The Reluctance to Transmit Bad News1

The Reluctance to Transmit Bad News1


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I. The Nature and Generality of the MUM Effect . . . . . A. The Nature of the Phenomenon . . . . . . . . B. The Generality of the Phenomenon . . . . . . . . 11. Toward an Understanding of the MUM Effect. . . . . . A. Communicator’s Self-concern and the MUM Effect . . . . B. Communicator’s Concern with the Recipient and the MUM Effect. C. Communicator’s Concern with Norms and the MUM Effect . D. Summary. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111. Implications of the MUM Effect . . . . . . . . . References . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


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In this chapter we shall be concerned with a pervasive bias on the part of communicators to encode (transmit) messages that are pleasant for the recipient and to avoid encoding those that are unpleasant. We have termed this alleged tendency to keep mum about unpleasant messages the “MUM effect.” In the sections to follow, we attempt to define it more precisely and to demonstrate its existence unambiguously. We gratefully acknowledge the valuable contributions of Mary Charles Conlee to the editing of a preliminary draft of this paper. Much of the work reported here was supported by Public Health Service Research Grant MH 18387 from the National Institute of Mental Health to Sidney Rosen and Abraham Tesser. Additional support was provided for Abraham Tesser by the Institute for Behavioral Research at the University of Georgia. We are grateful for this support. 193



We review evidence attesting to its generality, empirically examine a number of hypotheses generated to account for it, and suggest some implications of it.

I. The Nature and Generality of the MUM Effect A. THENATURE OF THE PHENOMENON

The hypothesized MUM effect appears to have considerable intuitive validity: “Of course people don’t like to give others bad news!” Nevertheless, although anecdotal evidence is plentiful, our search of the empirical literature revealed no straightforward demonstration of, nor explicit attempt to demonstrate, the effect. Whenever a relevant study was found, the effect of news uaknce-i.e., of whether the news was good or badwas confounded with variables of more immediate concern to the investigators, who had other objectives in mind, A good example of this may be seen in a role-play study by Leventhal, Michaels, and Sanford (1972), which provided support for Lawler’s hypothesis (1967a, 1967b) that information about relative pay in organizations is withheld in the belief that it is better for lower-paid employees not to be told this bad news. Here, withholding bad news is an “instrumental response . , to minimize dissatisfaction and conflict” ( p. 100). An unambiguous demonstration of the MUM effect should not be linked, as was this example, with obvious extrinsic differential rewards associated with telling good or bad news. Nor should news valence be dependent on the recipient’s prior behavior; in the Leventhal et al. study, relative pay was positively correlated with relative job competency. Nor should the communicator be the author, originator, or causal agent of the news; in their study the communicator determined the pay level. Furthermore, the MUM effect needs to be demonstrated under conditions where the (potential) communicator and recipient are free of stabilized status differences, a condition that is typically unsatisfied in studies of valenced communication in status hierarchies (6.Kelley, 1951). The question then arises as to whether anything, or anything nontrivial, remains once these desiderata have been satisfied, folk wisdom notwithstanding (see Stotland, 1965). (Note that the aphorism “No news is good news” implies the “anti-MUM prediction that bad news is more likely to be communicated than good news.)


1. Demonstrating the M U M Effect Our first experiment (Rosen & Tesser, 1970) was an attempt to provide a stringent test of the hypothesized MUM effect by meeting



all the criteria mentioned above. The following procedure was designed to accomplish this: Subjects ( N = 36) were recruited for a “consumer preference” study and given a number to call if they were going to be late or absent. When each subject arrived, he was seated at one of three tables containing men’s deodorant sticks (this may have suggested the acronym MUM) and began making various judgments about them while the experimenter busied herself with some other work. While the subject was so employed, a messenger came in to say that there was a phone call for G. L. (the recipient). From the experimenter’s reply it became apparent that G. L. was another “subject” who was due any minute. The messenger then requested that when G. L. arrived he be told to call home concerning some good (or bad) news. After a couple of minutes the experimenter excused herself and left, too. The recipient then showed up and provided the subject with several opportunities to convey the message. If the phone call was mentioned without any indication of whether the news was good or bad, the recipient also probed for the valence of the message. The results were noteworthy in two respects. First, every subject but one mentioned that there had been a phone call, indicating that all subjects felt some pressure to transmit part of the message. Second, subjects in the good news condition were much more likely to mention the valence of the call (82%)than were those in the bad news condition (26%;p < .01) even though those who simply mentioned that there was a call were then explicitly asked if there was anything else to the message.

2. Delimiting the Phenomenon The Rosen and Tesser (1970) experiment provided strong support for the hypothesis that people are reluctant to transmit bad news. Still, a glance at your morning paper suggests that, by and large, people relish communicating bad news. The MUM hypothesis does not necessarily predict that people are less likely to transmit bad news in general. It might be asked whether a precise definition of the effect should include something to the effect that the reluctance to transmit bad news is to the person for whom the news i s bd-i.e., the Target or relevant recipient-rather than a Bystander or indirect recipient. Tesser, Rosen, and Conlee ( 1 9 7 2 ~ )designed a laboratory study to pursue this question. They recruited 64 female subjects for a “learning” experiment. When each subject arrived she was directed to a waiting room. There, she was drawn into a conversation with two other “subjects” who were wearing prominent name tags. The two other “subjects” were actually confederates (the Target or relevant recipient, and the Bystander), and the conversation established the following points: The



subject was not in the same experiment as the confederates; the two confederates had only just met; one of the confederates (the Target) was anxious about some news from home. Following this, the confederate who was not to be the potential recipient left saying that she could no longer wait for her experiment to get started. After a few moments the second confederate (the potential recipient) left to “see how much longer my experiment’s going to be.” A messenger then entered the room, mistook the subject for the Target, and proceeded to give her the message intended for the Targetnamely, that the Target’s roommate called to say that the Target should call home about some very good/ bad news. Shortly after the messenger left, the potential recipient (either the Target or the Bystander) returned to provide the subject with several opportunities to communicate the message. Again, the subject was probed for additional information if she mentioned only the call. In sum, this procedure established a 2 X 2 design: good news vs. bad news; Target as potential recipient vs. Bystander as potential recipient. All subjects mentioned that there was a call. A partitioned xZ on whether news valence was mentioned yielded a significant overall effect due to news valence ( p < .01) and a significant news valence by recipient interaction ( p < .05). In the Bystander condition over 85% of the subjects communicated the news valence, good or bad. When the recipient was the Target, there was a significant tendency (p < .01) for the valenced portion of the good news message to be transmitted more frequently (loOra) than the corresponding portion of the bad news message (50%). Looked at from another perspective, bad news tended to be communicated more frequently to Bystanders than to Targets ( p < .05): and good news tended to be communicated slightly more frequently (n. s. ) to Targets than to Bystanders. Since the message content was identical for Target and Bystander, these results make untenable any explanation of the MUM effect in terms of message content per se. The reluctance to transmit bad news to the Target is even more noteworthy in view of the following postexperimental questionnaire results : Regardless of news valence, subjects saw the Target, compared with the Bystander, as having a greater interest in ( p < .Ol), desire to know (p < .05), and right to know ( p < ,001) the message. These data, coupled with a marginally significant tendency ( p < .lo) for communicators to characterize bad news as more urgent than good news, also clarified an issue that the earlier study (Rosen & Tesser, 1970) had left unresolved: The effect of news valence is characterized more by suppressed communication of bad news than by enhanced communication of good news,



In sum, the greater reluctance to communicate bad news than good news is restricted to those situations in which the recipient is the person whose fate is altered by the circumstances described in the message. The data have a rather disturbing practical implication. The very individual who needs to know most, he to whom a misfortune has occurred, may well be the person least likely to be told about it.

B. THE GENERALITY OF THE PHENOMENON The previous studies were concerned with matters of internal validity and definition. The present section is addressed to the question of the generality of the effect over settings, communicators, recipients, messages, and alternative indices of reluctance to communicate. 1. Settings

The MUM effect has been reported in a large variety of field settings. Goethe and Cole (1969) ran a field experiment in a university library. A naive subject was approached with a goodlbad news message for a girl who was not in sight, but whose books were on the subject's table. When the girl returned she was more likely to be told the good news than the bad news message. Barnes (1972) obtained a MUM cffect in shopping-center parking lots. She left "lost" postcards, containing either good or bad news for the addressee, on the windshields of parked cars. The good news cards were mailed more frequently than the bad news cards, although this effect was significant only with female addressees.2 Tesser, Rosen, and Tesser ( 1971) reported data suggesting a MUM effect in a social work agency. There appeared to be more reluctance to communicate the decision to deny aid than to grant aid to the physically disabled. The effect began to emerge in spite of the fact that communication was not face-to-face, was on a form letter, and was a rather routine, frequency occurrence. The MUM effect also seems to occur in medical settings. For example, several surveys (Feifel, 1963; Fitts & Ravdin, 1953; Life Magazine, 1972; Oken, 1961 ) indicate that most doctors favor not telling terminal patients that they are dying, even though most patients express a desire to know (Feifel, 1963; Kelly & Friesen, 1950; Life Magazine, 1972). In fact, the two most anxietyarousing situations for medical students during their first year of medical Deaw ( 1974), also using a "lost postcard paradigm, failed to obtain a significant MUM effect, nor did sex of recipient make a difference. Her procedure and low return rate (33%)were sufficiently different from Barnes' to consider the results noncomparable. Transmission of all messages was significantly and directly influenced, however, by message importance.



school are discussing a fatal illness with a patient, and telling a relative that a patient has died (Saul & Kass, 1969).

