In my eyes, my friend John is a smart, capable, and talented individual. I’m confident in his ability to progress towards and eventually accomplish all of his goals—but that’s not to say he hasn’t experienced his fair share of setbacks. John applied to a handful of jobs this past summer, yet he failed to secure a single interview with a potential employer.

He was understandably discouraged and disheartened, but my confidence in his abilities did not falter. A few months later, he finally scored an interview and was offered his dream job on the spot. “I knew you could do it!” I told him with a proud smile.

My view of John did not change after he told me the bad news—he was still the smart, capable guy I’ve always know. However, my view did change after he shared with me the good news; I saw him as an even more brilliant human than before. Why is that? Well, it’s due to a little something called optimism bias. Past research has shown that humans can be overly optimistic, particularly when it comes to their own life; but recent research shows that this optimism bias extends beyond just the self.

This new study “Concern for Others Leads to Vicarious Optimism,” which was conducted by researchers at City, University of London, Oxford University, and Yale University, says that we are more likely to change our beliefs about others after hearing good news, but rarely change our beliefs after receiving bad news. This proved true for both strangers and loved ones—however, the more we care for an individual, the stronger this bias is and the more likely we are to change our views to reflect the good.

The researchers narrowed in on a mechanism called “good news/bad news effect,” which is the tendency to change our views based on new information, be it good or bad. We typically update our beliefs after hearing good news, but refuse to alter our views upon hearing bad news because we want to feel good about ourselves. These researchers showed that we also want to feel good about the people we care about after recruiting and observing over 1,100 participants across five experiments.

In each of these experiments, participants were told to imagine a given unfortunate event happening to a friend or stranger. After doing so, they had to guess the probability of the event actually taking place. Then, they were told the real likelihood of the negative event occurring. Sometimes the subjects were given good news, whereas the friend or stranger had lower chances of actually experiencing said event than they had predicted, and at others they received bad news, in which the odds were higher than expected.

To measure and understand how people take this good and bad news into consideration, the researchers gave the participants another chance to guess the likelihood of an ill-fated event happening to stranger or friend. They discovered an interesting pattern in belief change: the optimism bias was stronger the more a participant cared about the individual. However, the subjects also showed vicarious optimism for a stranger when presented with initial information that showed he or she was a good person.

Dr. Andreas Kappes led this study while at Oxford University and is currently a lecturer at City, University of London in the Department of Psychology. She explains her team’s findings further: “Our research shows that we see not only our own lives through rose-tinted glasses, but also the lives of those we care about. What we found is that participants showed vicarious optimism when learning about the outcomes affecting others they care about, updating their beliefs less in response to bad news compared to good news. But this optimism did not stop with friends—it also extended to strangers when learning about their future.”

Sources:
University of Oxford (2018, February 5). Viewing Ourselves, and Others, Through Rose Tinted Glasses. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 5, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/vicarious-optimism-psychology-8430/

Kappes, A., Faber, N. S., Kahane, G., Savulescu, J., & Crockett, M. J (2018, January 30). Concern for Others Leads to Vicarious Optimism. Psychological Science. Retrieved on February 6, 2018 from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797617737129