If you are sending Mother’ s Day flowers to your mom this weekend, chances are you opted for guaranteed delivery: the promise that they will appear by a certain time. Should the plants not arrive in time, you will likely really feel betrayed by the sender for splitting their promise. But if they appear earlier, you likely will be simply no happier than if they arrive promptly, according to new research. The new work suggests that we place such a high premium on keeping a promise that exceeding it confers little if any additional benefit.
Whether we make them with a person or company, promises are social contracts, says Ayelet Gneezy of the University of California, San Diego. While researchers have explored the unfavorable consequences of breaking promises, so far, they have not explored what happens whenever someone exceeds a promise.
Gneezy became interested in the subject when thinking about how consumers react to promises made by firms. “ My first memory in that respect is that of Amazon’ s tendency to exceed the promise with respect to delivery time — that is, packages always arrived sooner than promised — and my insufficient appreciation of the ‘ gesture’ /fact, ” Gneezy says.
Gneezy, with colleague Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, set out to discover “ promise exceeding” in a number of experiments that tested imagined, remembered, and actual promise-making. In one of the experiments, for example , researchers asked participants to recall three promises: one broken, one kept, and one exceeded. They then asked them to rate how content they were with the promise-maker’ s behaviour.
While participants valued keeping a promise much more extremely than breaking one, exceeding the promise conferred virtually no additional happiness with the promise-maker, as published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science . Additionally , in a follow-up experiment, participants stated that exceeding a promise did not need expending significantly more effort.
In another experiment, researchers paired participants, making one the promise-maker and one the promise-receiver. The promise-receiver needed to solve 40 puzzles, getting paid for each puzzle solved. The promise-maker promised to help in resolving 10 puzzles. The experimenter then instructed the promise-makers to solve either the 10 puzzles (as promised), only 5, or 15.
Although exceeding the promise by solving 15 puzzles obviously required more effort, the promise- receivers did not value that additional work any more than just keeping towards the 10 puzzles promised: They valued promise keeping and exceeding similarly.
“ I was surprised that exceeding a promise produced so little meaningful increase in gratitude or even appreciation. I had anticipated a simple positive effect, ” Epley states, but “ what we actually discovered was almost no gain from going above a promise whatsoever. ”
And the trend held accurate across the experiments: “ Being able to demonstrate our effect so reliably throughout so many very different methods gives all of us great confidence in the robustness of these effects, ” Epley says.
The data suggest that the reason for these effects lies in how we value promises as a society. “ Keeping the promise is valued so extremely, above and beyond its ‘ objective’ value, ” Epley says. “ When you keep a promise, not only have you ever done something nice for someone but you’ ve also fulfilled a social contract and proven that you’ re a reliable and trustworthy person. ”
To test this idea further, Epley and Gneezy asked participants inside a follow-up study to imagine they had bought concert tickets for row 10 and then either received worse seat tickets than promised (row 11, 13, or 15), better tickets than promised (row 9, 7, or even 5), or exactly what was guaranteed. Participants were more negative about receiving worse tickets but were no more positive — nor more prone to recommend the company — when they received better tickets than promised.
Epley and colleague Nadav Klein are currently working on related work about how people evaluate selfless when compared with selfish behavior and they are finding corresponding effects. “ Behaving fairly toward others is the critical point, ” Epley explains. “ Beyond being fair, generosity does not seem to be valued as much as one would expect. ”
So , Epley says: “ Don’ t be upset when your close friends, family members, clients, or students are not able to appreciate the extra effort you put in to going above and beyond your promise. They do not appear to be uniquely ungrateful, just human being. ”