2. Communicators and Recipients The effect also has some generality across communicators and recipients. A series of studies with college students suggest that the effect appears among close friends (Blumberg, 1972; Mayer, 1957) as well as anonymous strangers ( Rosen & Tesser, 1972). Manipulations varying the attractiveness/ similarity of the recipient do not eliminate the effect ( Rosen, Johnson, Johnson, & Tesser, 1973), nor do manipulations of the expected emotionality of the recipient (King, 1972). The M U M effect appears regardless of the mood of the communicator (Tesser, Rosen, & Waranch, 1973) or of the recipient (Tesser, Rosen, & Batchelor, 197213). Rosen, Grandison, and Stewart ( 1974) have demonstrated the effect with communicators responsible for hiring or not hiring job applicants. Besides college students, doctors, nurses, and relatives of terminally ill patients show a MUM effect in their communicative behavior (Glaser & Strauss, 1965), as do professional social workers when they communicate to their clients (Tesser et d.,1971), and shoppers (Barnes, 1972) who find postcards addressed to a stranger. The MUM effect occurs despite the sex of recipient or communicator (Rosen & Tesser, 1970; Tesser, Rosen, & Batchelor, 1972a, 1972b), aIthough there appear to be some sex differences. Tesser et a2. (1972b) present evidence which suggests that female communicators see messages as more urgent, and feel more obliged to communicate the good and the bad, than do male communicators. As recipients, females elicit greater expressions of obligation for communicating than do males. Similarly, Barnes (1972) found that females were more likely than males to send, and to receive ( although insignificantly), the postcards. 3. Messages

In most of our laboratory work (e.g., Rosen & Tesser, 1970), the communicator was told only that the news was either good or bad, without being given any other explicit information concerning the nature of the news. This seems to be a “pure” manipulation and tends to eliminate any interpretations of transmission differences in terms of differences between messages other than news valence. Given this manipulation, bad news is communicated less completely and spontaneously than good news. Other more specific messages have also been used in our laboratory work. For example, communicators are more likely to tell a recipient that he is not going to be shocked (electrically) than that he is going



to be shocked, given that the communicator does not share his fate (Tesser & Rosen, 1972). Conlee and Tesser (1973) showed that a recipient is less likely to be told how he had done on an aptitude test if he had done poorly than if he had done well. Rosen et al. (1974) obtained the effect with messages concerning whether or not a job applicant would receive the job. Mayer's subjects (1957) said they were more likely to communicate their feelings about the person their friend was dating if they approved of her date than if they did not approve. Recently, Blumberg (1972) found that communicators are n. 3 likely to discuss a friends positive traits than his negative traits. In her postcard study, Barnes ( 1972) obtained the effect using romantic messages (i.e., there is a happy future for us together vs. there is no happy future for us together). Applicants for government aid to the disabled find out faster whether or not they will receive aid, if in fact they are to receive it than if they are not (Tesser, et al., 1971); and terminal illness patients may never be told the seriousness of their illness (Glaser & Strauss, 1965). In one study (Tesser et al., 1972a), 55 messages were generated so as to be as heterogeneous as possible and to range over the entire continuum of pleasantness-from very good news for the recipient (e.g., the operation on her [his] mother was successful) to relatively neutral news (e.g., her [his] brother is in Cincinnati) to extremely bad news (e.g., her [his] best friend died of leukemia), These messages were scaled by one group of subjects as to how pleasant or unpleasant a recipient would find the message to be. A separate group of subjects indicated the probability with which they would transmit the news. Both scaling tasks were performed with reference to a standard communication setting; sex of recipient was counterbalanced. The correlation over the 55 messages between the mean ratings of pleasantness and the mean rated probability of transmission was .73.3 This correlation suggests that, in general, over n broad array of messages, the more pleasant the message for the recipient, the more likely he is to receive it." a It should be noted that the linear relationship between transmisson and message pleasantness holds only if the message is on the positive side of neutral and not if it is on the negative side of neutral. See Section I1,C. In a recent experiment, Hornbuckle ( 1974) closely followed the procedures used in the first MUM experiment (Rosen & Tesser, 1970), with one important exception. For his independent variable he employed two bad news messages that differed markedly in their relative unpleasantness : the recipient's bicycle was stolen vs. a member of the recipient's family passed away. Most of the subjects (75%) transmitted the valence of the mildly unpleasant message to the recipient ( a confederate); no one (0%) communicated the valence of the highly unpleasant message ( P < .001).



4. Indices of Transmission The MUM effect has also been observed by using a variety of communication indices, In most of the experimental work the major index of transmission has been whether or not the valence of the message is communicated. A more elaborated index was the number of opportunities foregone before communicating. Subjects exhibit a MUM effect not only in direct behavior, but also in telling how they would respond to good and bad news (Tesser et al., 1972b). Reported anxiety in communicating bad news (Saul & Kass, 1969) seems to be consistent with the effect. Latency of transmitting a message that must be communicated appears also to reflect reluctance to communicate (Tesser et al., 1971). Blumberg (1972) obtained the effect using as an index of transmission the recalled incidence of discussing positive and negative traits of friends with those friends. Barnes (1972) found the effect using Milgram’s lostletter technique (Milgram, Mann, & Harter, 1965). More lost postcards containing good news than bad news were returned. Rosen et al. (1974) used “discriminatory buck-passing” as an index of reluctance to communicate. Subjects were led to believe that they were responsible for communicating to a “real” job applicant whether or not he would actually get the job. They could communicate directly with the applicant or “pass the buck-i.e., get a subordinate to tell the applicant. Subjects “passed the buck” more frequently when the applicant was not to be hired than when he was to be hired. It appears that the MUM effect is a robust phenomenon having great generality over settings, communicators, recipients, messages, and indices of transmission.

11. Toward an Understanding of the MUM Effect Many social phenomena are multicausal ( Hollander, 1971). The assumption that the MUM effect too is multicausal, and the fact that almost nothing was known about the effect, determined our research strategy in trying to understand it. This strategy consisted in investigating a number of plausible hypotheses concerning the determinants of the MUM effect instead of focusing on any single determinant. Earlier we suggested that the MUM effect was an encoding biasthe communicator has decoded the message but tends to hold back bad news. Broadly speaking, the communicator may withhold the bad news out of self-concern, out of concern for the recipient, or simply to comply with norms. Each of these sources of the MUM effect are dealt with below.



A. COMMUNICATOR’S SELF-CONCERN AND THE MUM EFFFXT One overall class of determinants of the MUM effect may be the communicator’s unwillingness to bear various costs associated with transmitting bad news. In this section we review research designed to assess the role of three such potential costs in the communication of good and bad news: feelings of guilt, fear of being negatively evaluated, and adoption of a negative affective state.

1. The Guilt Hypothesis According to Heider (1958) : “If 0 is unfortunate, P may feel that he also should be unfortunate. He may even feel guilty about having luck ( p. 288). Similarly, Lerner’s ( Lerner & Simmons, 1966; Simmons & Lerner, 1968) “just world hypothesis suggests that, if something bad happens to the recipient and the communicator cannot ( a ) derogate the recipient, ( b ) see the event as not very noxious, or ( c ) see the event as happening to himself also, the communicator should experience guilt. In both the Rosen and Tesser ( 1970) and the Tesser et al. ( 1 9 7 2 ~ ) studies described earlier, the consequences described in the message directly affected only the recipient and not the communicator, as is the case in many naturally occurring situations. One might therefore expect that guilt was felt by those particular communicators of bad news (guilt in the communicators of good news would obviously not occur). Indeed, subjects in bad news conditions do tend to rate themselves, postbehaviorally, as experiencing more guilt than do subjects in good news conditions ( Rosen et al., 1973; Tesser et al., 1972c, 1973). Guilt is an unpleasant affective state. It should therefore prompt people to avoid entering those situations, and making those responses, that are guilt-producing or guilt-associated. Bad news for someone else constitutes an inequity of fate, and, since such an inequity is guilt-producing, the communicator should refrain from telling the bad news to the intended recipient. Consistent with this reasoning, the correlations between the postexperimental reporting of guilt and actual prior transmission of bad news were negative in the three above-cited studies and in one study involving only bad news (Tesser & Conlee, 1973). Suppose, however, that the communicator were to share the recipient’s bad fate. In this more equitable circumstance there should be no guilt, and hence no reason to withhold communication. What is needed to test the hypothesis is a comparison of transmission rates between a bad news-dissimilar fate condition (guilt present) and a bad news-similar fate condition (guilt absent). It might be useful also to



