Good News Or Bad News First
November 6, 2013

Good News Or Bad News First? How To Decide

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside looked into why people decide whether they want to get the good news or the bad news first. It turns out, breaking down the reasons behind how people answer the famous question "Do you want the good news or the bad news first?" gets pretty complicated, the team wrote in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researchers say that the process of giving or getting bad news is difficult for most people, especially if news-givers feel unsure about how to proceed with the conservation.

"The difficulty of delivering bad news has inspired extensive popular media articles that prescribe ‘best’ practices for giving bad news, but these prescriptions remain largely anecdotal rather than empirically based,” the researchers wrote in the journal.

Psychologists found that recipients of bad news overwhelmingly want to hear the negative news first, but the messenger prefers to give the good news first. They also found that when good news is introduced in a conservation can influence the recipient’s decision to act or change his or her behavior.

“Our findings suggest that the primary beneficiary of the bad news sandwich is news-givers, not news-recipients,” they said. “Although recipients may be pleased to end on a high note, they are unlikely to enjoy anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop during the initial good news.”

Lead author of the paper Angela M. Legg said hiding bad news isn't exactly an effective method if the desire is to change someone's behavior, such as encouraging them to get a prescription filled. "If you're a manager, a bad news sandwich can make people feel good, but it might not help them improve their behavior," she said.

The researchers suggest that news-recipients benefit from a good-then-bad news approach when the bad news is useful to them. They say this because bad news may cause the intended message to get lost and leave the receiver confused.

“It’s so complicated. It’s important to fit the delivery to the outcome goal,” Legg said. “If you’re a physician delivering a diagnosis and prognosis that are severe, where there is nothing the patient can do, tell them the bad news first and use positive information to help them accept it. If there are things a patient can do, give them the bad news last and tell them what they can do to get better.”

Doctors, teachers, bosses and romantic partners all encounter situations in which they have a 'good news/bad news' conversation with someone. The team says that these people may do a poor job of delivering news because they forget for a moment how they want to hear the news when they are the patient, student or spouse.

“News-givers attempt to delay the unpleasant experience of giving bad news by leading with good news while recipients grow anxious knowing that the bad news is yet to come,” the researchers concluded. “This tension can erode communication and result in poor outcomes for both news-recipients and news-givers.”