Despite the folk wisdom that “no news is good news,” almost everyone is reluctant to communicate bad news. For example, your best friend, Tom, has applied for a job that he wants very badly. You learn that he will definitely be offered the job. You can hardly wait to tell him the good news. You will take pleasure in letting Tom know all the details. Now, contrast this with your feelings if you learn that Tom will definitely not get the job he wants so much. In this case, you probably feel awful and do not look forward to communicating the news to Tom. You might even decide to say nothing about what you found out. This reluctance to communicate bad news is very strong under a large variety of types of news, potential recipients, and circumstances. The reluctance to communicate bad news is so general and so robust that it has been given its own name: the MUM effect. When it comes to bad news, it seems that, indeed, “Mum’s the word.”
Despite its robustness, the reluctance to communicate bad news is not universal. Anyone who has paid attention to the news media can’t help forming the impression that bad news is reported with alacrity. Our experience with rumors or gossip or urban myths also suggests that there is no bias against communicating bad news. So, the MUM effect seems to be restricted to situations in which the news affects the well-being of the potential recipient. In one study, for example, participants learned that there was a telephone message telling another participant to call home right away about some good news or about some bad news. When given the opportunity to communicate the message to the person for whom the message was intended, participants were more likely to mention the good news than the bad news. Interestingly, however, this difference disappeared when the participants were given the opportunity to communicate to a bystander. In fact, participants were slightly more likely to mention the bad news than the good news to a bystander. The implication of this is sobering: The person who is affected by the bad news is less likely to learn about it than is a bystander!
Understanding the MUM Effect
Psychologists are rarely content with just an empirical regularity like the MUM effect. They want to understand why there is a reluctance to communicate bad news. At least three broad concerns might affect a communicator’s propensity to transmit a particular message. Communicators might be concerned with their own well-being, they might be concerned about the potential recipient, or they might be guided by situational norms or what they understand as “the right thing to do.”
“Kill the messenger.” Folk wisdom suggests that the bearer of bad news may be disliked even if he or she is in no way responsible for the news. And, there is experimental research demonstrating the validity of that suggestion. Perhaps the MUM effect arises because potential communicators fear that they would be disliked if they were to convey the bad news. Another explanation of the MUM effect arising from self-concern implicates guilt. There is a pervasive tendency to believe that the world is (or should be) fair. Perhaps conveying bad news to another tends to make the communicator who is not experiencing the bad fate feel guilty. Because he or she wants to avoid feeling guilty, bad news tends to be withheld. A third self-concern that might account for the MUM effect comes from recognizing that one must adopt a somber if not sad demeanor in conveying bad news. Perhaps potential communicators tend to withhold bad news because they are reluctant to adopt a negative mood. Experimental research has provided evidence for all three of these self-concern factors.
The reluctance to communicate bad news may come from a concern with the recipient. When people are asked to explain why they would or would not communicate good or bad news they seem to focus on the recipient. For example, compared with good news, people are more likely to say that the reason they would communicate bad news is because the recipient might have to use that information in some way. People also say that they withhold bad news because they do not want to put the recipient in a bad mood. Often, communicators assume that potential recipients do not want to hear the bad news. (This assumption is sometimes erroneous. For example, some surveys indicate that medical professionals believe that patients do not want to hear bad news, but patients say they do want to hear such news.) When people are made explicitly aware that a potential recipient wants to hear the news, whether it is good or bad, the MUM effect is reduced.
Finally, the MUM effect may be a result of ambiguous norms. Conveying good news doesn’t seem to be an issue. There are few potential costs. On the other hand, if you give a person bad news, there are potential personal costs such as being disliked or feeling guilty. Or, you might upset the recipient or embarrass him or her. Are you the appropriate person to be handling the aftermath? You could be seen as prying or butting in. There simply aren’t clear rules telling people what to do with bad news. Indeed, there is a strong positive correlation between how good a message is and people’s willingness to relay the message. Although people are reluctant to communicate bad news, there is little correlation between how bad the news is and their (un)willingness to communicate it. More directly touching the norm issue is the agreement among people on their likelihood to communicate news. There is good agreement (clear norms) in the case of good news but lower agreement (unclear norms) regarding the transmission of bad news.
The MUM effect refers to a tendency to withhold bad news compared with good news. This tendency is most likely to show itself when the potential recipient is the person for whom the news is consequential and appears to be the result of communicators’ concern with own well-being, recipient well-being, and unclear norms regarding the handling of bad news.
- Tesser, A., & Rosen, S. (1975). The reluctance to transmit bad news. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 8, pp. 194-232). New York: Academic Press.