have similar and dissimilar fate-good news conditions. If the effects of similarity of fate differed for good and bad news transmission, this would strengthen the interpretation that guilt plays a mediational role in producing the MUM effect and weaken any interpretation that similarity of fate per se increases communication. The necessary conditions were created in a “learning” experiment for which 72 females (48 for an original experiment, 24 for a replication involving bad news only) were recruited (Tesser & Rosen, 1972). When each subject arrived she was led into a room containing some irrelevant electronic equipment and a battery-operated stimulator. While she waited for a “partner” to show up, she was told that the experiment was being run to determine the effects of stimulation (shock) and the presence of another on performance in a learning task. If she agreed to continue in the experiment after taking a sample shock, there was a 50% chance that she would receive no more shocks. (All agreed to continue after sampling a very mild shock-700 microcoulombs. ) Each subject was also told that she was in the “together” condition and that she and her partner would learn in the presence of one another. They would get to know one another by writing notes, since “what a person says in a note is better thought out.” The experimenter added that after subjects agree to continue they are told whether or not they are to be shocked. The subject was handed a card containing her own name and the name of her “partner.” Next to each name was printed Shock or No-Shock. Since the subject later discovered that the partner found the same shock extremely noxious, those conditions where the partner was to be shocked represented bad news for the partner, while those conditions where the partner was not to be shocked represented good news, Specifically, “subject shock, partner shock” was similar fate-bad news; “subject no shock, partner shock” was dissimilar fate-bad news; “subject no shock, partner no shock” was similar fate-good news; and “subject shock, partner no shock” was dissimilar fate-good news. The subject’s “partner” ( an experimental confederate ) arrived late. She was introduced to the subject, seated in an adjoining booth, quickly given the instructions, and then given the sample shock to which she reacted with a convincing outcry. The experimenter then asked the subject and her “partner” to get to know each other by sending notes. Except for answers to direct questions, the “partner’s” five notes were standard and included probes intended to give the subject an opportunity to communicate the partner’s fate. For example, the probe on the third note was: “Wish I knew whether or not I’ll be shocked.” The major dependent variable was



whether or not the subject unambiguously told her partner about the shock. There was a significant ( p < .05) similarity of fate X news valence interaction on postexperimental ratings of guilt; subjects in the dissimilar fate-bad news condition felt significantly more guilty than did similar fate-bad news and dissimilar fate-good news subjects ( p < .05 for both). Neither of the other simple effects was significant ( F < 1 for both). A replication of the bad news-similar fate and bad news-dissimilar fate conditions ( n = 12 per cell) also yielded the appropriate difference ( p < -05). Concerning actual transmission ( in both replications ), there was, as expected, a MUM effect: Good news was communicated more frequently (79%) than bad news (52%;p < .05), There was no overall similarity of fate effect, but the news valence by similarity of fate interaction was significant ( p < .05). As predicted, dissimilar fate-bad news subjects communicated significantly less often ( 38%) than did either similar fate-bad news (67%)subjects or dissimilar fate-good news (92%)subjects ( p < .05, p < .01, respectively). The close correspondence between the predicted and obtained outcomes regarding guilt and transmission seems to provide strong support for the guilt hypothesis. There are several reservations, however, that should be considered. First, the correlations between felt guilt and transmission under bad news-dissimilar fate circumstances were neither significant nor uniformly negative in both replications. Furthermore, while subjects in the bystander experiment ( Tesser et al., 1972c) transmitted the bad news significantly less to the Target than to the Bystander, they felt equally guilty in both recipient conditions. [Perhaps one avoids telling the target the bad news so as not to compound one’s guilt feelings by thoughts of being in a “unit relation” (Feather, 1967; Heider, 1958) with the pain-causing message. J A final reservation concerns the question of whether the similarity of fate manipulation elicited not only guilt but other mediators as well. Just such a possibility is explored below.

2. The Fear-of-Negntive-Evaluation Hypothesis Some of television’s top executives, on growing sensitive to the negative reactions of the viewing public to television’s extensive coverage of the unhappy events of the late 1960s, reportedly made frequent allusions to the custom practiced by ancient Persian generals of killing messengers who brought bad news (Small, 1970). Similarly, one of Shakespeare’s characters, Northumberland, remarks that “. . , the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office . . .” ( H e n q ZV, Part 1 1 ) . More desirable, of course, than such anecdotal material would be empiri-



cal evidence supporting the fear-of-negative-evaluation hypothesis. Before turning to such evidence, however, it is necesary to make explicit the theoretical basis for this hypothesis. Our first assumption was that people are motivated to obtain a positive rather than a negative evaluation from, and to be liked rather than disliked by, strangers. Second, potential communicators expect that communicating bad news is more likely to result in their being negatively evaluated or less positively evaluated by the recipient, than communicating good news. It follows that communicators will be less willing to transmit bad news than good news. Why should a communicator fear a negative evaluation for telling bad news? Perhaps the recipient would be jealous and resentful of the communicator’s good fortune, if he believed the communicator were being spared the same fate. Or, possibly, the recipient would attribute malevolent intent to the communicator, out of a belief that the communicator was causally associated with the news and wished to see him suffer, or a belief that the communicator wished to gloat over his own relative good fortune. Conditioning theory suggests another reason. There is substantial support for the proposition that anyone associated with a negative stimulus acquires aversive stimulus properties himself (Lott & Lott, 1968). In fact, Manis, Cornell, and Moore (1974) have recently provided evidence that this proposition holds in communication situations. Communicators who summarized messages challenging a recipient’s views were rejected by recipients more than were other communicators, although recipients knew that the communicators were not responsible for the message but were simply acting as passive communication channels. Indirect support for the fear-of-negative-evaluation hypothesis is provided by postexperimental responses to fifteen questionnaire items from five different studies (Rosen et al., 1973; Rosen & Tesser, 1972; Tesser & Rosen, 1972; Tesser et al., 1972c, 1973). The communicators made it clear that they expect recipients to evaluate them more positively when the news is good than when it is bad. The finding that bad news was transmitted more to the Bystander than to the Target in the bystander experiment (Tesser et al., 1972c) is also consistent with the hypothesis. The first study expressly designed to test the fear-of-negative-evaluation hypothesis was an experiment ( N = 32) which used a variant of the usual paradigm (Rosen & Tesser, 1972). Fear of negative evaluation was varied through the manipulation of the communicator’s anonymity vis-A-vis the recipient. Namely, the subject was led to believe that he and his partner would know one another’s name and would interact



on a face-to-face basis, or that they would know only each other’s code names and would not see one another during the discussion (thus assuring the subject of anonymity). After the familiar messenger sequence, and while the subject was alone, the telephone rang. The caller used his real name/code name to identify himself as the recipient. It had been predicted that news valence and anonymity would interact, with bad news being told least and good news most, under conditions of nonanonymity. Instead, there was the expected and significant main effect of news valence, but there was also an unexpected, significant main effect of anonymity in the wrong direction for bad news. The post hoc explanation was offered that, owing to certain particular procedural details, the circumstances created were such as to give subjects in the nonanonymous condition more reason to fear negative evaluation for not telling the bad news than for telling it. Clearly, however, a more satisfactory test of the negative-evaluation hypothesis was needed. We intimated earlier that the experiment involving the similarity-offate manipulation (Tesser & Rosen, 1972) may have elicited other mediators along with, or instead of, guilt, For instance, what the communicator believed (guilt determinant) and what he thought the recipient believed concerning the sharing of fate may well have been confounded. If the communicator thought the recipient believed the fate was to be shared, he should have less reason to fear negative evaluation, since it would be difficult for the recipient to attribute malevolent intent to him or to derogate him out of jealousy of his relatively good fortune. Therefore, the two belief factors were varied orthogonally in an experiment involving 64 females ( R . E. Johnson, Conlee, & Tesser, 1974) and bad news only. A modified version of the “learning” (shock) paradigm was employed. This time the subject’s partner was already present when she arrived, Another confederate then came into the waiting room, posing as a subject who had just participated in the experiment and was now returning to pick up his personal things. This second confederate performed the manipulation of what the recipient would supposedly believe about the sharing of fate. For the shared fate conditions he indicated that both or neither would get shocked. For the dissimilar fate conditions he remarked that one of them would be shocked, but the other would not. After this informant left, the experimenter returned and led subject and partner to adjoining rooms where they were to work on mirror tracing tasks. It was explained that the subject would go first, after which the partner could ask her questions about the task, since both were to do the next task. The experimenter added that every subject would receive a sample shock, but that after the question-andanswer period only half the subjects would be shocked again. After



completion of the first task, the mild sample shocks were administered and the subject discovered that her “partner” found the shock very painful. At this point the experimenter manipulated the communicator’s belief about the sharing of fate, by showing her a card containing both her name and that of the partner. In all conditions, the card indicated that the partner would be shocked (bad news). It also indicated whether or not the subject, too, would be shocked. Finally, the experimenter remarked to the subject that she had forgotten to tell the partner whether the partner would be shocked again, but that she would find out soon enough, During the question-and-answer period that followed, the partner submitted written questions that the subject could answer in writing by checking “Yes,” “NO,”or “I’m not sure.” In the third note the partner reinforced the recipient belief manipulation and her own fear of being shocked. The note also contained the following key question: “Do you think I’ll get shocked?” The subject’s reply terminated the experiment. Subjects were asked in a postexperimental questionnaire how guilty they felt. The guilt hypothesis calls for a greater expression of gullt when the subject believes only her partner would be shocked, than when she believes both would be shocked, regardless of what the recipient believes. This was clearly the case ( p < -01).But with regard to actua2 transmission, although frequency of transmission was greater when the subject believed both would be shocked (83%) rather than only the recipient (so%), this difference was not significant. On the other hand, the fear-of-negative-evaluation predictions were uniformly supported. When, from the subject’s perspective, the recipient believed only one of them would be shocked, the average subject showed greater concern with what the recipient would think of her if she told her the bad news, than when the recipient believed both would share the same fate ( p < .OW). Concerning actual transmission, most subjects (78%)told the recipient the bad news when the recipient believed that both would share the same fate; only a minority (34%) did so when the recipient believed just one of them would be shocked ( p < ,001). Also consistent with the fear hypothesis is the significant negative correlation between transmission and concern with impression ( r = --.32; p < .05 one tail) in the “recipient belief fate not shared conditions. In short, although we perhaps should not rule out guilt as a relevant mediator, we are not yet able to make as convincing a case for its impact as compared to that of fear of negative evaluation. The fear-of-negative-evaluation hypothesis provides a plausible explanation of the MUM effect. But it leaves unanswered the question of just what this fear is predicated on. The anonymity study suggests that it isn’t any material or physical cost that the recipient can extract



