Good news or bad news first?

The ‘good news, bad news’ set up is often used in jokes. But apart from humor, I bet that almost all of us have at some point been asked by someone the above question when they were about to tell us something. I hate being asked it and would much prefer the person just tell me in whatever order they like.

But apparently the order can matter in how we evaluate the experience and leaving it up to the giver of the news may not be in our interest.

In a series of experiments, the psychologists found that recipients of bad news overwhelmingly want to hear that bad news first, while news-givers prefer to deliver good news first. If news-givers can put themselves in the recipient’s shoes, or if they’re pushed to consider how to make the recipient feel better, then they might be willing to give news like recipients want them to. Otherwise, a mismatch is almost inevitable.

That people want to hear bad news first is consistent with other studies that suggest that what people tend to react most strongly to is the trend rather than the average. If the trend is towards the better, that is remembered as a better overall experience than if the trend it towards the worse, even if the average experience is the same. This is true of children who get two types of candy and of how people recall pain experiences.


  1. mnb0 says

    “recipients of bad news overwhelmingly want to hear that bad news first”
    So you’re an exception. So what?

    “while news-givers prefer to deliver good news first”
    Then I’m an exception too. But I realize that what I prefer might not be what the recipient prefers. That’s why I ask.

    “I hate being asked it”
    Rather over the top when someone tries to show you some empathy.

    “would much prefer the person just tell me in whatever order they like”
    Then just say so. I will still have reached my goal: you’re emotionally prepared and can safely follow my own preference – bad news first.
    This is a non-problem.

  2. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Like the surgeon said to the patient, “I’m sorry, Mr Jones, but the damage was worse than we thought; we’ve had to amputate your legs. Still, look on the bright side, the chap in the next bed wants to buy your slippers”.

  3. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Or the one where the line goes :

    Doctor : “There’s good news and bad news, the good news is you’ve only got 24 hours to live!”

    Patient : “What? That’s the *good* news! What the blazes is the bad news?”

    Dr : “I meant to tell you yesterday!”

  4. left0ver1under says

    I don’t know about others, but I never label it “good news, bad news”. I tend to give information in order of importance, regardless of whether it’s welcome or unwelcome. Or sometimes, I’ll give it in terms of a problem and solution. People tend to respond well to knowing what options are possible rather than hearing what isn’t.

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