have heard of dancing bears or dogs that can do the samba. But those animals are trained to perform; none of our animal friends can spontaneously cut a rug. Or so I thought.

Now a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that chimpanzees exposed to electronic music will sway along with the beat. Like us, they are better at matching their moves to the music when they are standing, as opposed to sitting or crouching on all fours. But make no mistake, these chimps move in a way that looks an awful lot like dancing: “The chimpanzees mostly swayed their whole body, but rhythmic movements of body parts such as hand clapping or foot tapping were also observed,” the study reports.

Pan troglodytes, to use the scientific name for chimps, is one of our closest evolutionary ancestors. They have previously been known to bang rhythmically on tree trunks and to hoot and call to each other in a way that sounds like call-and-response singing. But the observation that chimps can move their bodies in time to music is new. It suggests that dancing has existed in higher-level primates—a group that would include us humans—for at least six million years. That’s roughly how long ago humans split off from other higher apes, like chimps.

The authors of the new study—Yuko Hattori, a researcher at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute, and Masaki Tomonaga, a professor of language and intelligence there—discovered this rhythmic ability by playing two-minute audio clips to seven chimps in their lab. The music sounds like a series of thrumming bass chords played on an electronic piano. The cadence and tempo of the recordings changed at regular intervals so that the researchers could assess whether the chimpanzees could sync their movements to what they were hearing.

Though the chimps in this study seemed like they were grooving to the beat, not all primatologists would call that dancing. “It depends on what is meant by dancing,” according to Richard Wrangham, a Harvard University anthropologist who is an authority on chimpanzees. “Jane Goodall called the male group displays given at the onset of rain or heavy wind ‘rain dances,’ but that seems an exaggerated use of the term,” he told me in an email. “I have seen horses and hartebeest respond to heavy rain by galloping about. The more conservative view that I prefer is that the capacity for dancing is more than six million years old.”

That capacity has been observed in other species too, like sea lions, bonobos and parrots. In fact, members of the parrot family, like budgies and cockatoos, are even better at syncing their movements to a beat than chimpanzees are, wrote Dr. Hattori.

Take Snowball the cockatoo, whose fancy footwork, timed to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” has become clickbait. After Harvard psychologist Aniruddh Patel saw videos of Snowball on YouTube, he decided to investigate. Given that parrots are superb mimics, could Snowball have been imitating someone outside the frame? Or was he trained to dance?

The answer to both questions was no: Snowball was independently bobbing his head and high-stepping to the song. Like Akira, the best dancer in the chimpanzee study, his brain seems wired for music. Clearly, our human brains also have evolved to sway, shimmy and shake our bodies along to music. But so far, anyway, we’re the only ones who know the words and can sing along.

New Evidence for the Power of Grit

A study of West Point cadets shows that perseverance is just as important to success as brains or brawn

West Point cadets in basic training in 2006. PHOTO: KATE KARWAN BURGESS/ZREPORTAGE.COM/ZUMA PRESS

When I think of grit, a childhood friend comes to mind. Six of us neighborhood girls walked to school together, but it was Linda who bore the brunt of the boys’ snowballs. Once there she faced bigger hurdles: Every week our third-grade teacher made her circle the classroom with a failed test pinned to her tunic. Still, Linda pushed on, not just at age 8 but for years, until she earned a Ph.D. in English.

This kind of perseverance is a necessary ingredient of success, according to Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who calls it “grit.”

In 2007, Dr. Duckworth and three colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showing that a brief questionnaire measuring grit could predict who would succeed in tough environments such as military academies, Ivy League schools and even high-stakes spelling bees. Prof. Duckworth and her team later extended the findings, showing that grittier people are more likely to stay the course in long-haul commitments such as marriage.

In every study, the researchers had benchmarks showing how gritty each participant was compared to the norm, based on their performance on the 12-item Grit Scale. Developed by Prof. Duckworth, the scale includes statements such as “Setbacks don’t discourage me” and “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” Each participant responded with one of five graded answers, from “very much like me” to “not like me at all.”

Still, some questions remained. Would the evidence about grit survive replication? Over the last decade, a slew of viscerally appealing findings published in top psychology journals couldn’t be reproduced when the same experiments were repeated with greater rigor or larger samples. So Prof. Duckworth and her colleagues at West Point and Duke University decided to redo one aspect of their first experiment using a sample seven times as large as the original, in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Nine cohorts comprising 11,258 cadets at West Point were assessed on their levels of grit, academic achievement and physical prowess, with the tests being repeated as the students progressed through college.