from the communicator, since anonymous communicators were less likely to transmit bad news. The R. E. Johnson et al. (1974) study suggests that simply being associated with the bad news may not produce a fear of negative evaluation, since all communicators were equally “simply” associated with the bad news, but there were highly significant between-condition differences in communication and concern with impression. At least two candidates still remain: The attribution of malevolent intent and derogation due to jealousy. The presentation of the hypothesis is too simple. Although a communicator may fear a negative evaluation when communicating bad news, how does he think a recipient will evaluate him if he fails to communicate the news? He might anticipate being characterized as irresponsible, cowardly, and deceitful. Hardly a positive evaluation. The explanation offered for the unexpected effect of anonymity suggests that there are circumstances under which failure to communicate bad news may lead to a negative evaluation. Further theoretical and empirical work will have to spell out the conditions under which this might occur.

3. The Mood Hypothesis We have suggested that a communicator’s self-concern in the form of not wanting to endure guilt or a negative evaluation can lead to a reluctance to transmit bad news. The effects of a third kind of self-concern have also been studied. An individual may be concerned about the quality of the affective state (aside from guilt) he is experiencing. It is almost tautological to say that people prefer pleasant, positive mood states to unpleasant, negative mood states. Suppose that one must assume a mood congruent with a message (positive for good news, negative for bad news) in order to transmit it. It would follow that communicators would be more reluctant to communicate bad news than good news. Data from several studies are relevant to this mood hypothesis. In the bystander study (Tesser et al., 1972c) subjects reported experiencing greater enjoyment in talking about the news with the recipient of good than of bad news ( p < .01). They were also asked to scale the pleasantness of their mood before, during, and after talking about news. In the good news condition, the mood was most pleasant during the conversation ( M = 2.44). The results for the bad news condition can be seen in Table I. Self-reported mood pleasantness or comfort associated with bad news transmission showed a similar pattern in studies by Tesser and Conlee (1973) and R. D. Johnson (1972). The differences in mood clearly support the supposition that bad news transmission is accompanied by less positive affect. The bystander study provides further clarification. One would suppose that communica-



TABLE I MEANSAND F-RATIOSOF SELF-REPORTED MOODBEFORE, T A L K I N Q ABOUT BADNEWS Study Tesser et al. (1972~) Pleaaantness of mood4 Tesser and Conlee (1973) Pleasantness of mood R. D. Johnson (1972) Comfortableneea









27 .71b









A lower score is associated with a more positive mood. bp

< .01.

tor mood is more critically relevant when the recipient is the Target than when he is a Bystander. As expected, the difference in mood was more pronounced in the Target than in the Bystander condition on both rated enjoyment of talking and mood pleasantness (during conversation), although the News X Recipient interaction reaches significance only on enjoyment of talking ( p < .05). The difference in enjoyment between good and bad news conditions was not significant when the recipient was the Bystander, but was highly significant when the recipient was the Target ( p < .Ol). Encouraging as these mood data are, an experiment is needed to establish the causal role of mood states in the transmission process. Tesser et al. (1973)reasoned that mood may be implicated in reluctance to transmit, in two ways. First, shifts in mood may be costly. An abrupt shift in mood might make one’s sincerity questionable, require the expenditure of energy, cause a shift in cognitive focus at an inappropriate time, or put one in a state of inconsistency. Given that communicators must assume a congruent affective state (positive for good news, negative for bad news) when communicating, and that mood shifts tend to be avoided, one would expect the following: Communicators in an initially pleasant mood (no shift necessary) are more likely to transmit good news than are communicators in an initially unpleasant mood (shift necessary). By contrast, communicators in an initially pleasant mood (shift necessary) are Iess likely to transmit bad news than are communicators in an initially unpleasant mood (no shift necessary), On the other hand, mood shifts per se may not be equally costly. The extent of cost may be determined by one’s initial mood and terminal mood. That is, a shift from an unpleasant mood to a pleasant mood may even be rewarding, while a shift from a pleasant mood to a negative



mood may be particularly costly. If this positivity assumption holds (again assuming the necessity of a congruent mood state for transmission), then one would expect fuller, more spontaneous transmission from communicators in an initially negative mood (i.e., positive shift for good news, no shift for bad news) than from communicators in an initially pleasant mood. To examine the effects of mood on transmission, 48 female subjects were recruited for an experiment dealing with “esthetic judgments and preferences.” When the subject arrived she was asked to sit at one of three desks, each of which had a large board in front of it on which were mounted nine color prints of paintings. After 5 minutes a messenger came in with a telephone message for another “subject” who had not yet arrived: The “subject” was to call home about some very good/bad news. After this news manipulation came the mood manipulation. Subjects were told that the experiment was specifically concerned with the effects of mood on esthetic judgments. Half the subjects agreed to be put in a positive mood, the rest agreed to be put in a negative mood. Mood was induced by having subjects recall affectively toned incidents (somebody said something particularly nice [unpleasant] to you that made you feel real happy [very unhappy]; you got something you particularly liked or wanted [you couldn’t have something or lost something you particularly wanted or liked]; you engaged in some activity which you particularly enjoyed [disliked], or did something that made you feel particularly good [real bad] ) , They were to identify that situation which they could experience most vividly and which made them feel most happy (unhappy). Having done so they were to concentrate on that incident, and to maintain their happy (unhappy) mood, while making their esthetic judgments. Subjects started filling out questionnaires containing mostly filler items about the color prints. The experimenter left, after which the other “subject” showed LIP to provide the real subject with several opportunities to communicate. Subjects were asked in a postexperimental questionnaire to scale how pleasant their mood was at each of seven temporal points in the experiment (see legend for Fig. 1 ) . The obtained News X Point interaction ( p < ,001) bears on the assumption that people assume a mood congruent with the message to be transmitted. Good and bad news subjects did not differ significantly just prior to talking about the call, but did differ while talking about the call ( p < .001). Further, from the point at which the potential recipient arrived to the point at which they talked to the recipient about the call, the mood of bad news subjects















~ x p o r i m o n t a lSoquonco

FIG. 1. Mood pleasantness as a function of news direction and time in the experimental sequence. Squares, good news; circles, bad news. A = when S first reported to experiment; B = when messenger indicated there was a phone call; C = right after mood induction; D = while judging paintings; E = when recipient first showed up; F = while talking to recipient about call; G = while filling out final questionnaire. From Tesser et al. (1973).

became more unpleasant, while the mood of good news subjects became more pleasant, ( p < .01). A significant Mood X News Valence interaction ( p < .05), on an item dealing with subjects’ felt difficulty in maintaining their mood when confronted by the recipient, is also consistent with the assumption that persons adopt a mood congruent with the message. Compared to negative mood subjects, positive mood subjects reported greater difficulty in maintaining their mood when the news was bad, but less difficulty when the news was good. If one considers only whether news direction was mentioned, then good news was cIearIy mentioned more frequently (83%)than bad news (17%;p < .001) and the effect of mood was virtually nonexistent. If, however, one looks at the frequency of mentioning the news direction spontaneously (without probes) at the first opportunity (one index of transmission) more differentiated effects are seen. Again, good news ( 46%) was transmitted more fully/spontaneously than bad (4%; p < ,005). On this index mood did have an effect ( p < .05): Positive mood subjects ( 17%)transmitted less fully/ spontaneously than did negative mood subjects (37%).Although the interaction did not approach significance, the mood difference appeared to be concentrated in the good news condition. This study provides reasonable support for the mood hypothesis. Communicators do assume a mood congruent with the message, when transmitting it. Furthermore, subjects in a negative mood transmit news



( regardless of direction) more fully/spontaneously than do subjects in a positive mood. (Perhaps because of a ceiling effect, this difference was barely detectable in the bad news condition.) These data suggest that it is the cost of assuming a negative mood per se rather than a shift in mood that affects the communication of valenced messages. Mention might be made here of one further experiment (Rosen et al., 1973). Although designed for another purpose, it can be thought of as pitting mood against guilt and fear of negative evaluation, as rival possible mediators of the MUM effect. In brief, news valence was crossed with recipient attractiveness, with the recipient represented as either very pleasant and attitudinally similar to the subject, or as unpleasant and attitudinally dissimilar.: Assuming that guilt is a relevant mediator, one ought to experience greater guilt at being spared if one were to communicate bad news to an attractive recipient, than to an unattractive recipient. Also, one should be more anxious to avoid a negative evaluation from an attractive than an unattractive recipient. Either line of reasoning calls for transmission of bad news to be inversely dependent on recipient attractivenessUR The mood hypothesis would lead to the opposite prediction. Transmitting bad news is costly because of the unpleasant mood which this act requires. But talking to an unattractive person is costly too. The combined cost is too much to bear. Therefore, the communicator is more likely to communicate bad news to the attractive than to the unattractive re~ipient.~ Female subjects were recruited over the phone for a “discussion” experiment. They were asked to respond to several attitudinal items and told that when they arrived they would be paired with another female having either similar or dissimilar attitudes. When the subject arrived, she was shown her partner‘s attitudinal responses, which had been made either quite similar (High Attraction) or quite dissimilar (Low Attraction) to the subject’s. This manipulation was reinforced by the experimenter’s comments to the effect that, like the subject, the partner had seemed quite friendly over the phone (or, unlike the subject, We are grateful to Les Downing for pointing out the relevance of this study to the mood and fear-of-negative-evaluation hypotheses. a Manis et al. (1974) attempted to manipulate recipient attractiveness to test a similar hypothesis (Experiment 111). The manipulation was weak ( p < . l o ) , however, and had no effect on the dependent variable (i.e., the extent to which a message summary was made consistent with a recipient’s views). ’ Berman and Brickman ( 1971) provide evidence suggesting that persons expect attractive others to like them more than unattractive others. If true ( w e found no reliable evidence of it in this study), it would tend to make attractiveness, uncontrolled for expected mutuality of attraction, an inappropriate independent variable for testing the fear of negative evaluation hypothesis.



