A classic conundrum that people often face when they must deliver loaded news to someone is: “Do I start with the good news or bad?”

The choice, unfortunately, plays out all too often in a medical setting when, for example, doctors must deliver a diagnosis to a patient that carries a grim prognosis as well as a glimmer of hope. Is there a right way to deliver news that has both uplifting and demoralizing aspects to it?

Thankfully, someone got empirical about this Dear Abby-like concern and published their findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The work analyzed how news-givers and news-recipients prefer the order in which they pass on or obtain bad and good news respectively.

According to University of California psychologists, Angela Legg and Kate Sweeny, people choose to receive good news after a dose of bad news because it downplays the negative aspect or simply ends on a good note. This revealed a “mismatch” since news-givers like to lead off with good news, which selfishly delays the anxiety they get from having to relay bad news.

“[I]t seems that people have accurate insight into the best way to receive good and bad news, at least with regard to protecting their emotions," the authors explained in their study, “but this insight is hampered in news-givers by immediate and thus more salient concerns about the discomfort of delivering bad news.”

Some of the 121 undergraduate participants in the study evidently benefited from receiving bad news first by being in a better mood and worrying less. Yet, this response to bad-then-good news became less advantageous when the bad news called for action and behavior change.

“[N]ews-recipients who received bad news first were less likely to take an easy opportunity to improve, choosing instead to engage in a boring and personally unproductive task,” the authors explained.

In other words, minimizing the negative emotions associated with bad news by ending with good news reduced recipients’ motivation to do something about the former. Conversely, participants in the study who received bad news last were more willing to be pro-active, which entailed watching a personality improvement video.

Furthermore, news-givers might inadvertently prefer to deliver news in the good-then-bad order when they want to encourage the recipient to actively respond to whatever stinging information.

Yet, the chess game of news delivery doesn’t stop here. News-givers selfishly ensure they themselves don’t suffer from leaving bad news hanging in the air (and feeling like a jerk). Givers of good-then-bad news often add some encouraging words at the end, an approach known as the “bad news sandwich.” According to the study authors, bookending bad news with cushions in this way ultimately benefits the news-giver and is “likely to mitigate the recipient’s emotional response and undermine motivation to change.”

Overall, the authors suggested that news-givers improve their communication “simply by remembering to take the recipient’s perspective” and avoid focusing on their own emotional concerns when delivering news. Otherwise, they warned, an “inward focus translates to a preference for easing into bad news delivery by opening with good news, despite a clear preference on the part of news-recipients to get the bad news over with quickly.”

News-recipients should also avoid focusing on their emotional well-being by downplaying the bad or risk a lack of motivation to make necessary changes.