When Is The Best Time To Break Bad News?


Madison Dapcevich

Staff Writer

clockAug 7 2018, 00:11 UTC

We'll give you a hint: it's not over text. Pathdoc/Shutterstock

There’s never an ideal time to hit someone with a bad-news bombshell, but doing so while that person is stressed could help buffer the blow, according to new research published in the Journal of Neuroscience

This counterintuitive notion may be down to the fact that in general people tend to believe they are at a lesser risk of something negative happening to them than their peers. Known as optimism bias, this psychological theory suggests that people underestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen to them – like being in a car accident – and overestimate the possibility of positive events, such as winning the lottery. In some cases, optimism is not always a good thing: it can make people overconfident in risky decisions or cause them to miss health checkups, for example.


Stress, on the other hand, has a much different effect.

People are optimistic when they’re calm, which makes them more likely to ignore bad news about their future and welcome good news. But when people are stressed, they become more aware and accepting of bad news, which suggests they process information differently depending on what’s going on around them. The researchers say this ability to flexibly shift between optimism and stress “can be a healthy, adaptive response to changing environmental demands.”

Threat dissolves the human tendency to readily accept good news over bad, according to experiments conducted both in the lab and with on-duty firefighters. The findings provide a potential mechanism by which levels of optimism are adapted to the relative safety or danger of the environment. Garrett et al., JNeurosci (2018)

It should be noted that the study was relatively small with just 35 subjects. In a controlled laboratory setting, researchers created a stressful environment by telling half of the participants they would need to give a public speech after the task (of course, that’s assuming you’re not one of those people who enjoy public speaking).


Participants were then hooked to a machine to measure stress levels and were asked to estimate how likely they would be to experience a negative life event, such as being in a car accident or becoming the victim of card fraud. Participants were then told that their likelihood of experiencing these events was much lower (good news) or higher (bad news) and were then asked to give new estimates.

Those who hadn’t been told they were going to give a public speech were more susceptible to good news than bad. On the other hand, the stressed participants became better at processing bad news. The experiment was also repeated for on-duty firefighters, who had their anxiety levels measured and who self-reported their stress before and after taking calls. The researchers found similar results. However, these results may not hold true for those who suffer from mood disorders.

And to answer your question: Don’t wait until “the right time” to break bad news. Rather, stressful or intense times could make a person more ready to accept upcoming obstacles and adapt in a more beneficial way.

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