The new study was spurred by one of the nation’s largest companies, Amazon, and its tendency to exceed its promise in respect to delivery times.
“Packages always arrived earlier than promised,” noted Ayelet Gneezy, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego. But what was interesting is that she had little appreciation for that gesture.
That led Gneezy and Nicholas Epley, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to explore “promise exceeding” in a series of experiments that tested imagined, recalled and actual promise-making.
In one of the experiments, researchers asked participants to recall three promises: One broken, one kept, and one exceeded. They then asked them to rate how happy they were with the promise-maker’s behavior.
While participants valued keeping a promise much more highly than breaking one, exceeding the promise conferred virtually no additional happiness with the promise-maker, the researchers found.
In a follow-up experiment, participants said that exceeding a promise did not require expending significantly more effort, the researchers reported.
In another experiment, the researchers paired participants, making one the promise-maker and one the promise-receiver. The promise-receiver needed to solve 40 puzzles, being paid for each puzzle solved. The promise-maker promised to help solve 10 puzzles. The researcher then instructed the promise-makers to solve either the 10 puzzles as promised, only five, or 15 puzzles.
The researchers found that while exceeding the promise by solving 15 puzzles clearly required more effort, the promise-receivers did not value that extra work any more than just keeping to the 10 puzzles promised. It turns out they valued promise keeping and exceeding those promises equally, according to the researchers.
“I was surprised that exceeding a promise produced so little meaningful increase in gratitude or appreciation. I had anticipated a modest positive effect,” Epley said, adding, “what we actually found was almost no gain from exceeding a promise whatsoever.”
The data suggest that the reason for this lies in how we value promises as a society, he noted.
“Keeping a promise is valued so highly, above and beyond its ‘objective’ value,” Epley said. “When you keep a promise, not only have you done something nice for someone, but you’ve also fulfilled a social contract and shown that you’re a reliable and trustworthy person.”
The bottom line, according to Epley, is that exceeding a promise may not be worth the effort you put in.
“Invest efforts into keeping promises, not in exceeding them,” he said.
This advice also holds true for businesses, which should prioritize resources to make sure they do not break promises, rather than trying to go above and beyond.
To test this even further, Epley and Gneezy asked participants in a follow-up study to imagine they had bought concert tickets for row 10 and then either received worse tickets than promised (row 11, 13, or 15), better tickets than promised (row 9, 7, or 5), or exactly what was promised.
Participants were more negative about receiving worse tickets, but were no more positive — nor more likely to recommend the company — when they received better tickets than promised.
Epley and colleague Nadav Klein, a doctoral student at Booth, are now working on related research about how people evaluate selfless versus selfish behavior and they are finding similar results.
“Behaving fairly toward others is the critical point,” Epley explained. “Beyond being fair, generosity does not seem to be valued as much as one would expect.”
“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,” he concluded. “They do not appear to be uniquely ungrateful, just human.”
The study was published online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Source: SAGE Publications