Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stay away from bad news!

The concept of association, as described by Cialdini (2009), can influence our perception of another individual; there is a natural tendency to dislike people who bring us negative or unpleasant news, even if that person is in no way related to that news. So basically, when you get absolutely plastered on a night out, and remember your friend hooked up with an absolute minger, DO NOT be the bearer of bad news if you still want friends… sometimes it’s best to let things slide!

This idea that you do not want to be associated with negative messages, and will be more reluctant to communicate those messages is supported by Rosen and Tesser (1970). In their experiment, subjects were recruited to take part in a “consumer preference” study, so they don’t guess the nature of the study and change their behaviour accordingly. While they are completing the tasks instructed, they overhear someone say that “Glen Lester should call home immediately. There is some very bad news to get.” And the other group of subjects heard that there is “good” news. When Glen Lester shows up, the experimenters were looking to see whether the subjects conveyed the whole message or only part of it to Glen, and whether they communicated the message spontaneously or after a probe from Glen. 

Before we get to their findings, these experimenters wanted to demonstrate something called “The MUM effect”, which refers to a reluctance to pass on any information or message that one would assume to be unpleasant for a potential audience. And the study described above supports this effect!

Just to convey these results a little easier, here are a couple of bar charts:

The first one shows us the number of students who communicated the complete message when Glen Lester walked in and introduced himself. The red and green bars indicate subjects who gave the message, but without mentioning the direction at first. So basically, you can see that when the message was good, both male and females were ready to tell Glen Lester the news. But when the message was bad, there was a weaker desire to communicate the news fully. Lastly, a greater number of subjects gave the complete message when the message was pleasant. 

The second chart demonstrates subjects who initially had not mentioned the call, in which Glen waits about one minute and says he is anxious about the call. This only applied to those giving bad news, and still shows us there is a reluctance to convey negative messages, as more subjects did not give the direction after the probe. This is interesting because this situation did not apply to any males in the “bad news” condition. Perhaps this implies sex differences in “The MUM effect”; the researchers suggested that the situation may have been conducive to greater levels of arousal among female subjects than males. 

The overall conclusion here is that the likelihood that an individual will convey the message depends on the inferred pleasantness of the news for the recipient. Also, as all but one conveyed the message (after prompted by Glen), the more urgent the message the more likely the individual will communicate the message. 


Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence. HarperCollins.

Rosen, S., & Tesser, A. (1970). On reluctance to communicate undesirable information: The MUM effect. Sociometry, 33, 253-263.

Simran Vaswani

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