Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Cristina Bicchieri


In this dissertation, I defend a “social-rights” account of promises. I argue that the essential common feature of promising practices is the transfer of a right to a future action from the promisor to the promisee. The transfer of the right relies on a social practice – specifically, a social norm. Using empirical evidence, I show that the practice of promising fits the definition of a social norm. I then use the theory of social norms to investigate why we are motivated to keep promises. The fact that a single theory can describe both normative foundations and motivation gives credence to the theory: the data on behavioral motivation supports the metaethical theory, and the metaethical theory can help to explain the motivation. My theory also has practical and theoretical applications; I focus on two particular cases. On the theoretical side, I discuss implications for contemporary social contract theories. On the practical side, I evaluate successful and unsuccessful efforts to eliminate female genital cutting (FGC) in various parts of Africa that rely on promises. My theory can explain why these programs are successful in certain circumstances, but not in others. Thus, my theory can explain and inform the creation and implementation of behavioral interventions.