Although it is widely accepted that we favour sharing good news over bad, there is debate whether it is due to our eagerness to transmit positive news or our aversion to sharing negative news. A 2010 study by Jayson Dibble and Timothy Levine, researchers who focus on interpersonal communication, found that both influence the time it takes for individuals to pass on information.9 We may be driven not only by a desire to minimize unpleasant messages, but by a desire to maximize pleasant messages.
Additionally, it is unclear exactly why the MUM effect occurs. Rosen and Tesser were adamant that the only factor that influenced people’s willingness to transmit information was whether it was negative or positive, but Bond and Anderson found that people were only reluctant to share information if they thought it would affect people’s perception of them. The MUM effect still requires further research before we can fully understand its role in our decisions and behaviour.
The Hierarchical MUM Effect
On an individual basis, keeping mum about bad news might not often have devastating effects. However, on a grander scale, such as the Challenger explosion, the MUM effect can have negative consequences.
Distortion of messages, a result of the MUM effect, is a common problem within organizations, specifically when messages travel upwards in a hierarchy. Directions become unclear and incorrect information is passed on. Due to the severity of the potential consequences, psychologists are particularly interested in vertical dyadic messages – how to improve the communication between leaders and subordinates.
Professor of Communications Janet Fulk and expert of Customer Research & Insights Sirish Mani conducted a study in 1986 that examined the impact of the MUM effect in hierarchical organizations and sought to understand which variables influence distorted communication.11 Through a literature review, Fulk and Mani identified four different ways that messages become distorted: gatekeeping, summarization, withholding, and general distortion.11
Gatekeeping means that not all received information is passed upward. Summarization occurs when emphasis is given to various parts of the message, while other parts are kept brief. Withholding refers to the withholding of useful information, and general distortion involves actively changing the information received.11
Through their literature review, the researchers found that the superior’s power, the subordinate’s trust in their supervisor, the perception of a supervisor’s influence in the organization, and the subordinate’s aspirations for upward mobility all impact the likeness of the MUM effect.
Fulk and Mani wanted to investigate whether the stress of a subordinate’s role and their perception of their supervisor’s communication behaviors further influenced the MUM effect. They recruited over 300 clerical and managerial employees of a large public utility to participate in their study. Those participants represented 16 different job classifications and were in eight different hierarchical ranks. Participants were given questionnaires that would help to identify subordinate’s perception of their supervisors’ communication style and their stress levels. The questionnaire also asked them about their own experience with various distortion techniques. They were promised anonymity to ensure all spoke freely. 11
The results showed supervisors’ communication behaviours does influence how likely subordinates are to be impacted by the MUM effect. If they trusted their supervisor and perceived their communication behaviour as supportive, subordinates were less likely to distort information, especially through gatekeeping. If a supervisor communicated frequently with their subordinates, subordinates also followed suit.11
Fulk and Mani also found that role ambiguity led to increased distortion. This finding supports the ‘ambiguous norms factor’ – the hesitancy brought on by an individual’s uncertainty whether they are the person responsible for passing on bad news.11