Photographed By Claire Pepper.
Phone calls, dinner dates, IOUs, we make hundreds of promises a day to everyone from our friends to our bosses. And, as a writer, my finances and reputation rely on meeting promised deadlines. It stands to reason that exceeding expectations and turning in my articles ahead of schedule would earn me extra brownie points with my editor, right? Maybe not.
To see whether doing more than initially agreed upon would be viewed more positively than just keeping the original promise, the study authors conducted a series of small experiments on college students from University of Chicago and University of California San Diego. For the first set of experiments, students read hypothetical scenarios such as, “Your friend promised to read your term paper and give comprehensive feedback.” Then, they were given a possible outcome in which their friend either broke, kept, or surpassed their expectations. Based on how their friend performed, the participants predicted how happy they’d be, whether they’d trust their friend in the future, and how interested they would be to help their friend. Not surprisingly, a broken promise didn’t go over well, but participants didn’t feel more positively about the extra-credit-worthy feedback.
In the second part of the experiment, the researchers asked participants to rate promise-makers as more selfish, less fair, and less generous after breaking a promise compared to those who kept one. But, they thought those who exceeded a promise were equally unselfish, fair, and generous compared to those who just met the initial promise. Again, going above and beyond wasn’t impressing anyone.
When we make a promise, we’re making a social contract, the researchers argue. And, in that way, we tend to view these “contracts” in black-and-white terms — either you “met” the contract or you didn’t. It’s possible that we overvalue kept promises because we simply care more about whether someone follows through with their word than if they go ahead and add a cherry on top.