Bad News First

  • November 14, 2018
  • by
  • Adam
Bad News First

Next time you find yourself having to decide between doing the good news or the bad news first, start with the bad news. It makes no difference if you’re giving the news or receiving it. Bad news comes first.

Something in us pushes us to finish strong. For all the emphasis on good starts and New Year’s resolutions, the drive to finish well eclipses the drive to begin well. We eat dessert at the end of meals. Fireworks shows finish with a grand finale. What happens at the end has an outsized effect on our impressions.

This tendency of ours has something — but not everything — to do with the recency effect, i.e. “when asked to recall a list of items in any order, people tend to begin recall with the end of the list, recalling those items best.”

Any given symphony — with the exception of John Cage’s 4’33″ – is made up of thousands of notes. A mistake somewhere in the middle will soon be forgotten. A mistake in the final crescendo? That’ll leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — musicians and audience members alike. We want to end on a high note.

A meal is most likely to be ruined by something that happens at the end, not at the beginning. Shout-out to this Seinfeld observation.

Research supports these ideas:

“The research tells us this very, very clearly. If you ask people what they prefer, four out of five prefer getting the bad news first. The reason has to do with endings. Given the choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate. We prefer endings that go up, that have a rising sequence rather than a declining sequence.” — Daniel Pink

There is one exception to this rule:

“But good news first, then bad could be a useful strategy if the goal is to get someone to change a behavior — when, for example, Legg says, ‘you are giving feedback to a patient needing to lose weight, who has to take action. The recipient doesn’t feel good about the news but may do something about it.’”

In this case, however, the exception proves the rule, as well as the point I’m making: we want good endings. But if what you’re doing is trying to influence behavior, it might be better not to give someone what they want.

In majority of instances, the majority of people (78%) want the bad news first. Give them what they want. Start with the bad news.

Adam Trone

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