had seemed quite nasty). A messenger entered, relayed the usual message, then left. The experimenter remarked, before exiting, that since it didn’t appear as though the partner would show up, the subject was being reassigned to a control condition, which simply required that she now complete another attitudinal questionnaire. The partner entered, made some preplanned introductory comments to further strengthen the attraction manipulation, then provided the subject with the usual opportunities to transmit the message. Good news was transmitted far more readily than bad news ( p < .OOl). There was also a significant interaction effect of news valence and attraction ( p < .05). Good news was transmitted equally fully to both the attractive and the unattractive partner. Bad news, however, was communicated with less reluctance to the attractive than to the unattractive partner ( p < -01). This last result seems more consistent with the mood hypothesis than with the guilt and fear-of-negativeevaluation hypotheses. We have talked about the necessity, in transmitting news, for adopting a mood congruent wtih its valence, but have not dealt with the reasons for this. Some of our speculation relates to fear of negative evaluation. If the communicator seems depressed when telling good news, the recipient might see the communicator as jealous, or as disappointed because the good fortune was not his. If the communicator appears happy when telling bad news, the recipient might see him as cruel, unsympathetic, or sadistic. Consistent with this line of reasoning are some results from the mood study (Tesser et al., 1973). Subjects were asked to indicate, on five scales (likeable, responsible, concerned, soft-hearted, and good), how they thought the recipient would evaluate them. In an anaIysis of variance on the sum of these scale responses, only the News Valence X Mood interaction was significant ( p < .05). Compared to unpleasant mood subjects, pleasant mood subjects expected to be more positively evaluated when the news was good ( p < .05) but (nonsignificantly) less positively evaluated when the news was bad. The less pronounced difference obtained in expected evaluation when the news was bad leads one to question whether being in a congruent negative mood is as necessary for bad news communication as originally proposed. While the assumption of a negative mood certainly forestalls any inference that the communicator is taking pleasure in the recipient’s misfortune, it might make matters worse by further depressing the recipient or by suggesting that things really are gloomy. On the other hand, a communicator in a positive mood may be able to cheer up a bad news recipient, but runs the risk of appearing callous. Perhaps of equal moment is the extremity of communicator mood: It may be



that extreme sadness and extreme cheerfulness are both incongruent for transmitting bad news (cf. Heider, 1958, pp. 280-281). It may be that a mood congruent with the message is also adopted for purposes of communication per se. Perhaps mood is a nonverbal cue to the affective tone of the message and adds useful redundancy to the communication. One might propose the further possibility that positive and negative affective states may not be equally informative cues about message content, a prospect that intensifies the communicator’s quandary in selecting a proper mood. If the communicator seems unhappy, it quite probably means (to the recipient) that the message is unpleasant. If the communicator seems in a pleasant mood, it might mean either that the news is good or that the communicator is trying to lighten the negative impact of bad news. We have discussed the shift to a negative mood state as merely being in the service of telling bad news. This is not to preclude the possibility that simply thinking about, hearing about, or discussing another’s misfortune will precipitate a negative affective reaction. In the bystander study, differences in felt mood as a function of news valence were generally greater when the recipient was the Target rather than the Bystander. However, this difference persisted (on one measure) even in the Bystander condition. Also, as can be seen in Fig. 1, subjects in the mood study reported that, when they first heard the bad news message, the mood they experienced was almost as unpleasant as when they actually were confronted by the recipient. B. COMMUNICATOR’S CONCERN WITH THE RECIPIENTAND THE MUM EFFECT We argued previously that the communicator’s concern with his own well-being could result in a MUM effect. In this section we shall review some evidence supporting the proposition that the communicator’s concern with the recipient can also result in a M U M effect. First, we explore the hypothesis that the communicator’s concern with the recipient’s emotional responses to a message might produce a M U M effect. Later, we deal with what the communicator assumes to be the recipient’s desire to hear about good and bad news, and its implications for the M U M effect. Finally, we address, briefly, the question of the genesis of the communicator’s concern for the recipient.

1. The Recipient’s Emotionality Hypothesis The recipient’s emotionality hypothesis would account for the MUM effect as follows: Communicators prefer not to put the recipient in a negative affective state. They assume that good news will have a positive



effect and bad news a negative effect on the recipient’s state and therefore are more likely to tell him good news than bad news. This kind of concern with the recipient often serves as the reason potential communicators give for their decision to communicate or not to communicate any particular piece of news. Tesser and Rosen (1975) used the following approach to study communicators’ reasons for deciding to transmit or withhold a message. Twelve good and bad news messages were selected from a set of 55 messages. The 55 messeges had previously been scaled with regard to the extent to which a recipient would consider the news good or bad (Tesser et al., 1972a). Some 20 subjects were asked individually to imagine the following: “You are a college student living in a small dormitory. Classes are over and the fall recess has just begun. You and Tom Smith are the only students in the dormitory who have not yet left the campus. Tom Smith is a college student at another institution. He was housed in your dormitory for a three-day conference which is ending today and both of you will be leaving the campus today. While you have been introduced to Tom, you know him in only the most superficial way and after today you will probably never see each other again. While you are packing to leave, the telephone rings. There is a call for Tom. Since Tom is not in his room, the caller leaves a message for him with you, but adds that if for some reason the message does not get delivered, he [Tom] will get the message when he gets home that night. You resume packing. After a few minutes you hear Tom come in. He doesn’t realize you are still there and goes straight to his room.” Subjects were then given each of the selected messages and asked whether or not they would transmit it. They were encouraged to give all the reasons they had for their decision and to clarify those reasons. From these interview protocols was developed a preliminary set of categories of reasons for transmitting and reasons for not transmitting. In the main part of the study, 30 (16 good news, 14 bad news) of the 55 previously scaled messages were randomly selected. Six booklet types were constructed, involving the dormitory situation described above, a male (John Smith) or female (Mary Smith) recipient, and one of three randomly composed sets of 10 of the selected messages. For each message, subjects were asked to indicate whether or not they would have transmitted it, then to write a brief paragraph giving the reason( s ) for their decision. Each of the booklet types was used approximately an equal number of times across the 98 subjects (53 males, 45 females). The responses of a subsample of 10 persons were then examined to refine the categories developed from the initial interviews.








Good news Bad news

Reasons for telling message







Chi square

1. Message has instrumental value 2. Message important (unspecified) 3. Message would create a positive affective state in recipient 4. Communicator feels obligated to transmit 5. No barrier to telling (general) 6. No barrier to telling (specific) 7. Message is good news 8. Message would create a positive affective 9. In spite of creating a negative affective state in recipient 10. In spite of creating a negative affective state in communicator 11. Other reasons Base

256 148

36 21


23 23




56 18

86.24. 1.26








115 -52 48 48

16 7 7

61 36 24 46

14 9 6 11

54 16 24 2

19 6 8 1

3.23 1.19 2.16 24.26a















10 21 711

1 3

11 422


10 10 289

3 3

13.49" <1



Note: Percentages sum to more than 100% because more than one reason was given for transmitting some messages. From Tesser & Rosen (1975). 'Lp < .001.

