Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

A new study aims to answer the age-old question

“So, there’s good news and bad news.”

An opening like that will send a chill through your veins, no matter what the topic. It’s especially worrying when coming from a significant other or a doctor. And the statement is often followed by a question: Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news? A new study says that you probably want the bad news first. But it also finds that, if the decision is left to the news deliverer, you can’t always get what you want.

Psychologists Angela Legg and Kate Sweeny from the University of California, Riverside decided to answer this age-old question, and to see whether the person giving the news wanted to give the good news or the bad news first. Finally, they looked at how the order that the information is delivered might change how people feel about the news. Their results were published November 4 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The scientists had 121 college students come into the lab in pairs. The researchers assigned each pair a news-giver and a news-recipient. The students did not know their partner beforehand. All students took a personality test designed to assess the Big Five personality dimensions: conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness. A few minutes later, an experimenter came in and told the students that their tests were scored, and that there was both good news and bad news. For example, a student might have tested really high on leadership but turned out to look very selfish indeed.

In reality, the tests had not been scored, and the students wouldn’t end up getting the real good news or bad news. They just had to pick which one they wanted first. For the news-receivers, the experimenter asked which they would like to receive first, and why. Their only job was to receive news. For the news-givers, the experimenter told them they would have to deliver the results of a personality test, and news-givers were asked which they would like to give first, and why.

Using separate groups of students in a new test, the experimenters then actually gave people the results of their personality tests with good news or bad news first, and asked how worried they were as the test went on. They also tested whether telling the news-givers to think of the other person’s feelings altered the order which in they wanted to give the news. 

And we really do like to get the bad news first. A whopping 78 percent of students tested said that they wanted the bad news first, thanks. This is consistent with previous studies, which also showed that people would rather get bad news first. But however much you want it, you might not get it: 54 to 68 percent of news-givers preferred to give good news first. When the news-givers were prompted to feel empathy for the receiver with statements like “put yourself in the receiver’s shoes,” the percentage who wanted to give the bad news first increased, but the effects weren’t very large (though they were statistically significant). You want the bad news first, but they don’t want to give it to you.

But does getting the bad news first make a difference? Legg and Sweeney had a third group of students get either good news first or bad news first, and assessed how worried they were before and after they’d gotten the news. Both groups showed increased worry, no matter what order the news came in. But it turns out a bitter pill is easier to sweeten: Students who received the bad news first ended up less worried than those who received the good news first.

So maybe bad news first is the way to go. The authors believe that the findings could be generalized to many different types of bad news, used by doctors or your soon-to-be-ex.

I’m not so sure about that myself. After all, receiving news that you’re kind of a selfish jerk on a personality test is one kind of news. Hearing you might have cancer is entirely another. And does it change when the news affects, say, your community or something impersonal? Does it change when it’s news that you can do something about? After all, you can develop leadership skills or practice playing well with others. But some types of bad news are completely beyond your control.  

In addition, in all of these cases, the students were put in pairs. They did not know each other beforehand. How does that change the way you give or receive information? Do you want it in another order if you receive it from someone you know and trust, or who is in a position you respect, like a doctor?

I’m also curious to know why we want the bad news first. I’ve always been told that you should take the bad news first. Get it over with, pull the Band-Aid off quick. Do I believe that just because that’s what I’ve been told? It’s an interesting question and one that this study couldn’t really get at. A study for another time.

So, bad news first: this finding may not work for every type of news. But the good news? You, and 78 percent of the people around you taking the personality test, really do want the bad news first.

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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