Behavioural Science
So, the Bad News or the Good News First?

The good news is that psychologists have discovered the best way to deliver feedback; the bad news is you’ll have to open with the negative before moving on to the positive.

Around 88% of people would rather hear the bad news first. This makes sense given our instinctive preference for improving sequences, such as wage profiles. This is also consistent with findings that people would prefer to speed up a bad experience, such as getting a tooth pulled, but delay a good experience, such as a kiss from their favorite movie star. We gain utility from the anticipation of a positive event, while on the other hand, we feel distress when in the time leading up to a negative one. It follows, then, that people would prefer to receive the bad news first, therefore getting it over with early and looking forward to good news, rather than spoiling the good news with anxiety about the forthcoming bad.

This is exactly what Angela M. Legg and Kate Sweeny found in a series of experiments conducted at the University of California, Riverside. They asked participants to fill out personality questionnaires, and told them the results contained both good and bad news. When the participants were then asked whether they would like to receive their good news or bad news first, 78% opted for the bad news.

In the real world, we’re rarely given the chance to decide how we want our news ordered. The news-giver is, and that person has a separate set of motivations. Legg and Sweeny found that this was reflected in different preferences when they asked one set of participants to deliver the good and bad news to another participant, with over half preferring to deliver the good news first.

While most people want to spare the feelings of the person they’re delivering bad news to, they often forget how they’d prefer to receive the news themselves and instead deliver a “feedback sandwich”—opening and closing with good news, with bad news as the filling. This confuses the message, and the negative information may get swamped by praise, leading to misunderstanding and inaction. So, the bad news is you may have to experience some discomfort while doing so, but the good news is you now know how to give feedback in the kindest and most efficient way.

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