LONDON — As Wanda, a character from the Netflix animated series “Bojack Horseman” says during a breakup scene, “When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.” While many might agree with such a profound statement, a new study finds that we still see ourselves and those we care about most in overly-positive lights.
Researchers behind the study say it’s the first to show that “optimism bias,” or thinking things are better or more positive than they really are, can extend beyond the self.
“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,” says Dr. Andreas Kappes, lead author of the study and a lecturer in City University of London’s psychology department, in a news release. “But this optimism did not stop with friends – it also extended to strangers when learning about their future.”
The researchers recruited 1,100 participants for five studies and tested how strongly they believed specific positive and negative events could occur to various people they knew — loved ones, friends and acquaintances — or strangers briefly described to them as good or bad people.
They found that people were more apt to believe positive events could happen more often to people they like, even when the probability of that event happening was much lower. Similarly, participants viewed the odds of something bad happening — ranging from losing luggage to being diagnosed with cancer to missing an important meeting — to a close friend to be notably less than the actual probability.
Researchers then measured how much the good or bad news changed their beliefs about someone by being given another opportunity to suggest how likely they thought the event could happen to each person after being told the actual probability. They found that people were more prone to changing their beliefs about a person when it came to good news, but less likely to budge from their opinion if the given event was bad news.
This so-called “vicarious optimism” grew stronger the better the person knew the person they cared about, or the more they cared about them. Bad news about people we care about makes us feel terrible, which can prevent us from updating our beliefs about them. Good news has the opposite effect.
Similarly, when it came to strangers, if the participants learned the person was not nice, their vicarious optimism significantly decreased.
“These studies suggest that empathy affects how we learn as well as how we make decisions,” says Dr Molly Crockett, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Yale. “Those people with stronger ’vicarious optimism’ for strangers were more likely to help a stranger in need. Concern for others leaves its fingerprints on the beliefs we develop about the world.”
The full study was published Jan. 30 in the journal Psychological Science.