New study highlights how optimistic we are about the future of loved ones – and nice strangers

01 February 2018

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When presented with bad news it is not uncommon to be optimistic about the future of others- at least if it is someone we care about. However, a new study by Yale and University of Oxford researchers suggests that we may even feel optimism for those we do not know, if they possess a few admirable attributes.

'Our concern for others affects how we learn,'' said Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology at Yale and senior author of the study published this week in the journal Psychological Science.

Funded by the Oxford Martin School and the Wellcome Trust, the study revealed that people are likely to be optimistic, sometimes overly, and ignore bad news when our own fortunes are in question.

“ 'Vicarious optimism' works this way: You are more likely to ignore bad news about the cancer risk of a friend than you would for an anonymous stranger. For instance, you might estimate a friend's cancer risk at 10%. Then, imagine a doctor informs you that the risk is actually 20%. Asked later to assess friend's risk of cancer, you would mostly ignore the bad news and estimate the risk at about 11%, not 20%. However, new information is easily retained if it is good news - for instance, if the doctor tells you your friend's risk is only 5%."

The study suggests that typically this vicarious optimism does not apply to strangers. However, once a stranger is attributed admirable traits, for example, kindness, the optimism towards the stranger’s fate increases.

Lead author Andreas Kappes, City University London, said 'we developed an exciting new tool that shows us that we not only see our own future through rose-coloured glasses, but also the futures of those we care about,'

However, it was also found that some people are equally optimistic about their own loved and strangers, and these people are likely to be more generous to charities.

Access to the published paper, Concern for Others Leads to Vicarious Optimism, can be found here.