Remember that time you turned in an assignment days ahead of your deadline? Or when you brought in coffee and donuts for your team meeting, when everyone was expecting you to only bring coffee? What about the night you worked until 10 PM, even though you’d only promised to stay until 6?
I hate to break it to you, but no one cared.
According to a new study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers found that exceeding promises reaps little benefits over simply keeping them. Break them, though, and you’ll suffer the consequences.
“There’s no value in knowing that someone is extra-fair,” says study co-author Ayelet Gneezy, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management. “If we’re thinking about social systems and how our world operates, all we really need to know is whether the person is reliable or not, or trustworthy or not.” Anything more is near negligible, she says.
To come to this conclusion, Gneezy and a colleague at the University of Chicago conducted three experiments testing people’s reactions to promises. The first asked participants to predict how they’d feel if a hypothetical promise—in this case, a friend offering to edit a term paper and provide feedback—was kept, broken, or exceeded. The second asked study subjects to reflect on promises made to them in the past. And the third set up situations in which participants made promises to each other, and then were instructed to stay true to their word, fall short, or go above and beyond.
Overall, the researchers found that not only did promise receivers overlook exceeders’ extra efforts, but they also attributed those efforts to outside influences—not good nature.
“Whatever’s provided for me by you doing a bit more, you probably had nothing to do with that, it’s not diagnostic of your character any more than simply keeping your promise,” Gneezy says. “Whereas falling short of promises—that is an obvious result.”
In other words, when you turned in that assignment early, your supervisor figured you were off to a hot date. When you brought the unexpected donuts, your colleagues assumed Dunkin’ Donuts had a special. The night you worked late, your boss suspected you didn’t have internet access at home. But had you missed your deadline, forgotten to bring the coffee, or left work early? They’d all be more apt to consider you an untrustworthy person.
So, what does this mean for you?
For one, keep the promises you make. If that means making fewer promises—something Gneezy has vowed to do—so be it. Breaking them will hurt more than not making them in the first place.
Next, go the extra mile only if you want to—not because you expect people to be cheering after you cross the finish line. Better yet, upgrade your promises; say, by telling your boss outright that you’ll submit the assignment a day early or by offering to bring the coffee and the donuts when the duties are first divvied. In other words, don’t under-promise and over-deliver, rather promise and deliver. Achieving is the new overachieving.
Finally, give yourself a break. “There’s something about the extra that I think is very consuming for us as individuals and very demanding,” Gneezy says. That energy can be spent elsewhere—a passion project, a relationship, or even a renewed commitment to get more sleep—with little loss to others’ perceptions of your original pursuit.
Put simply, “be who you say you are and do what you say you’ll do,” Gneezy says. “It decreases anxiety on all sides, it makes things much simpler. It’s a better social system for everyone.”
Anna Medaris Miller is the associate editor of Monitor on Psychology and gradPSYCH magazines in Washington, D.C., where she's also been published in The Washington Post and US News & World Report. She is a novice triathlete, passionate University of Michigan alumna, and graduate of American University's Interactive Journalism master’s program. As someone who doesn't let even the smallest of "holidays" go un-celebrated, she's been called “a weird-stuff-o-meter” and takes it as a compliment. Follow her @AnnaMedaris.More from this Author