The replication was reassuring. “Our original finding was that grit was an extraordinarily strong predictor of who would finish the initial period of training,” Prof. Duckworth said, referring to the punishing six-week initiation period the military cadets call Beast Barracks, or Beast for short. “That replicated,” she said.

Hard work and determination are important, but do they outweigh natural smarts or athletic prowess?

The second question posed by this new study: How does grit relate to other traits, like talent? Hard work and determination are important, to be sure, but do they outweigh natural smarts or athletic prowess?

The researchers measured grit, academic achievement and physical ability, and discovered that “the three factors really are distinct,” Prof. Duckworth said. “The grittier people are not necessarily more able.” And the cognitively able did not have more grit, nor were they more physically adept. In fact, the opposite was true: When one trait went up, the other went down. Students with stratospheric levels of intelligence or physical prowess were less gritty, and thus somewhat less likely to graduate. At the high end of brains and brawn, completion rates dropped off—a paradox that merits its own study.

But overall, the most powerful forecast of a student’s grades at West Point was cognitive ability as assessed by standardized tests, a finding that confirms 100 years of intelligence research. “That’s what predicted military GPA,” Prof. Duckworth said. “Cognitive ability is being smart. It’s not hard to understand how that might help you with military strategy.” In other words, it’s the gritty folks who finish what they start. But it’s the smart ones who go to the top of the class.

Time Pressure Can Squeeze the Truth

A new study shows that quick responses to questions tend to be less honest than more deliberate ones.


By Susan Pinker

Oct. 31, 2019 4:21 pm ET

The idea that we have two minds, an authentic inner core and a false outer layer, is as ancient as Plato and as current as the new hit movie “Joker. ” If our real identities are packed away, hidden even from ourselves, we seldom reveal what we really think and instead cultivate appearances—or so many psychologists believe. According to this view, the best way to get people to tell the truth is by eliciting lightning-quick responses, before they can reflect and dissemble.

But this may not be so, says a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science. It found that people are more likely to lie about themselves when under time pressure. “Asking people to respond quickly just makes them give you the answer you want to hear,” said John Protzko, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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This finding, now replicated five times (twice by Dr. Protzko’s team, three times by independent labs), could undermine one of the bedrock assumptions of pop psychology: that speedy responses, like those described in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book “Blink,” can provide access to our hidden brains.

To test that notion, Dr. Protzko’s team randomly assigned 1,500 representative Americans to one of two groups. The “fast group” had to answer each of 10 questions within an 11-second time limit. The “slow group” got more time to reflect, as they had to wait at least 11 seconds before responding.

Both groups were given the same survey, a standardized test called the Social Desirability Scale, which measures the degree to which people describe themselves in socially acceptable terms. The scale includes personal statements such as “There have been times when I was quite jealous of the good fortune of others” and “I have never intensely disliked anyone.” By comparing an individual’s responses to these statements with the statistical average, researchers can capture how likely it is that they are fudging the truth to enhance their reputation.

Responses to these categorical statements were revealing. We expect people to show their hidden cards when buttonholed for a quick reaction. But the study found that we are about 30% more likely to lie about ourselves when rushed to respond. This result makes sense: In human societies, tit-for-tat-type exchanges grease the wheels of interpersonal interaction. Enhancing our reputations by presenting ourselves in the best possible light is the natural, quick and easy thing to do.

By contrast, defying social norms by admitting our faults takes not only more deliberation but also a more relaxed context—one often lacking in psychological research. People are more motivated to tell the unvarnished truth in non-judgmental environments than in the typical cinder-block, fluorescent-lit psychology lab, with a stopwatch ticking. If experimental psychology hopes to capture our true, unamplified selves, it may have to reproduce environments and time-frames that allow us to let our guard down.

As Dr. Protzko observed, many studies “assume that putting people under time pressure gives you access to a hidden part of the mind. But we’re finding that they’re just lying. They’re giving you the answer that makes them look best.” He adds, “When you make people answer quickly, everyone lies.”

The moral of the study? If you want the truth, you have to be willing to wait for it.

Pessimism about Social Mobility


By Susan Pinker

The expectation that every generation will be better educated, earn more and live in a nicer home than their parents is the essence of the American dream. The formula largely worked for Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Do we still expect it to? A paper published this summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences set out to answer that question.

“I study how children are doing in relation to their parents,” said sociologist Siwei Cheng of New York University, the study’s lead author. “And America is not doing that well, compared to other Western countries.” In Canada, for instance, the chances of a low-income child entering the middle class are twice as great as they are in the U.S. The question that Prof. Cheng sought to answer is whether Americans still believe in the American dream. “Are Americans really that optimistic about mobility?”

