29 November 2013

Good and Bad News

Welcome back. I hope you’ll forgive that, for today’s blog post, I’m going to be more reporter than retired scientist.

When I discuss research findings, I try to tell you how the results were obtained--what the researchers did--not just the results and significance. I never go into gory details (ok, maybe I do with snails and the like), but I try to provide a basic understanding of the study’s methods and materials.

To prepare a blog post, I’d thus like to have the full paper by the study’s authors, though if the journal charges a fee to see the paper, I can usually make do with the abstract (free) and articles about the study.

If I lack the paper and the available articles don’t answer my questions, I drop the topic. That happens often. Last week, in fact, I shoved today’s topic into my bag-it bag. Then, an event occurred that caused me to retrieve it and be a reporter.

Delivering the News

Delivering good and bad news.
(photo from multiple websites)

Suppose I’ve got good news and bad news for you. Should I warm you up with the good stuff before giving you the bad? Should I hit you with the bad, then try to cheer you with the good? How about if I slip the bad in between two layers of good?  

I never thought much about the order of a good and bad news delivery before seeing a recent study from the University of California, Riverside. I didn’t realize the popular media had been all over the topic, recommending various approaches.

Good or Bad First?

The investigators conducted three studies to determine preferences for giving and receiving good and bad news. Their focus was on news that might influence behavior, as might be conveyed by doctor to patient, teacher to student or manager to staff member.

The first study simply confirmed that news-givers and news-receivers have different preferences. Givers would rather begin with the good, while receivers are anxious to hear the bad.

The second study tested approaches to bridge the giver’s and receiver’s preferences and shifted the delivery more toward the receiver’s preference.

The third study indicated that the order of delivery matters; it has actual consequences for the receiver. If, for example, the news-giver is seeking a change in the receiver’s behavior, beginning with bad news will reduce the receiver’s worry; however, that may reduce the receiver’s motivation to change. A good-then-bad news delivery will probably be more effective when the bad news is useful to the recipient.

If, on the other hand, there is no action the news receiver can take (e.g., a failing grade, terminal diagnosis or pink slip), it might be better to give the bad news, then use any encouraging information to help the receiver accept the bad news.

Wrap Up

What caused me to retrieve this topic? I had medical emergency, but it ended well. Exercising the next morning, I began thinking about how best to report the incident to family and, if asked, to others. Should I open describing my first ever ride in an ambulance or just say it was nothing? 

Thanks for stopping by.


- UC Riverside paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:
- Article on the paper on Science Daily:

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