Shooting the Messenger: When You Tell People Bad News, They Like You Less

silhouette of an archer holding a bow and arrow
Image by Andreas √ėverland / CC BY

It can be tough when you have a difficult message to deliver. Especially unpleasant news.

I’ve definitely been in situations when I had to be the one to deliver bad news and then promptly had my head bitten off by the recipient — even in situations where I didn’t do anything and all of the action involved third parties!

And of course, there’s the old advice not to “shoot the messenger.”

But is this more than an isolated phenomenon? Do people blame innocent third parties who are simply breaking bad news?

Turns out they do.

Shooting the Messenger

A recent study found that innocent bearers of bad news were deemed more unlikable than controls (who were bystanders instead of messengers).

This same pattern wasn’t a fluke or a one-off. The team actually found that the pattern held true over a series of 11 (ELEVEN!) experiments.

Through these carefully calibrated experiments, researchers concluded that there are a number of factors at play. One major one is that recipients of the message tend to attribute hostile or malevolent motives to the person bearing bad news (even if that’s not actually that person’s real motives or intent). Basically, that they are trying to “stir up trouble.”

The researchers note that there are real life consequences to this tendency. There are many situations in which attributing hostile motives to the bearer of bad news (even subtly/subconsciously) can impede problem-solving and dealing with the adverse situation. One notable example is when it comes to medical diagnoses. “Shooting the messenger” could potentially cause a person to be more likely to fire a doctor or ignore their medical advice, even when to do so would make their health situation even more dire.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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