Good News About Bad News

Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it.

Woman with a shocked expression

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“I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

You’ve undoubtedly said that before. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or a writer trying to explain a missed deadline, you had to deliver information — some of it positive, some of it not — and opened with this two-headed approach.

But which piece of information should you introduce first? Should the good news precede the bad? Or should the happy follow the sad?

As someone who finds himself delivering mixed news more often than he should or wants to, I’ve always led with the positive. My instinct has been to spread a downy duvet of good feeling to cushion the coming hammerblow.

The book, "When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing" by Daniel H. Pink
From When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink, published by Riverhead. An imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Daniel H. Pink.

My instinct, alas, has been dead wrong.

To understand why, let’s switch perspectives — from me to you. Suppose you’re on the receiving end of my mixed news, and after my “I’ve got some good news and some bad news” windup, I append a question: “Which would you like to hear first?”

Think about that for a moment.

Chances are, you opted to hear the bad news first. Several studies over several decades have found that roughly four out of five people prefer to begin with a loss or negative outcome and ultimately end with a gain or positive outcome, rather than the reverse. Our preference, whether we’re a patient getting test results or a student awaiting a mid-semester evaluation, is clear: bad news first, good news last.

But as news givers, we often do the reverse. Delivering that harsh performance review feels ­unsettling, so we prefer to ease into it, to demonstrate our kind intentions and caring nature by offering a few spoonfuls of sugar before administering the bitter medicine. Sure, we know that we like to hear the bad news first. But somehow we don’t understand that the person sitting across the desk, wincing at our two-headed intro, feels the same. She’d rather get the grimness out of the way and end the encounter on a more redeeming note. As two of the researchers who’ve studied this issue say, “Our findings suggest that the doctors, teachers, and partners … might do a poor job of giving good and bad news because they forget for a moment how they want to hear news when they are patients, students, and spouses.”

We blunder — I blunder — because we fail to understand the final principle of endings: Given a choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate. The science of timing has found — repeatedly — what seems to be an innate preference for happy endings. We favor sequences of events that rise rather than fall, that improve rather than deteriorate, that lift us up rather than bring us down. And simply knowing this inclination can help us understand our own behavior and improve our interactions with ­others.

For example, social psychologists Ed O’Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth of the University of Michigan wanted to see how endings shaped people’s judgment. So they packed a bag full of Hershey’s Kisses and headed to a busy area of the Ann Arbor campus. They set up a table and told students they were conducting a taste test of some new varieties of Kisses that contained local ingredients.

People sidled up to the table, and a research assistant, who didn’t know what O’Brien and Ellsworth were measuring, pulled a chocolate out of the bag and asked a participant to taste it and rate it on a 0-to-10 scale.

Then the research assistant said, “Here is your next chocolate,” gave the participant another candy, and asked her to rate that one. Then the experimenter and her participant did the same thing again for three more chocolates, bringing the total number of candies to five. (The tasters never knew how many total chocolates they would be sampling.)

The crux of the experiment came just before people tasted the fifth chocolate. To half the participants, the research assistant said, “Here is your next chocolate.” But to the other half of the group, she said, “Here is your last chocolate.”

The very best endings are not always happy in the traditional sense. Often … they’re bitter sweet.

The people informed that the fifth chocolate was the last — that the supposed taste test was now ending — reported liking that chocolate much more than the people who knew it was simply next. In fact, people informed that a chocolate was last liked it significantly more than any other chocolate they’d sampled. They chose chocolate number five as their favorite chocolate 64 percent of the time (compared with the “next” group, which chose that chocolate as their favorite 22 percent of the time). “Participants who knew they were eating the final chocolate of a taste test enjoyed it more, preferred it to other chocolates, and rated the overall experience as more enjoyable than other participants who thought they were just eating one more chocolate in a series.”

Screenwriters understand the importance of endings that elevate, but they also know that the very best endings are not always happy in the traditional sense. Often, like a final chocolate, they’re bittersweet. “Anyone can deliver a happy ending — just give the characters everything they want,” says screenplay guru Robert McKee. “An artist gives us the emotion he’s promised … but with a rush of unexpected insight.” That often comes when the main character finally understands an emotionally complex truth. John August, who wrote the screenplay for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other films, argues that this more sophisticated form of elevation is the secret to the success of Pixar films such as Up, Cars, and the Toy Story trilogy.

Scenes from the Pixar animated films Up and Toy Story.
Uplifting: “Every Pixar movie has its protagonist achieving the goal he wants only to realize it’s not what the protagonist needs.” Top: Up; Bottom: Toy Story 3 (Pictorial Press Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo; AF Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

“Every Pixar movie has its protagonist achieving the goal he wants only to realize it is not what the protagonist needs. Typically, this leads the protagonist to let go of what he wants (a house, the Piston Cup, Andy) to get what he needs (a true yet unlikely companion, real friends, a lifetime together with friends).” Such emotional complexity turns out to be central to the most elevated endings.

Researchers Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen teamed up with two other scholars to explore what makes endings meaningful. In one of their studies, the researchers approached Stanford seniors on graduation day to survey them about how they felt. To one group, they gave the following instructions: “Keeping in mind your current experiences, please rate the degree to which you feel each of the following emotions,” and then gave them a list of 19 emotions. To the other group, they added one sentence to the instructions to raise the significance that something was ending: “As a graduating senior, today is the last day that you will be a student at Stanford. Keeping that in mind, please rate the degree to which you feel each of the following emotions.”

The researchers found that at the core of meaningful endings is one of the most complex emotions humans experience: poignancy, a mix of happiness and sadness. For graduates and everyone else, the most powerful endings deliver poignancy because poignancy delivers significance. One reason we overlook poignancy is that it operates by an upside-down form of emotional physics. Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. “Poignancy,” the researchers write, “seems to be particular to the experience of endings.” The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead, they produce something richer — a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we need.

Endings offer good news and bad news about our behavior and judgment. I’ll give you the bad news first, of course. Endings help us evaluate and record our experiences, but they can sometimes twist our memory and cloud our perception by overweighting final moments and neglecting the totality.

But endings can also be a positive force. They can help energize us to reach a goal. They can help us edit the nonessential from our lives. And they can help us elevate — not through the simple pursuit of happiness but through the more complex power of poignancy. Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.

From When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink, published by Riverhead. An imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Daniel H. Pink.

This article is featured in the January/February 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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