Credit: Douglas Hamilton, Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Douglas Hamilton, Wikimedia Commons.

Bringing bad news to the king used could have easily gotten you killed — at least, that’s what we’ve learned from movies. But is there any shred of truth to the scene of an ill-tempered ruler who summarily executes the lackey who serves bad news? We often cry “Don’t shoot the messenger” when one of our friends suddenly becomes antagonistic after we share some bad news, and according to a new study, this behavior is rooted in a psychological effect. The study suggests that we tend to view those who share bad news with us as less likable, even though they clearly are innocent.

Psychologists at Harvard University conducted a series of eleven experiments that investigated how people responded to various situations in which they were delivered good and bad news. In one experiment, the participants could win $2 when a research assistant picked an odd or even number from a hat. After picking the number, the researcher handed it to a colleague acting as the “messenger” to read it out loud. Those who were told they hadn’t won later rated the messenger as less likable than those who had won or received good news.

Subsequent experiments found that the “shoot the messenger” effect was specific to individuals delivering bad news. Those who were present at the same time as the announcement were not affected. For instance, in one scenario, participants had to imagine that they were either to receive a positive or negative result for a skin biopsy for cancer. Two nurses would be present: one delivering the news, the second simply there to schedule a follow-up examination. Only the messenger nurse was rated as less likable when the bad news broke.

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When bad news was particularly unexpected, the effect was even more pronounced. During one experiment, the participants had to imagine they were waiting at the airport for their flight when suddenly a staff member announced that their flight was delayed by three hours. Half of the participants were told that they could leave on another plane at the scheduled time, while the rest were told they would have to wait. When they had to suffer a delay, the participants rated the staff member very poorly in terms of likeability.

Sometimes, the participants thought that the harbinger of bad news also had a hand to play, even though there was no apparent motive to do so. In one experiment, participants could win 50 cents if they predicted correctly whether the number of words in the main headline of the next edition of the Wall Street Journal was odd or even. Those who were told by a research assistant that they had guessed incorrectly rated the researcher as less likable, but also indicated that they were under the impression that the research assistant had been rooting against them. That’s even though there was no indication that the research assistant had any control over the situation.

“We suggest that people’s tendency to deem bearers of bad news as unlikeable stems in part from their desire to make sense of chance processes. Consistent with this account, receiving bad news activates the desire to sense-make, and in turn, activating this desire enhances the tendency to dislike bearers of bad news,” the authors wrote in their study.

These findings suggest that “shooting the messenger” is genuine psychological effect — and its implications could have dramatic implications for day to day life. For instance, in a medical context when often doctors and hospital staff share bad news with patients, this effect can erode doctor-patient relationships. And when this happens, patients might be reluctant to receive help from the “unlikeable” doctor. So, next time you receive some bad news, remember: don’t shoot the messenger. 

The findings were reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.