Your mother loves you and just wants you to be happy. She’d also like you to eat more vegetables, turn on a light when you read, and change out of those wet clothes before you catch a cold. Now, a team of researchers who seem to have a direct line to the first woman you ever loved have discovered one more thing she wants you to do: Keep your promises.

Through a series of four experiments, they proved that though there may be negative consequences when you fail to do as you say, you pretty much gain nothing by going above and beyond what you told others (including Mom) you'd do. “Promise receivers consistently failed to recognize the additional effort required to exceed a promise but recognized a lack of effort when breaking a promise,” wrote the authors in their conclusion in a new study published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Promises vs. Expectations

Dr. Ayelet Gneezy of the University of California, San Diego, decided to explore promises after he thought about customer service promises made by companies. In particular, he thought about “Amazon's tendency to exceed its promise with respect to delivery time — that is, packages always arrived earlier than promised,” yet this never inspired any great appreciation, he confessed in a press release. To better understand this experience, he constructed four experiments with Dr. Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago to test promise-making of different stripes: imagined, recalled, and actual.

In the first two experiments, the researchers asked participants to imagine or remember receiving a promise that was exceeded, kept as promised, or broken. Then, the researchers asked participants to rate how happy they were with the promise-maker's (imagined or real) behavior. In a third experiment, the researchers divided participants into promise makers and promise receivers. Next, the researchers instructed the promise-makers to break, keep, or exceed their promise, and once again, the participants were asked to rate how happy they felt with the promise-maker's behavior.

What did the researchers discover? In all three experiments, broken promises were given the thumbs down by all the participants. At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, participants never gave more credit to someone for going above and beyond — participants always rated them the same as someone who simply kept a promise.

In a fourth and final experiment, the researchers asked one group of participants to remember past promises, while a second group were asked to recall past expectations that had been broken, kept, or exceeded. Unlike promises, exceeded expectations made participants feel happier than exceeded promises.

"Don't be upset when your friends, family members, clients, or students fail to appreciate the extra effort you put into going above and beyond your promise,” Epley said. “They do not appear to be uniquely ungrateful, just human." 

And this same human truth applies to your mother, even on her special day. So remember: This Sunday, it's not about pulling out all the stops, it’s simply a matter of keeping your word and arriving on time with whatever you promised to bring. ("You know I don't need a gift but thank you anyway.") Happy Mother’s Day, Dorothy!

 

Source: Gneezy A, Epley N. Worth keeping but not exceeding: asymmetric consequences of breaking versus exceeding promises. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2014.