“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.

Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

As religious diversity increases in the United States, we must learn to channel religious identity into interfaith cooperation.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Religious diversity is the norm in American life, and that diversity is only increasing, says Eboo Patel.
  • Using the most painful moment of his life as a lesson, Eboo Patel explains why it's crucial to be positive and proactive about engaging religious identity towards interfaith cooperation.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Should universities be held accountable for student debt?

On the first episode of The Portal, Eric Weinstein and Peter Thiel discuss the future of education.

Photo credit: Lane Turner / The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • On his new podcast, The Portal, Eric Weinstein dives into student debt and the function of universities with Peter Thiel.
  • Weinstein floats the idea of a college equivalence degree (CED) through an online testing system.
  • Thiel notes that if you don't pay off your student debt by age 65, the government garnishes your social security checks.
Keep reading Show less

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less