The final set of categories of reasons for transmitting and reasons for not transmitting are shown in Tables I1 and 111, respectively. The categories, along with examples and an elaboration of their meaning, were used by two coders who had had no part in their development, to classify the reason(s) given for each message. To check the reliability of the coding, three messages in each of 28 booklets were classified by both coders. They agreed completely on 79% of the 84 messages and partially agreed (e.g., had at least one code in common) on an additional 11%of the messages. To compare the relative importance of each reason for transmitting good and bad news, a x2 for each reason was computed by comparing the frequency with which the reason was mentioned for good (or bad) news messages with the combined frequency of all other reasons mentioned for good (or bad) news. Caution in interpreting these x2 values is suggested, since the observations are not independent. The most frequently given reason for transmitting (see Table 11) indicates the communicator's concern with the recipient: The message



TABLE I11 REASONS GIVENFORTHE DECISION To WITHHOLD GOODAND BADNEWS Total Reason for withholding mesages 1. Communicator-recipient role

relationship inappropriate 2. Message is unimportant 3. Transmission is unnecessary 4. Transmission would create a negative affective state in recipient 5. Transmission is costly to communicator 6. Communicator feels inadequate to transmit 7. Communicator doesn't have enough information 8. Other Base

Good news Bad news






98 82 67

38 32 26

30 39 27

31 40 28

68 : 42 43 27 40 25















6 5

3 5 162




9 3 6 1 0 4 5 259 97




6 3


Chi square

1.30 5.87" <1 12.48* <1




2.58 1


Note: Percentages sum to more t,han 100% because more than one reason was given for not transmitting some messages. From Tesser & Rosen (1975). " p < .02. b p < .001.

was seen to have instrumental value in the sense of requiring the recipient to act on it (reason 1). This instrumental value seemed a more important reason for transmitting bad news than good news. The mere fact that the news is good (reason 7 ) is also reason enough to tell it. Also noteworthy, and consistent with the mood hypothesis (Section II,A,3), was the reference to the communicator' affective state-positive for good news (reason 8), negative for bad news (reason 10). Perhaps most interesting in the present context is the news difference on reason 3, since it suggests that a MUM effect might arise because of the communicator's concern with the recipient. Namely, a more frequently given reason for transmitting good than bad news is that it would create a positive affective state in the recipient. The complement to this seems also to hold; a more frequent reason for not transmitting bad than good news (reason 4, Table 111) is that it would create a negative affective state within the recipient. Also supportive of this hypothesis is the fact that bad news subjects ( Rosen et aZ., 1973) gave significantly less post-experimental endorsement than did good news subjects to the statement that they felt they



understood the recipient well enough to know if she could bear up under the strain of the news ( p < .005). These postbehavioral data, along with the above role play data, suggest that potential communicators are sensitive to the emotional impact a particular message would have on the relevant recipient: For this reason they transmit good news but withhold bad news. However, given the limitations inherent in role play methodology (Freedman, 1969; Tesser et al., 1972b), and in view of the social desirability of such responses, an actual experimental test of this hypothesis of recipient emotionality seemed necessary. Betty King (1972) conducted such a study for her doctoral dissertation. Subjects were given information about their “partner” which led them to believe that she was either an emotional or a calm person. While her “partner” was oat of the room the subject received a phone message that contained good news or bad news for her “partner.” The “partner” then returned and provided the real subject with an opportunity to transmit the message. King hypothesized that communicators are reluctant to transmit bad news because they believe that telling the news would upset the recipient emotionally. Since some people are more easily upset than others, the more likely a particular recipient is to become upset, the more reluctant should the communicator be to transmit the bad news. Although the manipulations appeared to have been effectively executed, the results with actual transmission were disappointing. As anticipated, good news was transmitted more frequently than was bad news. The emotionality manipulation, however, had no significant effect on actual transmission, either alone or, more important, in interaction with news direction. However, some of the postexperimental questionnaire data were supportive. Subjects indicated that the recipient’s emotional reaction was a more important determinant of their decision concerning transmission in the case of bad than of good news ( p < .lo). Tesser and Conlee (1973) also tested the recipient emotionality hypothesis. The study differed from King‘s in several ways: Communicators had only bad news to convey; the message itself (that the recipient didn’t get a job she wanted) seemed less traumatizing than was King’s (which was to call home immediately about some bad news); there were three levels of recipient emotionality: emotional, calm, and control (i.e., no information about the emotionality of the recipient). Subjects also believed that, if they did tell the news to the recipient, they would be confronted with the recipient’s emotional reactions, since the recipient was not to leave. Again, it was predicted that communicators would be more reluctant to transmit the bad news to the emotional recipient than to the calm recipient.



When each of the 72 female subjects was recruited, she was told that participants in this “discussion” experiment would be provided with a “personality profile” of each other based on some personality tests the subjects had taken earlier in the quarter. On arriving for the experiment the subject was informed that the purpose of the study was to find out how much two people could learn about one another in a relatively brief discussion of personal topics, It was intimated that knowledge of the other’s personality tends to facilitate discussion of personal topics, While waiting for her partner to show up, the subject was given her “‘own” personality profile to examine (all subjects received one of two variations of the same profiles which was composed of “barnum statements” (see Forer, 1949; Ulrich, Stachnik, & Stainton, 1963). After indicating how accurate she thought it was, she was shown her partner’s profile. This served to manipulate recipient emotionality. In all conditions, the first part of the profile consisted of “barnum statements.” In the control condition nothing else was added. In the emotional and calm conditions, sentences were added indicating that the partner tended to react emotionally or calmly, respectively. After the subject responded to questions designed to check on the recipient emotionality manipulation, she was informed that even if the partner showed up it was too late for the discussion. The experimenter then absented herself, and a messenger entered with a message for the partner-namely, that she didn’t get a job she wanted. Finally, the partner arrived to provide the subject with opportunities for transmitting. Subject responses to a questionnaire about the partner’s personality profile indicated that the emotionality manipulation was partly successful. On each item the emotional recipient was seen as significantly more emotional than both the control and the calm recipient, but the control recipient was closer to the calm than to the emotional recipient (differing significantlyon only two of the four items). The present hypothesis calls for bad news to be transmitted less frequently to an emotional recipient than a calm recipient; this was the case. Forty-six percent of the emotional recipient subjects communicated, compared to 79%of the calm recipient subjects ( p < -05). Consistent with the manipulation checks, the transmission rate (75%) in the control condition, although differing from that in the emotional condition ( p < .05), was quite similar to that in the calm condition. In sum, potential communicators indicate that one reason for trans-

’ These variations were intended to manipulate the subject’s feelings of competence in dealing with an emotional other. Unfortunately, this manipulation was unsuccessful.



mitting good news but withholding bad news is the impact the news would have on the recipient’s emotional state. Although King found no behavioral differences due to recipient emotionality, Tesser and Conlee subsequently demonstrated that a recipient who is expected to react emotionally is less likely to be told bad news than a recipient who is expected to react calmly. Although these results are more or less consistent with the recipient’s emotionality hypothesis, they shed little light on just why the communicator should be concerned with the recipient’s affective state. One possibility is that communicators are selflessly concerned with others; they don’t want anyone to be “unhappy.” Since, however, the recipient will find out eventually, the communicator cannot prevent unhappiness by not telling. He can only put it off. Perhaps, then, communicators simply don’t want to be around anyone who is experiencing a negative affective state. A selfless reason for not wanting to be around an overwrought person is that he needs to be calmed down, reassured, put at ease. This takes a certain amount of clinical skill, however, especially if the upset person is a stranger. Subjects may feel incompetent in this regard and therefore think it best that someone who knows that recipient better do the communicating. To test a variant of this self-competence hypothesis, King attempted to measure communicators’ feelings of competence in dealing with emotional others, and Tesser and Conlee also attempted to manipulate these feelings ( unfortunately, unsuccessfully; see footnote 8) as well as to measure its chronic level. Chronic selfcompetence in dealing with emotional others did not correlate significantly with transmission in any of King’s bad news conditions (there was no variability in telling good news). In the Tesser and Conlee study, it correlated significantly only in the calm recipient condition. ( Contrary to expectation, this latter correlation was significantly more positive than its counterpart in the emotional recipient condition. ) In addition to these rather discouraging findings concerning the altruistic intent of the communicator are the findings of Rosen et a2. ( 1973). If the communicator’s reluctance to communicate bad news represents a selfless attempt to spare or minimize the recipient’s unhappiness, surely an attractive recipient deserves this treatment more than an unattractive recipient. It will be recalled, however, that bad news was communicated m e frequently to the attractive than to the unattractive recipient. The communicator may be concerned with the recipient’s emotional reaction to the news because of the possibility of emotional contagion. There are data indicating that persons do tend to react autonomically



to the observed emotions of others (e.g., Craig & Crockett, 1968; Craig & Lowery, 1969). If the recipient becomes happy the communicator

may involuntarily and vicariously also experience that state; and if the recipient becomes unhappy the communicator may involuntarily and vicariously experience that also. One indirect way of testing this hypothesis is by looking at the relationship between a communicator’s ability to empathize and his tendency to communicate. If communicators are reluctant to transmit bad news because they fear being “infected” with the negative emotional state of the recipient, then there should be a negative correlation between empathy and transmission, since the high empathy communicator is more likely to be “infected than the low empathy communicator. King’s subjects were administered the Hogan (1969) empathy scale. The scores did not correlate significantly in either bad news condition. Moreover, the correlations were in the wrong direction. Another possible explanation for the communicator’s concern with the recipient’s emotional reaction is a variant of the fear-of-negativeevaIuation hypothesis. The communicator may realize that, the more the recipient responds emotionally to bad news, the greater is the likelihood that he, the communicator, being associated with bad news, may become a classically conditioned noxious stimulus to the recipient.

2. The Recipient’s Desire-to-Hear Hypothesis In addition to considering the emotional impact of some message on the recipient, it seems plausible to assume that the communicator will be guided by what he himself believes concerning the recipient’s desire to hear the message. If he thinks the recipient wants to be told good news, not bad news, and then behaves in accord with those inferred desires, the net resuIt will be a MUM effect. Some correlational support exists for this line of reasoning. According to medical doctors, their decision concerning whether or not to tell a patient the seriousness of his condition depends on the patient’s desire to know (Glaser & Strauss, 1965). Apparently, however, they assume that patients do not want to hear bad news even when patients say they do (Oken, 1961). The upshot is that doctors tend to avoid telling patients about terminal illness (Fitts & Ravdin, 1953; Feifel, 1963; Life Magazine, 1972; Oken, 1961). Certain discrepant findings suggested, nevertheless, that an experimental test of the desire-to-hear hypothesis was needed. First, in the bystander study the Target, more than the Bystander, was believed by subjects to be interested in and desirous of hearing the news. Their pattern of actual transmission, however, did not mirror these inferences.



