waiting final
September 1, 2021

Silver linings playbook: Think bad news before it's delivered

Planning for bad news before it's delivered staves off worry and softens the blow, new research finds

Author: J.D. Warren
September 1, 2021

Psychologists have known there’s value in finding a “silver lining,” in coaxing oneself through bad news.

You didn’t get the job? Just as well: That new boss seemed edgy during the interview. Someone outbid you at the last second for that antique something-or-other on eBay? You didn’t really have the money to spend anyway.

Those coping strategies result in less depression, and greater life satisfaction and self-esteem. Finding silver linings can even mean better physical health.

But there has been little consideration of whether there’s a benefit to looking for those upsides in bad news before the news arrives. That’s the thrust of new research results from the lab of UCR psychology researcher Kate Sweeny: Does it help to find a silver lining preemptively?

“Must the process of identifying silver linings wait until bad news arrives?” the researchers wrote.

“It is possible that asking people to write about silver linings prior to a potentially distressing event shields them from the emotional suffering — or at least boosts concurrent positive emotions,” the researchers continued in the article, which is now online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

For the research, Sweeny and a former graduate student in her lab, Kyla Rankin, conducted four studies. The studies variously looked at preemptive benefit finding in law graduates awaiting bar exam results; voters approaching the results of the 2016 presidential and 2018 midterm elections, respectively, and undergraduates awaiting the results of a health risk assessment.

In the first study, 150 California law students were recruited, most of whom were taking the bar exam for the first time, and 68% of whom ultimately passed. They filled out questionnaires before the exam, after it, and on the day results were posted.

For study two, researchers polled 375 supporters of Donald Trump, and 373 supporters of Hillary Clinton via the Amazon Mechanical Turk, or MTurk, an online survey mechanism. They were asked to gauge the degree to which they agreed with the following statement: “I have been trying to focus on good things that might come if my preferred presidential candidate does not get elected.”

As an aside — it wasn’t a focus of the research — the study found Trump supporters engaged in more preemptive benefit finding than Clinton supporters.

Because Trump won the election, the researchers focused their “post” assessment on the disappointed Clinton supporters.

The third study assessed 428 voters across the political spectrum about the 2018 midterm election, again using the MTurk utility. An ancillary result was that the study again found Republican voters took part in more preemptive benefit finding.

In study four, 293 undergraduate students were told their risk of environmental toxin exposure would be measured. Researchers sought to introduce anxiety by including questions participants were likely to say yes to, such as whether they have stored food in plastic containers. Some in the group were then asked to consider positive outcomes from an assessment that their toxin exposure was high. After a period waiting for results, participants were randomly told they were at low or high risk for toxin exposure, after which their reaction was recorded. 

Across all four studies, researchers found those who engaged in more preemptive benefit finding were more content during their waiting periods and experienced less negative emotion after the waiting ended.

Also, the researchers said, focusing on a possibly bad outcome doesn’t rob one’s joy if the news turns out to be good.

“How can people maximize emotional well-being when things go wrong?” the researchers asked. “One way may be to shift focus from the dark cloud to the silver lining, even when waiting.”

The article, “Preparing Silver Linings for a Cloudy Day: The Consequences of Preemptive Benefit Finding,” was authored by Rankin and Sweeny and is now online. The research was funded in part by a National Science Foundation grant. 

Header image: wayhomestudio from freepik.com 

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