Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Good News / Bad News

Over the course of your lifetime, about once a month or so someone will say to you:

"I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?"

It is safe to say that most people cavalierly answer this question by selecting one or the other - perhaps randomly, or perhaps hoping for one choice or the other to clearly take precedence. These people clearly are not thinking about the crucial elements of maximizing happiness, working the inflection point, or mollifying the asker.

Maximizing Happiness

Let's assume we want to maximize our happiness during the timeframe that we are receiving the two pending news items. Assuming the good news and bad news are of equal impact, our happiness while hearing the news could be illustrated by the charts below:

Good news first:

Bad news first:

(The above examples assume that the news has an exponential impact, but the same conclusions would be reached with a linear function.)

Let's assume graph 1 is expressed as y = 1 - x^2. Integrating over the region and dividing by the width gives us an average happiness level of 2/3.

Let's assume graph 2 is expressed as y = x^2 - 1. Integrating over the region and dividing by the width gives us an average happiness level of -2/3.

So clearly we reach the intuitive result that we should ask for the good news first in order to maximize our short-term happiness.

Another scenario is that the person could drop dead after giving you the good news and before giving you the bad news. This is a winning situation, as you got all of the good and none of the bad. Also, the dead person can take some solace in the fact that they never had to deliver the bad news. This may even increase their chances of getting into heaven.

So good news first is the best choice if you are the hedonist type and your motto is: "seize the day", "no time like the present", or "live each day like it could be your last".

Working the Inflection Point

Both of the images above feature an inflection point where happiness turns to sadness or vice versa. So if you want to end on the strongest note, you would be best served to get the bad news first. My personal experience has been that most people opt for this choice. This tells you a lot about human nature.

Non sequitur: A similar phenomenon I have observed is that when people are walking from one place to another, they will usually not take a direct route. If you draw an imaginary rectangle which has the direct route as a diagonal, people will generally walk approximately along the perimeter of the rectangle. Even more interesting, people will normally walk the smaller of the two lengths first, followed by the longer.

So bad news first is the best choice if you often find yourself saying: "all's well thaht ends well", "save it for a rainy day", or "let's get this over with".

Mollifying the Asker

A final option that I doubt people consider is which option the asker would like you to choose. Some people have a habit of using this whole premise as a trick question. There really is no bad news, because the good news actually mitigates the bad news completely. If you are dealing with a shallow person that tends for this approach, act accordingly and take the bad news first. This makes their little game work, and then everyone is happy. But there are other people who are the depressed type. They always see a cloud in every silver lining. These people want you to get the good news first, then they want to trample your spirit with the bad news. Select accordingly - you end up on a bad note, but they are happy that you let them play their self-deprecation game.

So you can see that you need to consider who is asking the question as well as the mathematical items discussed earlier.

Try establishing a bias toward good news first, and thinking about the asker's motivation. This will help you increase the total happiness in the world, even if just a little bit.


At 11:50 PM, Blogger shoshanamom said...

pretty funny! in my case, since I am an optimist...I always figure that the bad news probably won't be all THAT bad or as bad as the asker is making it seem to be in an extreme contrast to good news. I think of it as "lesser good news."

kind of like the character in the movie "gone fishing" played by danny glover...no matter what perils he and his friend (joe pesci) faced he was always ultra optimistic/happy. ex: they are stranded with a boat and trailer but no car (ie bad news) he says "we can still go fishing, we will just push it to the water, after all that is what they used to do before cars and that didn't stop them from fishing back then now did it?"

well i guess that is spinning bad news into good news.


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