Many situations in life involve a double-edged sword that carries good news and bad news. A promotion at work may come along with an increase in salary as well as more responsibilities and longer work 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 for getting that news? 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 was good and some was 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 first and ended on the good news. People delivering news were split. People who imagined what a recipient would want to hear tended to want to give the bad news first. Those who focused on themselves 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 encouraged through instructions 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 news than those in a control condition who were not given specific instructions.
An important question, though, is whether we should get the bad news first followed by the good news. A third study suggests that the answer to this 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. 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, participant had the option to watch some videos to help them make personality changes or to help the experimenter by stapling some packets together.
Participants who got the bad news first followed by the good news were in a better mood and were less worried overall than those who got the good news first then the bad news. However, participants who got the bad news first followed by the good news 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 followed by the bad news.
Overall, then, you like to get improving sequences of news, because the last thing you hear affects you mood. However, it turns out that being a little unsettled is motivating. So, if you are hoping to make changes in your behavior, it is better to focus on what is wrong than on what is right.