We all know the movie scene: a nervous aide has to deliver bad news to his villainous boss, stumbling over his words and incessantly apologising. For a second, it looks like he will be OK – until the boss turns around and summarily executes him.
But it turns out this phenomenon of “shooting the messenger” is not just restricted to fiction. A new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has demonstrated that we do tend to take a dim view of the bearers of bad news – even when these people are simply innocent messengers.
Previous work had already shown that we often form unfavourable opinions of people who give us negative feedback. But this could be justified: the reviewer could have been unfairly biased against us, for example. Leslie John and colleagues at Harvard University wanted to take things further and find out how we view others who are simply a conduit for bad news, and who clearly have no control over the content of the message they’re sharing.
Across a series of 11 experiments, the team looked at how people responded when taking part in, or imagining, a situation where someone delivered them bad or good news.
The first study confirmed that bearers of bad news are not well-liked. Participants had the chance to win an extra $2 when a research assistant picked a number from a hat, depending on whether it was odd or even. After picking the number, the research assistant handed it to a colleague – the “messenger” – to read out. Participants who received bad news – that they had not won the extra $2 – later rated this innocent messenger as less likeable than those who received good news.
In the subsequent studies, the team tried to figure out exactly what was driving people to shoot the messenger. The effect seemed to be specific to those who deliver the news, with others present at the same time remaining unaffected. In one scenario, for example, participants imagined a hospital appointment where they received either good or bad news about whether a skin biopsy was cancerous. There were two nurses in the scenario, one who delivered the news and the other who was there to schedule a follow-up appointment – but only the “messenger” nurse was rated as less likeable when the news was bad.
The team also found that the effect was stronger in situations in which bad news was unexpected or made less sense. In another scenario, participants imagined that while waiting at the airport, a staff member announced that their flight was delayed by three hours. Half of the participants were told that flights would still be departing in the scheduled order, while the rest were told that another plane had been given their flight’s departure slot. In the latter situation (which, the authors write, “violate[s] the commonly held beliefs that the world is just, predictable, and comprehensible”), the participants gave the staff member a particularly low likeability rating.
And a handful of experiments revealed that people may shoot the messenger because they believe the messenger has nefarious motives – even when this doesn’t make logical sense. One group had the chance to win 50 cents if they predicted correctly whether the number of words in the main headline of the next day’s Wall Street Journal was even or odd. The next day, those who heard from a research assistant that they had guessed wrong didn’t just rate this researcher as less likable – they also said they thought that the researcher had been hoping they’d get it wrong, even though she clearly had no control over the situation.
Altogether, the research suggests that “shooting the messenger” has a real basis in the way people act in everyday situations. It seems to stem from a number of sources, including a desire to make sense of negative or unexpected situations, and a tendency to misattribute malicious motives to messengers. While the researchers concentrated on the “likability” of the messenger, they add that participants could be making other negative judgements as well: for example, one of the studies found that people also judge bringers of bad news as less competent.
These tendencies make life harder for both messenger and receiver, the authors say. Delivering bad news is already a difficult task, and being seen as unlikable only adds to that struggle. And because people aren’t keen on accepting advice from those they dislike, they might miss out on important help. “Especially when the messenger is integral to the solution, as is often the case in medical contexts, ‘shooting the messenger’ may impede people from taking steps to make their own futures brighter,” the authors write.