When It Comes to Bad News, the Messenger Always Gets Shot

Sometimes, there just has be a bad guy. s.sermram/Shutterstock

Vacation is cancelled.

No matter how pointedly we preface the news with "Please don't shoot the messenger" or "It's the hurricane's fault" — the messenger gets shot. Every time.

After all, someone's got to take the blame. And hurricanes are so confoundingly indifferent.

According to a research paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in April, bearers of bad news shoulder a lot of the negativity, no matter how innocent.

It goes without saying that someone who says things we don't like isn't going to be popular. But the new study, from researchers at Harvard University, looks at how just being a pipeline of information — a pure and objective delivery mechanism — is enough for people to steer clear of you.

Yes, that's bad news for people who have to deliver bad news as part of their job — like, say someone from the human resources department who's been directed to trim staff. Or a doctor.

(Or even the writer of this story who has to tell you that delivering bad news will make you unpopular.)

The good, the bad and the messy

For their study, the Harvard researchers conducted 11 experiments focusing on how people viewed the bearers of good and bad news.

In one test, participants were told they had a chance of winning $2 if a number they came up with was picked out of a hat. Another person had to read the number and announce a winner ... or a loser.

While it was obvious the number reader has nothing to do with the results, people who didn't win the $2 rated that person low in likability. While winners, of course, thought the number reader was just swell.

Of course, you probably would expect as much. Good news surrounds the bearer like a halo. Bad news leaves more of stench.

The researchers delved deeper: Negative associations were even sharper when the bad news came as a surprise. And even when it was made absolutely clear that the bearer had no stake in the news, participants frequently ascribed malicious motives to them. There were even allegations of incompetence.

That's certainly not good news for doctors and police officers and the writer of this story.

It's hard enough to give someone bad news. Having to be disliked or even hated for doing it makes it even harder.

"Especially when the messenger is integral to the solution, as is often the case in medical contexts," researchers note in the paper.

"Shooting the messenger may impede people from taking steps to make their own futures brighter."

Board room members gathering around a tech support worker.
There's no villain quite like the guy from tech support who can't fix the problem you created. Paul Vasarhelyi/Shutterstock

So what's a bad-news deliverer to do? There are plenty of strategies for delivering bad news — don't surprise people, try to bring a solution or two as well. But you're still going to stink of evil.

That's likely because so-called "negativity bias" — bad news hitting us harder than good news — is in our genes.

"It is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good," notes Florida State psychology professor Roy Baumeister in The New York Times. "Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but is less urgent with regard to good ones."

Maybe it's best to just let it slide. If there's a bullet in every bad news bulletin, why should you be the one to take it? Maybe scientists should keep mum on that whole global warming thing. Someone else is bound to notice it right?

Well, if you think that's going to work, we've got some bad news for you ...