To be responsible, we keep our promises to others. To be successful, we keep our promises to ourselves.

Are we making a lot of promises we cannot possibly keep? Everyone has broken a promise or two at some point in their lives.  But some people do it more than others.

Why do people break their promises? Why commit to something that they can’t do? What is the impact of a broken promise?

Promises are the fabric of humans’ ability to cooperate. They are one of the oldest human-specific psychological mechanisms fostering cooperation and trust. Additionally, promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that it is possible.

In ancient times, before modern human societies formed large cooperative infrastructures in the form of laws, impartial courts, and the police existed to ensure cooperative agreements, promises were made and kept. 1 One reason for keeping a promise is to ensure the future cooperation of potential exchange partners. Promises are also kept in one-shot interactions as behavioral experiments reveal our preference for promise-keeping. 2 Those experiments suggest that we often keep promises just because it is ‘‘the right thing to do.’’

Thus, it is possible to distinguish two major motivations behind promise-keeping: first, instrumental promise-keeping for the purpose of ensuring future cooperation, and second, intrinsic promise-keeping for the purpose of ‘‘doing the right thing.’’

On the opposite side of the coin, neuroscience research on promise breaking  shows an increased activation in the DLPFC, ACC, and amygdala, suggesting that the dishonest act triggers an emotional conflict or a dissonance.  Before neuro- scientists could look inside our heads, the term cognitive dissonance was coined to explain a person holding two contradictory beliefs. Or when a belief is incongruent with an action that the person had chosen freely to perform, like breaking a promise. 3  

In the 1960s, psychologist Carl Rogers went further suggesting the dissonance was an ‘incongruence’ in our state of being.  We experience a discrepancy or difference between the experience we have and the self-picture we developed in response to that experience. 4 According to Rogers, incongruence triggers unpleasant feelings, which neuroscience has finally pinpointed in our brains.

Our perceived self is how we view ourselves, and the ideal self is how we wish we were. When those two selves overlap, congruence occurs. Look at the graphic below. Research indicates that it is impossible for us to be completely overlapped as we always have something we wish was different.

We strive for congruence. But when the distance between the perceived self and the ideal self is too far, we get discomfort, anxiety, stress, and frustration. As we might guess, breaking promises or lying to ourselves manifests a load of negatives in our inner world.  It is not only our failure to reach our goals that turns our mood dark, but our lack of congruency in breaking our promises to ourselves.

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behavior in harmony and avoid disharmony or dissonance. This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency. Neuroscience suggests deceptive people must work to suppress truthful actions or responses. The truth gnaws away at us.

In a day-to-day context, when our outside does not match our inside, one is said to be incongruent. A simple example would be when someone asks, “How are you?” and you muster your best plastic smile and reply, “Good.” However, you are having a crappy day and feel like hiding in a hole. We have all been there.

We all have a persona, a self that we present to the world. If we continuously drift into a state of incongruence, we lose track of who we are on the inside, our authentic selves. When this occurs, we start to lose the ability to choose what we express as our identity. We end up living in a shallower existence, feeling something like always being on autopilot.

Rogers believed back in 1947 that incongruence ultimately makes one “feel bad.”5 And neuroscience supports the theorized “feel bad” as stress. And that all human beings have an innate drive to become more congruent.  This congruence is often referred to as self-actualization, the height of healthy human development. He believed that when our perceived selves and our ideal selves are all in alignment, we experience a great sense of peace and clarity.

Beyond peace and clarity flowing from our congruency, promise-making and keeping have an impact researchers have measured. In the graph below, promise receivers rate their impression of promise makers when they keep and break their word. The impact of breaking a promise is enormous, and our memory of the breach of trust extends into the future. Consider the research findings if we are both the promise making and receiver. The promises we make to ourselves have a compounding effect in our inner world.  

Promises can be tough to keep, meaning promise makers should work extremely hard to keep them. Or not make them at all.  Especially to ourselves. By our nature, human beings are intentional creatures. We aim at goals. And we are chronically aware we cause future events. In an effort to better our tomorrows, we makes promises to ourselves that keep us moving forward. The research suggests receiving promises keep results in happiness.

If we have reached a point in our lives where we feel stuck and miserable, it is probably because we are setting goals, making promises to ourselves and breaking them.  

1) Fehr, E., Fischbacher, U., and Gachter, S. (2002). Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms. Hum. Nat. 13, 1–25.

2) Charness, G., and Dufwenberg, M. (2006). Promises and partnership. Econometrica 74, 1579–1601.

3) Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.

4) Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

5) Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

6) Gneezy, A., & Epley, N. (2014). Worth Keeping but Not Exceeding: Asymmetric Consequences of Breaking Versus Exceeding Promises. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(7), 796–804.

Published by Robert Q Watson

During my first six decades on this earth, I lived life at great heights often on the razor’s edge. Consequently, I have enjoyed incredible successes and endured mind-numbing failures. Truthfully, I have had a hell of a view.

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