Giving bad news isn’t a fun activity, especially if you are giving it to someone you know. It’s an uncomfortable spot and it isn’t pleasant for the receiver. People are reluctant to give bad news (the MUM effect) and are eager to give good news. A series of 11 experiments provide evidence for a long-known phenomenon – shooting the messenger.
According to historians, a common unwritten rule during War was to not shoot the messenger. These messengers were often sent across lands to convey a king’s or an emperor’s message. A message that could fuel a war. The unwritten rule was logical – don’t kill the messenger because the messenger is just sharing. As per Greek ethics, no herald and ambassador could be harmed as this would be an act of violence against the Gods.
This wasn’t always respected. Some historians suggest that the scene depicted in the movie 300 is based on true events – The Athenians and Spartans did, in fact, kill the messenger.
We see various forms of this in our day-to-day lives as well. When someone brings us bad news, we often act aggressively. We tend to take out our frustration on customer care executives when they give us unfavorable information. In fact, corporate culture trainers point out this specific scenario and ask people to learn how to respond appropriately.
What does psychology say about this?
We, figuratively, shoot the messenger when they bring us bad news. We do this by disliking the messenger.
Specifically, we know that some people consider the bearers of bad news less likable and this likeability depends on a number of other factors. For example, knowing the intention of the neutral news-bearer can change the likeability. If people believe that the messenger means no harm and has good intentions, the dislike is mitigated. If people believe that the messenger is malevolent, the dislike is amplified.
Messenger dislike also depends on the type of news. When the news is unexpected, the dislike for the messenger is stronger than it is when the news is expected. To understand why this happens, we need to dive into the human desire of sense-making.
Humans try to make sense of incoming information. A part of messenger dislike is based on this desire to make sense of the bad news – why is it happening, what does it mean, why are you telling me, etc. Without fully processing it, our desire to make sense catapults us to a biased conclusion that the bearer of bad news is bad. This fuels the dislike. The finding that unexpected bad news magnifies messenger dislike corroborates this notion – unexpected news has more unknown factors that magnify the need for sense-making. The researchers also found that lower likeability ratings for the messenger are correlated with a biased belief that the messenger is malevolent and means harm. This bias is a quick rationalization of why the messenger gave it in the first place.
What’s the takeaway from this finding?
If you have to give bad news to someone, clarify your intentions first. Be honest and clear that you mean no harm. Once the listener acknowledges your intentions, give the bad news in a way that does not sound aggressive. This will help the listener shift the desire to make sense of the information from the conduit (you) to the actual content. The listener will then, automatically, ascribe less negative emotions to you and focus on the news.
Giving Bad News Is Complex
Doctors have to frequently give negative updates to patients and their family members. Research highlights a few important factors in communicating bad news.
- Doctors have to be sensitive in giving bad news because it can have long-lasting effects on the patient
- Doctors have to cope with the idea that they will be blamed for the negative outcomes
- Doctors also have to accept that they might not be able to improve the situation
- Doctors have to ensure that patients understand the news and have a follow-up
These factors make giving stressful updates difficult for the giver and the listener. There is some evidence that patients don’t always ascribe negative emotions to the doctors who give them negative news. In a study on advanced cancer patients, surgeons were rated as less helpful and less likable than general physicians. This is partly explained by the observation that patients usually prefer their primary doctor to give updates (in this case, the surgeons gave the bad news) and there is a complex expectation specific to certain cases that may or may not be fulfilled.
People have preferences in how they want their news delivered. In one study, within a corporate setting, researchers found that people prefer to first receive an explanation and then the bad news. When the order is reversed (explanation later), people find the news less comprehensible. If we were to follow these findings, indirect emails are a good bet for comprehensively breaking bad news in a corporate setting. On the other hand, if the goal is to preserve customer relationships, breaking it directly via a phone call is better.
In an earlier study on delivering bad news via email or letters, researchers found evidence to support the idea that rejections are best served indirectly – explanation first, rejection later. People find the indirect approach more empathic.
Does sugarcoating bad news work?
We receive a lot of negative information trough journalistic media – newspapers, TV channels, current affairs magazines, websites, etc. Turns out, it takes many positive reports to counteract the negative effects of one single piece of bad news. Moreover, mildly changing the journalistic narrative to a more positive tone can help readers digest the information without compromising the perceived credibility of the news.
I have good and bad news. Which one do you want first?
Real-life is complex and information can fall on a spectrum of good to bad based on conditions. Medical diagnoses, for example – “You have XYZ, which is bad. But, if you can do ABC, your XYZ will reduce to nothing.” A common strategy is the blended sandwich technique where the news-bearer begins with a positive update, then the bad one, and tops it off with another positive spin. This method is particularly effective in social contexts because it leaves the news-receiver with a positive starting and ending note. This, coupled with the primacy effect (better memory for what happened first) and recency effect (better memory for what happened last), becomes a useful communication strategy. People who use this technique appear warmer, more empathetic, and socially intelligent compared to those who drop it like a bomb. The warmth doesn’t necessarily reduce if you open with bad news; probably because body language plays a role in communicating the warmth and tone.
There is some evidence to show that messengers (who focus on themselves) prefer to begin with good news to protect their own image. And, receivers prefer to listen to the bad news first to experience an improvement in their emotional state after listening to the good bit. As a result of this tendency, the blended sandwich technique is a valuable social skill.
A part of many work cultures is giving feedback to employees. Usually, the boss has to give negative feedback. Should a boss sugarcoat feedback for the benefit of the employee? Sugarcoating specific feedback with “Like” & “Smiley” emojis increases the assumed good intentions of the feedback giver and reduces the negativity of casual feedback. Using “Dislike” & “Frown-face” emojis can worsen the emotions associated with the feedback. It is a useful strategy to give specific and casual feedback with positive emojis to make it easier for employees to accept it and understand the intentions of the boss.
Another form of sugarcoating is using implicit language – A little bit of beating around the bush, warning statements, suggestive wording, etc., can be used to dilute the intensity of bad news. This technique is useful to communicate in healthcare clinics. Breaking bad news in a medical setting demands mindful communication skills.
In essence, people don’t like being the messenger of negative information and they don’t like receiving it either. However, it’s a part of everyone’s life. To overcome the “disliking the messenger” phenomenon, be sensitive, explain first, sandwich your news, sugarcoat it a little bit, use an appropriate communication medium, use warm body language, and genuinely mean no harm. Not all of these work in all situations.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.