Always Make Promises

"People are insensitive to the scope of the bird carnage when they evaluate only one number at a time. When you see that an oil company killed 2,000 birds, you don't think spontaneously, 'Oh, that's only one tenth of 20,000.'" It's just more than zero. "Everything else is just kind of gravy."

Distance operates like that, too. Think of the distance from your home to Saturn, and then think of the distance from your home to the next solar system. As Epley put it, "At some point, things just become 'far'—too big for us too handle." Scope insensitivity is a common phenomenon in psychology, and Epley believes that's what's happening here.

But, I asked, what about an employee who over-performs at a job? Doesn't that score more points with a boss than someone who just punches the clock? 

"If I'm your boss and I expect you only to work Friday, and you come in Friday and Saturday, then I would evaluate you more favorably," he conceded. But that called up the critical difference between a promise and an expectation. His results are really about promises as interpersonal contracts. Expectations are in only one person's head, and they follow a relatively linear pattern. Less is worse, more is better. But promises have a peak at the level of fairness that is above and beyond the expectation point. That's called the fairness premium.

"If I think you're going to come in on Saturday, and you do, I'll feel fine about it. It's a little more than what you normally do. But if you, as an employee, promise your boss that you'll come in on Saturday and then you do come in on Saturday, I will actually be happier than if I just expected it. I don't get that fairness premium, that comes with a promise kept—that boost from recognizing you as a reliable and trustworthy person."  

In that way, a promise is an action with moral implications. Keeping a promise is prosocial. "I've done what I said I would do," Epley explained. "Breaking a promise is kind of a selfish thing."

Does this pattern show up more generally across prosocial actions? "We're happy when people are kind to others, when they share, when they are good to us, and we're not happy when they are selfish," Epley explained. "Mother Teresa is lauded, Bernie Madoff is scorned." But the spectrum from purely selfish to purely prosocial behavior is huge. He posits this situation:

Imagine you're a kid with a cookie and a friend who has no cookie. What happens if you eat it all? Your friend will be upset. What happens if you give all of it away? Your friend will like you a lot. What if you give away half the cookie? Your friend will be just about as happy with you as if you gave him the whole thing. His satisfaction is a pretty flat line if you give anything more than half of the cookie. People judge actions that are on the selfish side of fairness. Maybe because we denigrate do-gooders, or because we're skeptical of too much selflessness, the research shows that, as Epley put it, "It just doesn't get any better than giving half of the cookie." 

In one of his other recent experiments, people were asked to give donations at an orchestra concert. People who gave the "suggested donation" of $10 were judged by observers no more highly than people who gave twice as much. And in a scenario where there was no suggested donation, $5 was significantly more favorable than nothing, but $50 was no better than $5. That one is worth remembering if you're going for that benevolent-on-a-budget look this fall.

Before we parted, Epley said he would send me some of his other research papers. If I didn't hear from him by 3:00 P.M., I should email him. I asked if that was another experiment. He said no.

So, should we all make more promises? That way we can give people that fairness premium, gain trust, and always be sure that expectations of us are met? Knowing exactly what is expected of me, doing exactly that, and being lauded for it seems like some kind of dream.

"Well, promises are a risky strategy," he said, unexpectedly distancing himself. "Make the promises you can keep, but you don't need to exceed them. Just do what you say you'll do."

I got the email well before 3:00.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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