“Shooting the messenger” is a real condition, explain scientists

Harvard psychologists discover why we dislike the people who deliver bad news.

  • A new study looked at why people tend to "shoot the messenger".
  • It's a fact that people don't like those who deliver them bad news.
  • The effect stems from our inherent need to make sense of bad or unpredictable situations.


Have you ever felt like you really didn't like the person who gave you some particularly bad news? Maybe it wasn't even their fault – all they did is tell you about it, but had nothing to do with the news themselves. Still, you couldn't help but hate them for it, even if you logically knew it wasn't right. Well, it turns out you are not alone in this feeling – wanting to "shoot the messenger" is a widespread psychological reality for many humans. It's just how we are wired, says a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In the course of 11 experiments conducted by Leslie John and her team at Harvard University, psychologists have proven that we do have the tendency to dislike the bearers of bad news, no matter how innocent they are in the situation.

One such experiment involved an opportunity to win an additional $2 by having a research assistant picking a number from a hat. The subjects would get the money depending on the number being odd or even. Another person, the assistant's colleague, was tasked with delivering the outcome of the pick.

While they had nothing else to judge the "messenger" for, participants who got the bad news that they didn't win the money rated this innocent conveyor of the message as less likable, in contrast to those who got the news that they won.

The effect seemed to extend specifically to those who were delivering the news rather than others who were also in the room. In another experiment, the study's subjects had to imagine a hospital scenario where they were told about a skin biopsy result. From the two nurses who relayed the message, the one who was the actual "messenger" of the bad news about the biopsy being cancerous was deemed less likable, as opposed to the nurse who was also there to make a follow-up appointment.

This outcome was heightened when the bad news was unexpected or less logical, found the researchers. In one experiment involving an airport delay scenario, the participants who were told that another plane was suddenly given their plane's departure slot were particularly upset with the staff member who told them so. Such a reaction stems from situations that "violate[s] the commonly held beliefs that the world is just, predictable, and comprehensible," concluded scientists.

Overall, the research team found that the desire to "shoot the messenger" comes from our inherent need to make sense of bad or unpredictable situations. People also can't help but try to ascribe ill motives to such messengers or see them as incompetent, even if that makes little logical sense.

Trying to combat this effect is worthwhile – particularly, in medical situations.

"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 wrote.

Check out the new paper here.

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