Bad news? No worries for those we like, says new study

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Optimism about the future of others is widespread even in the face of bad news — at least if the person is someone we care about. However, we can feel this optimism even for strangers if they possess a few admirable attributes, a new study by Yale and University of Oxford researchers suggests.

Our concern for others affects how we learn,’’ said Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology at Yale and senior author of the study published Jan. 31 in the journal Psychological Science.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Oxford Martin School, builds on well-documented research that shows we tend to ignore bad news and be optimistic — even wildly optimistic — about our own fortunes. The new study shows we also possess a vicarious optimism about those we care about, even if we receive negative news.

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 researchers found that this vicarious optimism typically does not hold in the case of strangers. However, when they imbued a stranger with some admirable traits — for example, kindness — optimism about the stranger’s future also improved. That is, people are more vicariously optimistic about strangers they like than those they dislike.

There are some people, however, who tend to be as optimistic about a stranger’s future as their own loved ones. These people, Crockett notes, are also more likely to be generous to charities.

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

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322