Few studies on emotional support have investigated mixed messages–instances when emotional support messages contain both positive and negative statements. Although researchers have recognized that mixed messages occur, most supportive communication research has ignored these ambivalent messages. We contend based on the negativity bias that the more negative statements that occur in an emotional support message, the less effective the message is. To test this possibility, we presented cancer patients (N = 417) with messages that consisted of 0%, 20%, 40%, 60%, or 80% negative statements. Patients rated the messages on five variables: message effectiveness, affective improvement, supporter competence, likelihood to seek future support, and being better off if the supporter had said nothing. A significant positive linear trend occurred for all five variables. The results suggest that the presence and amount of negative statements within an emotional support message has a considerable influence on the recipient’s perception of the message and supporter. From a practical standpoint, the results suggest that cancer patients’ supporters should act cautiously when communicating negative statements within supportive messages, as even a brief negative statement may cause irreparable damage to the overall quality of a support message.
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