New paper on cognitive conflicts in promise keepers and promise breakers

Cinzia Calluso, Anne Saulin, Thomas Baumgartner and Daria Knoch

On a daily basis, we see how different people can be in keeping or breaking a given promise. However, we know very little about the cognitive conflict dynamics that underlie the decision to keep or break a promise and whether this is shaped by inter-individual variability. In order to fill this gap, we applied an ecologically valid promise decision task with real monetary consequences for all involved interaction partners and used mouse tracking to identify the dynamic, on-line cognitive processes that underlie the decision to keep or break a promise. Our findings revealed that on average, the process of breaking a promise is associated with largely curved mouse trajectories, while the process of keeping a promise was not, indicating that breaking a promise is associated with a larger conflict. Interestingly, however, this conflict pattern was strongly shaped by individual differences. Individuals who always kept their promises did not show any signs of conflict (i.e., straight mouse trajectories), indicating that they were not tempted by the monetary benefits associated with breaking the promise. In contrast, individuals who did not always keep their promise exhibited a large conflict (i.e., curved mouse trajectories), irrespective of whether they broke or kept their promise. A possible interpretation of these findings is that these individuals were always tempted by the unchosen decision option – the desire to act in a fair manner when breaking the promise and the monetary benefits when keeping the promise. This study provides the first piece of evidence that there are substantial inter-individual differences in cognitive conflict dynamics that underlie the decision to keep or break promises and that mouse tracking is able to illuminate important insights into individual differences in complex human’s decision processes.

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