The anatomy of a promise

(The basis of a recent talk)

A promise is always about the future but it is not a forecast. It is an agreement generally between two parties, but can even be an agreement with oneself. It is primarily a psychological agreement between the parties where one party (the promise giver) accepts the obligation to perform some action. Unlike a contract where there is a balance of obligations and duties between the parties, in a promise the second party (the promise receiver) has no duties A promise is not usually legally binding, but non-performance can have social overtones and consequences. 

Promises are integral to human relationships. They are what make human cooperation possible. Most of our daily actions are to keep promises – some explicit and some implied. Going to work every day. Taking care of the family. Meeting friends. Most of these promises are made in simple language, without ceremony or any great formality. Is it worth more if the promise is given as part of a ceremony with formal text? Is it of more intrinsic value if it is witnessed by hundreds of people instead of just one or two? What is the value of a promise if it is made to yourself in the secrecy of your mind?

The value of the promise is not to be confused with the value of the action being promised. These are two separate things. I take the inherent value of a promise to simply be the likelihood of it being fulfilled. It is a probability with a value lying between zero and one. An empty promise has a value of zero. Certainty that a promise would be fulfilled would give a value of one (100%).

Breaking it down, I see that the intrinsic value of a promise (not the perceived value) depends on three parameters multiplied together. They are all probabilities of a sort. The first is the feasibility of the action being promised. The second is the intention of the promise-giver to fulfill the promise and the third is the competence, or the ability, of the promise giver to implement the promised action. If any one of these parameters is zero or very low,  then the value of the promise must also be  zero or very low. Since these are all probabilities, the probability of a promise being fulfilled can never be higher than the lowest of the component probabilities.

To promise an impossible action leaves the promise with no inherent value. If there is no intention to fulfill the promise the value of the promise vanishes. If the promise-giver lacks the ability or the competence to perform the action the value of the promise reduces correspondingly. The action promised must be

  1. feasible, and
  2. there must be an intention to fulfill the promise, and
  3. there must be competence to implement.

Then, and only then, can a promise have value.

Language is important. But again we must differentiate between language which modifies the promised action and language which is about the promise itself. When rubber-words are used in agreements – “to the best of my ability” or “using best efforts” or “by mutual agreement” – they act on and modify the action that is to be performed. They make the action required to be less stringent, easier to perform, more feasible. Rubber-words, precisely by not being precise, make future compromises possible and compromises are a necessary part of human interaction. As I learnt after my years in Japan, compromises to be made actually ensure future negotiations and continuing interaction. Imprecision in an agreement may well be what allows an agreement to be made. That also applies to promises. Rubber-words soften the action, increase the feasibility of the action to be performed and thereby increase the probability of a promise being kept.

But we also use other words and ceremonies and rituals to qualify the promise itself. To swear in a formal way or to promise  “before God and man” or to have an elaborate ceremony are all designed to increase the probability of the promise giver’s intention to fulfill his promise. They apply pressure (a peer pressure) on the promise giver by implying a loss of honour for non-performance.

The perceived value of a promise is not the same as its inherent value. This is where belief and honour come into play. Broken promises consume honour and the absence of honour in an individual leads to a reduction of belief in him. A promise not believed has no perceived value.



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