Second, we saw (in the attraction study) that, instead of conforming more to the attractive than the unattractive recipient’s inferred desire not to hear the bad news, subjects in the attraction study (Rosen et al., 1973) communicated bad news more to the attractive than to the unattractive partner. In a study expressly designed to examine the recipient’s desire-tohear explanation, the specific hypotheses entertained by Conlee and Tesser (1973) were that communicators who had no information concerning recipient desire would ( a ) assume that recipients want to be told good news, not bad news, and would ( b ) communicate bad news more frequently than good news. On the other hand, if communicators have information regarding a recipient’s desire to hear, then, regardless of whether the news is good or bad, they would communicate more frequently to the person who wants to hear than to the person who does not want to hear. To test these hypotheses, 60 males were recruited for an “experiment on human relations.” When the subject arrived, he was told that his task would be to observe a group discussion for the purpose of evaluating one participant’s interpersonal skills. Before doing this he was to get some information concerning that participant ( the recipient, an experimental confederate) and also briefly meet the person. The information about the other contained standard biographical data purportedly supplied by the other, along with the manipulations of the independent variables. The crucial material was an “aptitude test” score which was either very high (good news) or very low (bad news), and the other’s indicated desire to learn the score. One-third of the subjects found that the other wanted to know the score regardless of how he had done; one-third, that he didn’t want to know; and onethird were given no information concerning desire. At this point, the experimenter asked whether the subject thought the recipient wanted to know his test score. The subject was then told that the decision of whether to communicate the test score was his alone to make. He was then introduced to the potential recipient “in order to get acquainted before the actual discussion.” The experimenter left and the recipient provided the subject with several opportunities to communicate the test score. Apropos of the hypothesis that communicators assume that recipients want to be told good news but not bad news, and ignoring those subjects who expressed uncertainty about the recipient’s desire, news valence had a significant effect on assumed desire to hear in the predicted direction (Fisher’s Exact Test p < .03, one-tailed). More subjects (63%)told their partner the high test score (good



news) than the low test score (bad news; 30%,p < .Ol), (Manipulated) desire to hear also exerted a sigdcant effect ( p < .Ol): The communication rates for high desire to hear, no expressed desire to hear, and low desire to hear were 75%, 40%, 25x1, respectively. More important, the effect of new valence was significant in the no-expressed-desire condition (70%tell good news, 10%tell bad news, net MUM effect was 60%) but was not significant where desire to hear versus not to hear was expressed (60% tell good news, 40% tell bad news, net MUM effect was W ) .As predicted, knowledge of the recipients’ desire to hear the news attentuated the net MUM effect (.05 < p < .lo). In sum, not only are communicators concerned with the emotional impact of a message on the recipient, but they also are responsive to what they assume are his desires, in deciding whether or not to communicate bad news. The communicator’s a priori assumption that the recipient does not wish to be told bad news may be erroneous. For example, psychologists have repeatedly tried, with limited success at best (see Freedman & Sears, lW), to demonstrate the rather “plausible” hypothesis that recipients do not wish to hear things that are nonsupportive or with which they disagree. Further, surveys of patients with serious illness indicate that, in general, patients prefer to be told about their illness (Feifel, 1963; Kelly & Friesen, 1950; Life Magazine, 1972). Perhaps communicators don’t differentiate between the recipient’s not wanting a particular event to occur from the recipient’s not wanting to hear about the event after it has occurred. Regardless of the accuracy of this assumption, however, the assumption appears to affect communicator behavior.




We have attempted to explain the MUM effect in terms of the communicator’s self-concern and his concern with the recipient. Another class of explanation is in terms of societal rules governing interaction. Norms, in fact, may play an important role in the determination of the MUM effect. Some of the reasons subjects give for communicating messages suggest that they are concerned with such norms. For example, as seen in Table 11, on 16% of the messages subjects indicated that they would communicate because they feel obligated to (reason 4 ) . To a lesser extent, subjects said they would communicate because there was no reason not to (reason 5 ) , or because specific things would not prevent their telling (reason 6). This suggests that there are norms which, in general, prescribe communication. Norms aIso seem to play a role in the failure to communicate (Table 111). On 38%of the messages



which subjects said they would not communicate, the stated reason was that their role relationship to the recipient was inappropriate for communicating. 1 . Norms Proscribe the Tramission of Bad News

Consider a situation in which the potential communicator and another “subject” ( the potential recipient) have individual ( Tinker-Toy ) tasks to complete, with the promise of a payoff. Within that situation, half the pairs are publicly encouraged to establish a norm to help each another, the other half to establish a norm not to help. Suppose, further, that half of the communicators are then privately persuaded by the experimenter to actually help, while the other half are persuaded hot to help-regardless of norm, and despite the fact that the partner’s task is “harder.” Subsequently, the communicator is faced with the decision of whether to relay bad news. In this situation contrasting predictions can be derived from the norm proscription hypothesis and the fear-ofnegative-evaluation hypothesis. If transmission of bad news is normatively proscribed, Hollander’s ( 1958, 1960, 1964 ) idiosyncracy credit theory suggests that transmission would be least frequent where the communicator had previously violated the helping norm, but most frequent where the communicator had complied with the helping norm; in the latter case, he would have built up sufficient credit in relation to one norm to permit deviation from the second norm. Attribution theory (cf. Jones & Davis, 1965) suggests, likewise, that transmission would occur least often if the subject had previously uiohted a helping norm, but most often where the subject had violated a no-helping norm; in the latter case, such out-of-role behavior would signify that he had “benevolent” intentions, and therefore reduce his fear of negative evaluation. Such an experiment was conducted by R. D. Johnson (1972) with 52 males. Neither the norm proscription hypothesis, nor the attributional fear-of-negative-evaluation hypothesis was supported. Instead, bad news was transmitted more frequently if the norm called for helping than for not helping ( p < .05), and (nonsignificantly) if the subject had actually helped than if he had not helped. Perhaps setting a helping norm and actually helping serve to make salient (Berkowitz & Daniels, 1963) still another norm, that of social responsibility (to help those who depend on us). Such an explanation is, of course, post hoc; the social responsibility norm is not considered to be as strong as once thought ( Berkowitz, 1972), and communicators might not have seen transmission of bad news as a helpful act (see however, Deaux, 1974).



2. N o r m Concerning Bad News Transmission Are Ambiguous We have found no evidence for the existence of norms proscribing the transmission of bad news (cf. R. D. Johnson, 1972),A MUM effect might emerge, however, if norms concerning the transmission of bad news were unclear while the norms concerning good news clearly prescribed transmission. If such were the case, one might expect to find among good news messages a strong relationship between how good a message is for the recipient and the extent to. which it engenders feelings of obligation to communicate and intentibn to communicate. Also, there should be a high degree of consensus among communicators concerning feelings of obligation and intention to communicate. On the other hand, with less norm clarity concerning the transmission of bad news, there should be a weaker relationship among bad news messages between how bad the news is for the recipient and the extent to which it engenders feelings of obligation to communicate and intention to communicate. And, there should be less consensus among communicators concerning these feelings. Tesser et al. (1972a) had separate groups of subjects scale 55 messages with regard to their pleasantness for a potential recipient ( N = 53), the extent to which they felt obligated to communicate the message ( N = 57), and how probable it was that they actually would communicate the message ( N = 56).9 All subjects were asked to imagine that they were in the same set of circumstances as were the subjects in the content analysis study ( Section I,B,l). The subjects and the recipients were approximately evenly balanced in terms of sex. The mean ratings of obligation, transmission, and message pleasantness were intercorrelated over the 27 good news messages and, separately, over the 28 bad news messages. Regardless of whether the news is good or bad, there is a very high relationship between obligation and transmission ( r = $84,.92, respectively). On the other hand, whether the news is good or bad is a powerful moderator of the relationship between message pleasantness and each of these variables, Under good news, message pleasantness is more strongly related to obligation ( r = .75, p < .01) than under bad news ( r = .08; z for difference = 3.12, p < ,002).Similarly, message pleasantness is more strongly related to transmission under good news ( r = .79, p < .Ol) than under bad news ( T = .26; x = 2.81; p < .01). 'Subjects also scaled the extent to which they desired to communicate each message. This variable correlated -85 with obligation across all measures and in general behaved similarly to it. We have omitted discussion of the desire ratings in the interest of brevity.



