Is it Worth Going the Extra Mile?


The saying goes that the traffic on the extra mile is usually light, and there are no shortage of guides and advice exhorting us to go that bit further than everyone else, and delight our colleagues and customers. Being able to exceed the expectations others have of us has become an almost unchallenged maxim for success in life.

Are we right to leave it unchallenged, however? A recent study suggests that the idea that going above and beyond is good for us might not be quite as straightforward as we’d like to believe. It suggests that it is almost certainly true that not having our needs met is a very bad thing indeed; we generally don’t seem that bothered by having them exceeded.

Why we don’t value the extra mile

A number of experiments were conducted by the researchers to test how we imagine, recall and deliver on the promises we make. For instance, one experiment asked people to recall three promises they’d made in the past. They were asked to remember one promise that had been broken, one that had been kept, and one that had been exceeded. Afterwards, they were asked to recall how happy they were after each.

As you can perhaps imagine, most people responded pretty badly to having a promise broken, and indeed reacted a whole lot better when the promises were kept. The thing is, though, they seemed to give hardly any extra credit to the other person when they exceeded expectations. When the participants were quizzed on this, they revealed that they didn’t think going the extra mile really took that much extra effort. In other words, the extra mile wasn’t really seen as that big a deal.

The hypothesis was tested some more via a second experiment. Participants promised to help a colleague with a number of challenges that had been set by the researchers. They had been instructed by the research team to either over- or under-deliver on the promise they made, however.

The results were very similar to the first experiment, with those who had over-delivered not receiving any additional credit for doing so, despite the extra effort being quite apparent. Indeed, they were treated just the same as when they had merely delivered on their promise.

“I was surprised that exceeding a promise produced so little meaningful increase in gratitude or appreciation. I had anticipated a modest positive effect,” the authors said, but “what we actually found was almost no gain from exceeding a promise whatsoever.”

A number of additional experiments were conducted, all with the same outcome. Why was this? The authors believe it is all down to how we, as a society, tend to look at promises.

“Keeping a promise is valued so highly, above and beyond its ‘objective’ value,” they reveal. “When you keep a promise, not only have you done something nice for someone but you’ve also fulfilled a social contract and shown that you’re a reliable and trustworthy person.”

So, the mantra of going the extra mile may not actually be worth the extra effort that it requires. Suffice to say, however, even keeping our promises seems a struggle for some, so we should always strive to do that, even if we don’t push on to exceed them.

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