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First published online May 8, 2014

Worth Keeping but Not Exceeding: Asymmetric Consequences of Breaking Versus Exceeding Promises


Promises are social contracts that can be broken, kept, or exceeded. Breaking one’s promise is evaluated more negatively than keeping one’s promise. Does expending more effort to exceed a promise lead to equivalently more positive evaluations? Although linear in their outcomes, we expected an asymmetry in evaluations of broken, kept, and exceeded promises. Whereas breaking one’s promise is obviously negative compared to keeping a promise, we predicted that exceeding one’s promise would not be evaluated more positively than merely keeping a promise. Three sets of experiments involving hypothetical, recalled, and actual promises support these predictions. A final experiment suggests this asymmetry comes from overvaluing kept promises rather than undervaluing exceeded promises. We suggest this pattern may reflect a general tendency in social systems to discourage selfishness and reward cooperation. Breaking one’s promise is costly, but exceeding it does not appear worth the effort.

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Ayelet Gneezy is an Associate professor of behavioral sciences and marketing at UCSD. Her research addresses a wide variety of questions pertaining to consumer behavior such as behavioral pricing and social preferences. In her research, professor Gneezy often collaborates with firms and integrates field experiments to test her predictions.
Nicholas Epley is the John T. Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His research is focused on the experimental study of social cognition, perspective taking, and intuitive human judgment.

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Published In

Article first published online: May 8, 2014
Issue published: September 2014


  1. judgment and decision making
  2. social cognition
  3. social judgment
  4. interpersonal processes
  5. impression formation

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© The Author(s) 2014.
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Published online: May 8, 2014
Issue published: September 2014



Ayelet Gneezy
University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA
Nicholas Epley
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA


Ayelet Gneezy, Rady School of Management, 3W119 Wells-Fargo Hall, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0553, USA Email: [email protected] or [email protected]

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