The norm ambiguity hypothesis suggests that one would expect less consensus among subjects on what they are obligated to do and what they intend to do concerning the transmission of bad news, than concerning good news. The indices of consensus used were the variances associated with the ratings of each message, greater variance signifying less consensus. The messages were rank-ordered on the size of their variances for the pleasantness, obligation, and transmission ratings. Those messages with a variance above the median were classified as low consensus; those below the median were classified as high consensus. Table IV shows that bad news messages are associated with less consensus on feelings of obligation, and intention to transmit, than are good news messages. It also shows that there is no difference in the degree of consensus concerning how unpleasant a bad news message is compared to how pleasant a good news message is. Thus, the former differences cannot be explained in terms of greater ambiguity regarding the perceived badness as opposed to the perceived goodness of different messages. The hypothesis of norm ambiguity is also supported by comparable evidence in several of the studies where news valence was manipulated experimentally on independent groups (Rosen et al., 1973; Rosen & Tesser, 1970, 1972; Tesser et at., 1972c, 1973). Subjects rated their felt obligation to mention the call and/or the valence of the call and/or whether or not they felt responsible for transmitting and/ or whether they felt they owed it to the recipient to communicate. The variance of the rating was nearly always higher (often significantly so) in the bad news condition than in the good news condition. Future research needs to address itself to the source of the norm ambiguity. For example, the norms regarding transmission of bad news TABLE IV


Consensus on bad news




Chi square



6 7

21 20

14 22 22

14 6 6

<1 17.46" 15 28"



Pleasantness Obligation Transmission

Note: Data are from Tesser et al. (1972a). 4 p < ,001.




may simply be vaguely defined, there may be few opportunities to learn the norms, or the norms may be very complex.

D. SUMMARY Our strategy in trying to understand the MUM effect has been to assume that it is multicausal and to empirically explore three classes of hypotheses to account for the effect: ( a ) the communicator’s self-concern, ( b ) his concern with the recipient, and ( c ) his concern with norms. Three specific hypotheses dealing with the communicator’s self-concern were examined. The guilt hypothesis assumes that the communicator feels guilty about the inequitable fate of a bad news recipient and therefore tends to avoid communicating the bad news. Consistent with this hypothesis are post-experimental questionnaire data indicating a negative association of experienced guilt and news valence and a negative correlation between felt guilt and communication of bad news (R. D. Johnson, 1972; R. E. Johnson et al., 1974; Tesser & Conlee, 1973; Tesser & Rosen, 1972; Tesser et al., 1972c, 1973). Furthermore, there is less reported guilt and greater transmission of bad news when the communicator believes he is to share the fate of the recipient than when he does not (Tesser & Rosen, 1972). Two facts, however, suggest caution in accepting the guilt hypothesis. First, although there is greater telling of bad news when the communicator believes the fate is to be shared than when he does not, this difference is not significant when one controls for (what the communicator infers to be) the recipient’s belief concerning the sharing of fate (R. E. Johnson et al., 1974). Second, bad news tends to be communicated more frequently to an attractive recipient than to an unattractive recipient (Rosen et al., 1973), although the guilt hypothesis would lead us to expect the reverse. The fear-of-negative-evaluation hypothesis assumes that communicators wish to avoid a negative evaluation which they fear they will receive if they transmit bad news. Consistent with this reasoning are the findings that bad news is transmitted to a bystander more than to the person for whom it is intended (Tesser et al., 1972c) and to a person who believes the communicator is to share her fate than to one who does not (R. E. Johnson et al., 1974). Also, the communicator’s concern with her impression is negatively correlated with telling bad news (R. E. Johnson et al., 1974). Still, there is enough marginal or contradictory evidence to render the fear hypothesis tentative, The occurrence of greater communication from a nonanonymous than an anonymous communicator, although explained in fear-of-negative-evaluation terms, was opposite to what was initially predicted (Rosen & Tesser,



1972). Also, one would expect greater concern about negative evaluation from an attractive than from an unattractive recipient, yet bad news tended to be transmitted more frequently to the attractive recipient (Rosen et al., 1973; see also Manis et al., 1974). Finally, the expectation of being positively evaluated for previously helping the recipient was not correlated with extent of bad news transmission (R. D. Johnson, 1972) . According to the mood hypothesis, communicators are unwilling to adopt a negative affective state which they assume is called for when delivering bad news. Postexperimental questionnaire data indicate that subjects do indeed adopt a more negative mood when discussing bad news (R. D. Johnson, 1972; Tesser & Conlee, 1973; Tesser et al., 1972c, 1973). They also expect to experience positive affect in telling good news and negative affect in telling bad news (Tesser & Rosen, 1975). Bad news is communicated more frequently, and with less negative affect, to a Bystander than to the relevant Target (Tesser et al.,1 9 7 2 ~ ) . Finally, subjects (induced to be) in a bad mood transmit more frequently than subjects in a good mood. No data appeared to contradict the mood hypothesis. Two specific hypotheses-the recipient’s desire-to-hear hypothesis and the recipient’s emotionality hypothesis-dealt with the communicator’s concern with the recipient. The emotionality hypothesis holds that good news is transmitted more frequently than bad because the latter would upset the recipient emotionally. Consistent with this hypothesis are subjects’ spontaneous reasons for communicating good news ( i.e., to create a positive affective state in the recipient) and withholding bad news (i,e., to prevent a negative affective state in the recipient). Also, bad news is transmitted more to a bystander than to a target (Tesser et al., 1 9 7 2 ~ )Finally, . although King (1972) found no differences in transmission as a function of the recipient’s emotionality, Tesser and Conlee (1973) found that bad news tended to be communicated to a calm recipient more frequently than to an emotional recipient. On the other hand, although one might expect communicators to be more concerned about upsetting an attractive than an unattractive recipient, they tended to communicate the bad news more to the attractive recipient ( Rosen et al., 1973). The desire-to-hear hypothesis holds that communicators assume that recipients want to be told good news, not bad news, and then act accordingly. Both facets of this hypothesis were supported in the only study specifically designed to test them (Conlee & Tesser, 1973). Further, communication was appropriately affected by the manipulation of recipient desire to hear. There are two nonsupportive bits of data, however.



Postexperimental questioning elsewhere indicated that Targets were assumed to have a greater interest than Bystanders in the message, yet Bystanders were more likely to have been told bad news (Tesser et al., 1 9 7 2 ~ )Further, . one might expect communicators to be more sensitive to the desires of attractive than unattractive recipients, but, again, the attractive recipient received more bad news ( Rosen et al., 1973). The communicator’s concern with norms was approached through two hypotheses: Norms proscribe the transmission of bad news, and norms concerning bad news transmission are relatively ambiguous. Bad news transmission did not vary as a function of the communicator’s “idiosyncracy credit” vis-a-vis the recipient, contrary to the norm proscription hypothesis (R. D. Johnson, 1972). On the other hand, the norm ambiguity hypothesis was supported. Tesser et al. (1972a) found a stronger relationship between message pleasantness and transmission for good news than for bad news, and greater intersubject agreement on both obligation and intention to transmit good news than bad news.

111. Implications of the MUM Effect The MUM effect has been shown to be a pervasive, systematic bias in interpersonal communication. Over diverse settings, communicators, recipients, and messages, good news tends to be communicated more frequently, more quickly, more fully, and more spontaneously than bad news. This bias implies that persons with troubles or difficulties may be further disadvantaged by being insulated from full information concerning their problem. We noted, for example, physicians’ reluctance to discuss terminal illness with patients and their families. Although lack of knowledge of imminent death might, temporarily, make the patient more comfortable and prevent familial grief, it also has dysfunctional aspects. The dying patient and his family may be denied enough time to come to grips with and accept his imminent fate (Frankl, 1967). On the practical side there are details that require attention, ranging from legal arrangements to new family arrangements, the accomplishment of which would be impaired by ignorance of the imminent death. Organizations also provide a site for the MUM effect. For example, the withholding of bad news may make overt personal relations better and contribute toward maintaining the organization as a viable entity. Since negative outcomes often call for change, withholding information concerning those outcomes would serve to reduce change and render members of the organization predictable. Also, since exemplary performance, rather than submarginal performance, is more likely to be brought



to the attention of the individual actor, this would be tantamount to using reward rather than punishment for “shaping up” organizational behavior. On the other hand, the withholding of bad news can have negative consequences. To the extent that negative organizational outcomes result from inappropriate member behavior rather than environmental caprice, that behavior should be changed. Also, since submarginal performance is not likely to be mentioned to the relevant actor, he may be unaware of his shortcomings and thus less able to correct them. Furthermore, although bad news is not likely to be mentioned ‘directly to the relevant actor it is likely to be mentioned to other organization members (Tesser et al., 1972c), as in passing the buck to subordinates (Rosen et al., 1974). This in turn may inspire distrust within the organization and negative evaluation of superiors. The MUM effect also has implications for the self-concept. Selfevaluation is partially determined by others’ reactions and communications to us (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). Friends are more willing to discuss one’s positive traits than one’s negative traits (Blumberg, 1972). Discussion of one’s misfortune tends to be avoided. The report of attitude-relevant material tends to be shaded so as to be more consistent with one’s attitude (Manis et al., 1974). Even knowledge of one’s own terminal illness tends to be withheld. It appears as though the MUM effect serves in a nontrivial way to help us maintain feelings of efficacy and a positive self-image. Although most of us do maintain positive self-regard, few of us believe that we are perfect or invulnerable. We also tend to maintain a reasonably veridical picture of our world. This implies that somehow we compensate for the MUM effect. Although there are data (see Kanouse & Hanson, 1972) which suggest that our judgments of various entities are influenced more by negative information than by positive information ( Briscoe, Woodyard, & Shaw, 1967; Richey, McClelland, & Shimkunas, 1967), this is not necessarily so when the entity is the self. People tend to accept feedback that is consistent, rather than inconsistent, with their initial attitudes toward themselves ( Dickoff, 1961; Jacobs, Berscheid, & Walster, 1971; Walster, 1965). They also tend to weight positive information more heavily than negative (cf., Jones, 1964; Rosenberg, 1968). The mechanisms used to compensate for the MUM effect in processing information about ourselves remain an intriguing mystery. REFERENCES

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