Andreas Kappes, Nadira S. Faber, Guy Kahane, Julian Savulescu, Molly J. Crockett
First Published January 30, 2018
An optimistic learning bias leads people to update their beliefs in response to better-than-expected good news but neglect worse-than-expected bad news. Because evidence suggests that this bias arises from self-concern, we hypothesized that a similar bias may affect beliefs about other people’s futures, to the extent that people care about others. Here, we demonstrated the phenomenon of vicarious optimism and showed that it arises from concern for others. Participants predicted the likelihood of unpleasant future events that could happen to either themselves or others. In addition to showing an optimistic learning bias for events affecting themselves, people showed vicarious optimism when learning about events affecting friends and strangers. Vicarious optimism for strangers correlated with generosity toward strangers, and experimentally increasing concern for strangers amplified vicarious optimism for them. These findings suggest that concern for others can bias beliefs about their future welfare and that optimism in learning is not restricted to oneself.
From the Discussion section
Optimism is a self-centered phenomenon in which people underestimate the likelihood of negative future events for themselves compared with others (Weinstein, 1980). Usually, the “other” is defined as a group of average others—an anonymous mass. When past studies asked participants to estimate the likelihood of an event happening to either themselves or the average population, participants did not show a learning bias for the average population (Garrett & Sharot, 2014). These findings are unsurprising given that people typically feel little concern for anonymous groups or anonymous individual strangers (Kogut & Ritov, 2005; Loewenstein et al., 2005). Yet people do care about identifiable others, and we accordingly found that people exhibit an optimistic learning bias for identifiable strangers and, even more markedly, for friends. Our research thereby suggests that optimism in learning is not restricted to oneself. We see not only our own lives through rose-tinted glasses but also the lives of those we care about.
The research is here.