MIND
August 6, 2014

Spoiler Alert!

The timing of good news is almost as important as the news itself.

We all love to hear good news. But if its timing is off, so might be our appreciation of it. According to new research, the pleasure of good news is short-lived and fragile. If the good news doesn’t reach us in the order it “should ” — coming too early, for instance — it can spoil our ability to revel in it.

Suppose, for example, you are a skier preparing for your final downhill run. You are in the running to win the competition. As you get ready to enter the starting area, you learn your closest rival has been disqualified, so all you have to do is get down the hill in a reasonable time and without falling and you've won. The thrill of winning — and your feeling heading down the slope will likely be considerably different from what it would be if you were to find out you'd won after posting your time at the bottom of the hill.

“We basically show that people want to feel good at the right time — that is, when a goal is achieved and not before then,” lead author Ayelet Fishbach said in a statement.

In a series of experiments, researchers at the University of Chicago tested how the timing of good news affects our ability to remember and appreciate it.

Positive emotion is so fleeting. It’s much easier for a negative mood to take over a good one than the other way around.

In one experiment, participants had to remember the order of events for a fictional character receiving good news. Sometimes the character in the story felt happy when realizing that his or her goal would be attained in the future, and sometimes she felt happy only when it was actually attained.

The participants reading the story were more likely to remember incorrectly that the character felt happy at the “right” time in the script — that is, after the goal was actually attained — than the other way around.

In another part of the study, participants imagined a happy scenario in which they were receiving news of being accepted into a summer internship program. Sometimes they were told to imagine receiving the information via an early informal email acceptance; other times they received only an actual letter in the mail; and sometimes they received both. Receiving the news “early” (via email) did nothing for people’s happiness — in fact, this group wasn’t any happier upon receiving the early email than people who didn’t get any news at that time.

People who heard the good news at the “right” time — later and by regular mail — were significantly happier than the people who received the news early via email.

“When people learn that a goal will be achieved before it actually is, they often try to suppress the positive emotion in order to feel it at the ‘right time, ’” Fishbach said. “The result is that people don't feel as happy when they get the news — because it's not the right time — as well as when the goal is officially achieved — because by then it's no longer ‘news.’”

The authors suggest that this timing effect happens because positive emotion is so fleeting. It’s much easier for a negative mood to take over a good one than the other way around.

“Overcoming a bad mood is relatively difficult,” they write, “but ruining a good mood is much easier… Once positive emotion is ‘tampered with,’ it appears to be difficult to reignite.”

Good news needs to come when it naturally should, rather than at an unexpected time — even early. So if you’ve agreed that you’ll tell your spouse the news of a potential family-included business trip to Europe when arriving home in the evening, don't change the plan and surprise him or her with a surprise call earlier in the day. It may spoil their appreciation of that very good news.

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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