1/14/13

The Surprising Reason We Break Promises


 Recently, my friend Jane (not her real name, for reasons that will become obvious) sat with me over a long lunch, and listened patiently to tales of how my children were slowly driving me crazy.  “You know what,” said Jane, touching my hand and clearly filled with sympathy, “I’m going to come over sometime next week and take the kids off your hands for a few hours so you can go have some fun.” 

“Thanks Jane,” I replied, with zero enthusiasm, and changed the subject.  You see, despite my fondness for Jane, I knew there was no way in hell she was going to do anything of the kind.  I’d heard it all before.  It’s not that she didn’t mean what she was saying, that the offer wasn’t genuine.  In her mind, she had every intention of coming over to watch the kids.   Jane is the kind of person who sees herself as a Good Friend, and would be outraged if I replied to her generous gesture with what I was really thinking:  “I won’t hold my breath.”

For some people, I’ve noticed, saying you are going to do something feels just as good as actually doing it.   Jane is one of those people – she had a visible aura of satisfaction about her after she made her offer to babysit.  You could practically hear her inner voice doling out the compliments. You are so generous, Jane.  What a wonderful friend you are.   

Indeed, why actually follow through on the offer to watch the kids, with all the hassle that entails, when simply expressing your intention to do so feels so good in its own right?

How can we understand these promise-breakers like Jane, whose intentions start out both genuine and admirable, but who never seem to act on them?  And just as important, how can we keep from becoming one of them?

Most people assume, with good reason, that making your intention to do something public makes you more likely to actually follow through with it.   This should be true for (at least) two reasons. First, going public commits you to a view of yourself that you want to try to be consistent with.  If I tell my boss that I’ll have a project finished by the end of the week, then I’m thinking of myself as the Kind of Person Who Gets Things Done Quickly, and I want to live up to that image in my own mind.  Second, going public makes you feel accountable to someone else.  If I don’t have the project finished by Friday, then my boss will likely think I am the Kind of Person Who He Should Fire.

Telling others about your intention to do something does make you more likely to actually do it, but this is only true when the actual behavior you are committing to is desirable for its own sake.   For instance, telling your friends that you intend to watch less TV and read more is a good idea if you’re doing it because you want more time to read.

But Jane wasn’t offering to babysit because she wanted to spend time with my kids – she was doing it to be a Good Friend.   Much of the time, the actions we intend to take are desirable to us because they validate some important aspect of our identity, of how we like to think of ourselves.  And it turns out, that’s where the trouble lies.

According to Self-Completion Theory (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982), when we are committed to particular identity goals, like being a good parent, a talented artist, or a successful business person, we engage in a variety of activities in order to prove to ourselves (and to others) that we are in fact good parents, talented artists, or successful business people. 

Some of these activities are essential to the identity – an artist isn’t really an artist if she doesn’t at least occasionally create some art.  Other activities are purely symbolic – like self-praise (“Look at that brushwork. I am so good!”), or dressing the part by walking around in a paint-spattered smock.  When we fail at some task that is relevant to our identity (a rejection from an art gallery, a bad review from an art critic), we feel a sense of incompleteness – saddened and anxious that we aren’t living up to our mental image of who and what we are supposed to be. 

To restore our sense of completeness, we try to engage in activities or show off status symbols related to the damaged identity.  A doctor who loses a patient may put in extra hours at the office, reflect on some of the patients he has healed, or spend a little extra time in his white lab coat and stethoscope. 

Completeness is also enhanced by an audience.  When other people notice our symbols – like an intention to do something a doctor, and artist, or a Good Friend would do - it gives you the same completeness-boost you’d get from actually doing it.  In other words, when other people hear us talk about our identity-related intentions, we get a sense of completeness from just talking about it.  And since talking is usually easier than doing, why bother with the latter?

Recent research shows that when our identity-based intentions are noticed by other people, we are indeed less likely to translate them into action.  Ironically, the more important the aspect of your identity is to you, the less likely you are to go through with it.  In a sense, Jane may be such a lousy friend precisely because it’s so important to her to see herself as a good one.

In one study, undergraduates who were on the path to one day become psychologists were asked to write down their two most important study intentions for the coming week (e.g., “I intend to study more statistics” or “I will take my reading assignments more seriously.”)  Half of the participants watched as their intentions were read by an experimenter– the other half were told that the intention questions weren’t supposed to be in the experiment at all and would just be discarded, unread.

One week later, the students were asked whether or not they had acted on their intentions.  Just having their intentions read by the experimenter actually decreased their likelihood of acting by 30%!

 In a second study, groups of second-year law students wrote about their three most important intentions with respect to becoming a lawyer (e.g., “I will read law periodicals regularly.”)   Half of the law students then made their intentions known to the rest of the group, while the others kept them privately to themselves.  Later, to measure their sense of completeness, each student was asked how much they felt like a lawyer right now, on a scale from 1 to 5.   Sharing their intention to do lawyerly things bumped completeness scores up a full point, from an average of 3 to 4.  So just telling people you are going to do some lawyer stuff makes you feel almost like an actual lawyer!

At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to keep yourself from falling into this trap.  How can you stop being a promise-breaker, someone who talks plenty but rarely bothers with the walking part?

Well, one obvious solution is to keep your intentions to yourself.   Without an audience, intentions alone won’t give you the sense of identity-completeness you’re looking for.

If you can’t do that, the next best thing would be to make sure that you think about and express your intentions in ways that emphasize how what you’re going to do is valuable in its own right, not just as a way to bolster your identity.  The father who vows in front of his pals to spend more quality time with his kids has probably just made himself feel like a Good Dad, but just reduced his chances of actually being one.  If instead, he vows “to spend more time with my kids, because they really need me right now,” or “because I love being with them,” he’s made it clear to everyone, including himself, that it’s not just about being a Good Dad – it’s about time with the kids, for its own sake.   You will get beyond the talk when you make a point of remembering why it’s worth taking the trouble to walk.



Gollwitzer, P., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. (2009) When intentions go public: Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?  Psychological Science, 20, 612-618.

Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1982) Symbolic self-completion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

1 comment:

  1. As one of the posters on my time management forum has pointed out, your correct response to Jane's offer should have been to get your schedule out and say "Great! How about coming over Tuesday right after lunch?"

    The recipient of an offer has as much responsibility to make an offer real as the person offering.

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