Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why Hearing Good News or Bad News First Really Matters

Whether we want to hear the positive or the negative first says a lot about us.

Many situations in life involve a double-edged sword that carries good news and bad news: A promotion at work may come with an increase in salary but also more responsibilities and longer hours. A workplace evaluation may involve both praise for jobs well done as well as suggestions for improvement.

When you are about to get a shot of good and bad news, what is your preference—good news first, or bad? And what should your preference be?

This issue was explored in an interesting paper in the March, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Angela Legg and Kate Sweeny.   

In an initial study, participants filled out a personality inventory. One group was told that they were going to get feedback, some of which was good and some of which was bad, and were asked which they wanted to hear first. A second group was told that they were going to give someone else feedback about their personality inventory and that some of the news would be good and some bad.  They were asked what news they wanted to deliver first.

Most people (78%) wanted to hear the bad news first, followed by the good news, because they believed they would feel better if they got the bad news out of the way and ended on a good note.  People delivering news, thought, were split: Those who imagined what a recipient would want to hear tended to want to give the bad news first, while those who focused on their own feelings tended to want to give the good news first, because they felt it would be easier to start by giving good news.

A second study focused on participants delivering news. In this study, participants who were instructed to think about how the other person would feel when getting the news were more prone to give the bad news first and then the good, compared to those in a control condition who were not given any specific instructions.

But which is actually better for us, getting good news first or bad? A third study suggests that the answer to this important question depends on whether you are focused on your mood or on changing your behavior.

In this study, participants filled out a personality inventory and then were given bogus feedback about their results. The feedback consisted both of good news (some positive personality traits like being a good leader) as well as bad news (some traits that are not so positive, like being low in creativity). 

The study varied the order in which participants got this feedback—and before and after getting the feedback, participants rated their degree of worry, as well as their mood. After getting the feedback, participants rated how committed they were to learning to change the negative aspects of their personality. At the end of the study, participants had the option of watching some videos to help them make personality changes or helping the experimenter by stapling some packets together.

Participants who got the bad news first were in a better mood and were less worried overall than those who got the good news first. However, participants who got the bad news first were less interested in changing their behavior, and were less likely to elect to watch videos to improve their behavior, than those who got the good news first.

Overall, we like to get improving sequences of news (bad news first) because the last thing you hear affects you mood. However, it turns out that being a little unsettled can be motivating. So, if you are motivated to act on the bad feedback by making changes in your behavior, it is better to focus on what is wrong, and to hear it last.

 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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