We are not talking about emotional fools here.
With that out of our way, let’s talk about how we put on rose-tinted glasses in love – with self, with others, and even with strangers. We’ve all seen and practised optimism bias in our lives, and I’ll show that with examples.
With self: We order a double-cheese burger knowing that it’s unhealthy. Meeting starts in the next ten minutes and tardiness can be fatal to our career, we still take our sweet time. We shrug and say, “It’s not gonna happen to me!” as if tempting fate.
With loved ones: When a loved one does something wrong, most often, we turn a blind eye. Take the #MeToo movement, for example. So many men were ousted and yet, their wives stood with them in solidarity.
With strangers: You’ve heard or read good things about a person. So, when this person seeks help or even if the person seems in distress, you jump in to lend a hand. Similarly, if you’ve heard negative things, you’ll wait for them to ask for help and pretend to be busy.
You may not have experienced all these yourself, but you must have observed this uncanny behaviour happening around you. This is Optimism Bias, our tendency to overestimate the probability of positive events. And that extends to our partners and those we care about.
Question is: Why are we like that?
A one-line answer would be that our brains are hardwired for optimism. We are hardwired to harbour positive illusions about ourselves and our loved ones. We are hardwired to absolve people of their personal flaws. We are hardwired to accept only those things that square with our existing world view. Everything else is noise. (Or confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance coupled up)
In romantic relationships, we often find our partners more attractive than they objectively are. After breaking up, we wonder how in the first place did we fall in love with them? They aren’t even that attractive, charismatic or intelligent for that matter!
Confirmation bias also plays out beautifully in astrology or tarot readings. We take away only the favourable bits, which we want to believe and reject everything unpleasant or inconsistent with our beliefs. A study found that we disregard negative information even at the cost of harming our loved one, all because we’re not ready to acknowledge the truth!
Is being an optimist bad?
No. However, when combined with confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, optimism can force us to live an alternate reality (or rose-tinted glasses, as the literati say). We lose our sense of objectivity and that foolishness IS bad.
On an optimistic note, some studies suggest being optimistic (in healthy doses) and having an alternate sense of self can help you become that (better) version of yourself! 🙂
What happens when our optimism extends to others
A research, Concern for Others Leads to Vicarious Optimism, from the University of London, University of Oxford and Yale University, published in Psychological Science talks about how this optimism bias turns to Vicarious Optimism. Simply put, we’re more likely to accept good news, beliefs, and opinions rather than their bad, unpleasant versions even for strangers.
We often relate even to the bad guys in stories once we know their background and their motivations. We pack away up our common sense, ignore the warning signs and start rooting for them. The researchers explored this behaviour too.
They presented a group of participants with anonymous descriptions of two people and their behaviour. Person X (the nice one) was willing to give up his hard-earned money to save Person Y (the bad one). Person Y wasn’t ready to reciprocate. With this information, researchers asked the participants to estimate the probability of Person X and Y experiencing negative life events.
As expected, there was a stronger vicarious optimism for Person X.
“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 the good news. But this optimism did not stop with friends – it also extended to strangers when learning about their future.”~ Dr Andreas Kappes, lead author of the study and a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at City, University of London
Could this be the dark, messy side of Empathy? A side where we lose objectivity and root instead of hooting for the bad characters?
When vicarious optimism is genuinely good
The Vicarious Optimism study noted the reactions of over 1000 individuals based on how much they cared for a person, friend or stranger.
I mentioned above how optimism and having an alternate sense of persona can motivate us to become a better version of ourselves. The same motivation can stem from vicarious optimism too.
Hoping good things and a brighter future for another person can fuel our generosity and altruism. We are more likely to donate and support charities where we feel the targeted person or community has hope of survival or betterment.
And, the study confirms this: People 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.
This doesn’t surprise the Copywriter in me who always mentioned how large of a difference little donation can make in the lives of those in need of it. Using one from the lot as the poster-person with a compelling backstory is now backed by science.
Optimism is a self-centred, self-loving phenomenon which when extended to others, can take the form of empathy and generosity. And, that is good news!