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Psychol Sci. 2018 Mar;29(3):379-389. doi: 10.1177/0956797617737129. Epub 2018 Jan 30.

Concern for Others Leads to Vicarious Optimism.

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1 Department of Psychology, City, University of London.
2 Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford.
3 Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford.
4 Department of Psychology, Yale University.


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.


altruism; learning bias; open data; open materials; optimism; other-regarding preferences; preregistered

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