Why do people keep their promises? A further investigation

  • Steven Schwartz
  • Eric Spires
  • Rick Young
Original Paper


Two rationales have emerged for why individuals keep their promises: (a) an emotional commitment to keep actions and words consistent, a commitment rationale and (b) avoidance of guilt due to not meeting the expectations of the promisee, an expectations rationale. We propose a new dichotomy with clearer distinctions between rationales: (1) an internal consistency rationale, which is the desire to keep actions and words consistent regardless of others’ awareness of the promise and (2) a communication rationale, which captures all aspects of promise keeping that are associated with the promisee having learned of the promise, including but not limited to promisee expectations. Using an experiment that manipulates whether promises are delivered, we find no support for the internal consistency rationale; only delivered promises are relevant. In a second experiment designed to better understand what aspect of promise delivery influences promisor behavior, we manipulate whether the promise is delivered before or after the promisee is able to take a trusting action. We find late-arriving promises are relevant though not as relevant as promises delivered before the promisee chooses whether to take the trusting action. We conclude that implicit contracting does not fully explain promise keeping, because had it done so, late-arriving promises would also be irrelevant.


Promises Commitment Expectations Trust game 

JEL Classification

C91 C70 

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 15 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 15 kb)
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Supplementary material 3 (DOCX 18 kb)
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Supplementary material 4 (DOCX 23 kb)


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Copyright information

© Economic Science Association 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of ManagementBinghamton UniversityBinghamtonUSA
  2. 2.Fisher College of BusinessOhio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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