Prof. Cheng and Fangqi Wen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford, polled the attitudes of 3,077 American adults. Each participant was asked to consider the prospects of a child whose family’s income was in a specific percentile, compared to all American families. A computer spat out a randomly generated income rank, and the participant would estimate how much a child growing up in such a family would earn as a 40-year-old. The next step was to compare subjects’ perceptions to what up-to-date tax data tell us about the actual earnings of someone from such a family.

Americans underestimate the future earnings of children from poor families and overestimate the future earnings of children from middle and upper class families.

This comparison revealed a disconnect: Americans underestimate the future earnings of children from poor families and overestimate the future earnings of children from middle and upper class families. “The reality is that there is indeed a [mobility] gap, by international standards. But what people have in their mind is a larger gap, in terms of how rich and poor kids will do. They’re pessimistic about equality of opportunity,” said Prof. Cheng. To be precise, “the American public perceives the gap in economic outcomes between children from rich and poor families to be twice as large as it actually is.”

The researchers also discovered some surprising demographic divides. College-educated adults estimated a larger opportunity gap than those without a degree. Liberals were more pessimistic than conservatives, younger people more pessimistic than those over 30, and those earning between $30,000 and $100,000 a year more pessimistic than everyone else. In other words, middle-class, educated Americans see less reason for hope about social mobility than the rest of the population.

So much for the American dream.

The study doesn’t try to identify the sources of this pessimism, but we can hazard some guesses. It could be that the squeeze on middle-class jobs and incomes over the past generation has undermined middle-class faith in advancement. In addition, the suspicion of inequality in American society may lead people to assume that the children of the wealthy are getting a free pass, while the children of the poor must be even more hobbled by their reduced chances.

Whatever the reason, if Americans no longer believe that children who start near the bottom can make it to the top—or even to the middle—a good first step is to reconcile our attitudes with the data. There is more upward mobility in America than most of us think, but unless we want to start calling it the Canadian dream, there’s still a long way to go.




When Taking Risks Is the Best Strategy

Research on fishing fleets shows that in the face of scarce resources, trying new approaches can bring big rewards


One way to divide up the world is between people who like to explore new possibilities and those who stick to the tried and true. In fact, the tension between betting on a sure thing and taking a chance that something unexpected and wonderful might happen bedevils human and nonhuman animals alike.

Take songbirds, for example. The half-dozen finches perching at my deck feeder all summer know exactly what they’ll find there: black sunflower seed, and lots of it. Meanwhile, the warblers exploring the woods nearby don’t depend on this predictable food source in fine weather. As foragers, they enjoy other advantages: a more varied diet, less exposure to predators and, as a bonus, the chance to meet the perfect mate flitting from tree to tree.

This “explore-exploit” trade-off has prompted scores of lab studies, computer simulations and algorithms, trying to determine which strategy yields the greatest reward. Now a new study of human behavior in the real world, published last month in Nature Communications, shows that in good times, there’s not much difference between pursuing novelty and sticking to the status quo. When times are tough, however, explorers are the winners.

The new study, led by Shay O’Farrell and James Sanchirico, both of the University of California, Davis, along with Orr Spiegel of Tel Aviv University, examined the routes and results of nearly 2,500 commercial fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 2½ years. The study focused on “bottom longline” fishing, a system where hundreds of lines are attached to a horizontal bar that is then lowered to reach the sea bed. Dr. O’Farrell explained the procedure this way: “Go to a location and put the line down. Stay for a few hours. The lines are a mile long and have a buoy at either end. When they pull that up, they assess the catch, then decide if they will stay or move on to a different spot.”

Over two years of collecting data under various climate conditions, the researchers discovered that the fishermen were fairly consistent. “The exploiters would go to a smaller set of locations over and over, and go with what they know,” Dr. O’Farrell said. “The explorers would consistently try a wider range; they’d sample new places.”

The payoffs were clear. The explorers benefited from their prior knowledge of alternatives—and their ability to take risks—when the going got tough. For instance, while the study was under way, some prime fishing grounds were unexpectedly closed to protect their population of endangered sea turtles. Those who explored alternative sites had other options when their usual fishing grounds were suddenly off limits. Unlike the exploiters, “they didn’t have to start from ground zero to gain the knowledge they needed” when conditions changed, said Dr. O’Farrell. At the very least, they were more likely to continue to fish during an upheaval.

Similarly, the immediate impact of storms didn’t disrupt the explorers as much as it did those who cleaved to their routine. In the long run, there wasn’t a huge difference between the two groups, perhaps due to the sharing of information between fishing crews, said Dr. O’Farrell. But in challenging times, the study’s message was clear: “You can try new things in the face of uncertainty.”