How we discovered that it is possible to feel optimism for others

The more you like someone, the more optimistic you are for them. Look Studio/Shuterstock

As any good storyteller knows, people have a lot of faith in fictional heroes and their ability to beat all odds. In fact, without this enthusiastic trust in characters, popular stories such as Star Wars, Cinderella or Slumdog Millionaire simply wouldn’t work. But what’s the mechanism behind this powerful belief in others?

When I started thinking about this, my hunch was that it could be a type of “vicarious optimism” that we feel for other people. This idea clashes with our current understanding of optimism as a self-centered phenomenon: I believe that good things will happen to me, not you. But my colleagues and I felt that psychologists may have been missing something. We set up a series of experiments to test how far reaching optimism really is.

Readers of fiction need to disregard bad news about the heroes of the story and trust good news in order to believe in a happy ending. This is similar to what people do for themselves. Research has shown that in order to remain optimistic about their own future, people dismiss bad news (things might be worse than expected) and readily incorporate good news (things might be better than expected).

Yet, research also tells us that we do not only care about the future outcomes of ourselves, but also those of others, even strangers. We also know that people have the capability to experience vicarious emotions in response to other people’s successes and misfortunes. So maybe the feeling of optimism could also extend to others?

To find out, we started by examining if people show vicarious optimism in learning about the future of a friend. We asked 83 participants to name a friend and then imagine a series of misfortunes happening to them, such as having their car stolen, getting cancer or missing a flight.

After imagining an event happening to their friend, they had to estimate each time how likely they felt it was that this would happen to their friend in real life. Participants might, for instance, indicate that they felt that there was a 35% chance that their friend would get cancer. We then gave them an evidence-based likelihood of an average person similar to their friend getting cancer. Thereafter, they had another chance to estimate how likely they thought it was.

Now imagine that the average risk of getting cancer was 25%. This would be good news, it would mean that the friend was less likely to get cancer than the participant had thought. What our participants did after receiving good news about their friends’ future was to drastically lower their likelihood estimate. However, if they were told that the average chance was, for example, 45% instead – bad news – they did little to adjust their original estimate.

This is the signature of the optimistic bias in learning – readily incorporating good news into beliefs, but mostly neglecting bad news. And while we knew that about 70-80% of people do this for their own future, our study, published in Psychological Science, showed that we also have the capacity to be vicariously optimistic on the behalf of our friends. Indeed, about 65% of participants showed vicarious optimism for their friend.

Good vs bad people

But this was only one piece to the puzzle. We know that the more we care about another person, the more intensely we experience their emotions. We therefore wanted to know if the extent to which people care about another person drives vicarious optimism.

Does the president of Mexico feel optimism for Donald Trump? ruperto miller/Flickr, CC BY-SA

To test this idea, we presented another group of participants with anonymous descriptions of people and their behaviour. Here we introduced two fictional individuals – Person X and Person Y. We told participants that they had each received £20 and had been asked how much they would be willing to give up to save another participant from painful electric shocks. Person X was willing to give up almost all of the money, whereas Person Y didn’t want to give up any.

All participants then did the vicarious optimism task again – this time estimating how likely it was for Person X and Person Y to experience negative life events. As we expected, participants showed strong vicarious optimism for Person X – the nice one – but not for Person Y.

This finding, also published in Psychological Science, is also in line with one of the most important rules in storytelling: make people care. Once people care about the heroes of the story, they are willing to give up common sense, ignore the bad news and stay invested in the characters.

Generosity and optimism

The reactions of the more than 1,000 people in total tested in our studies show that humans are able to feel optimism for both friends and strangers – in line with how much they care for the person.

But does vicarious optimism have any implications in real life? We thought that just like optimism for the self often provides motivation to do something, vicarious optimism might provide the hope that supports helping. Feeling that there is hope for another person’s future might fuel people’s motivation to help them now.

And, indeed, we discovered that people who show vicarious optimism for a stranger were willing to donate almost three times as much money to a charity supporting people similar to that stranger compared to people who were pessimistic about the future of that stranger.

It really is good news: vicarious optimism exists and it matters for fiction as well as for real life.