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How the Ben Franklin Effect Makes Us More Likeable

As amazing as the human brain is, we are remarkably skilled at disillusioning ourselves. It’s a common belief that our thoughts and ideas shape our words and actions, and those actions become habits and values. One of the most remarkable demonstrations of self-delusion is how we’re able to change our view of the world to fit with how we feel or what we’ve done.

For example, we tend to like someone more after doing a favor for them. People reason that they help others because they like them, even if they do not, because their minds struggle to maintain logical consistency between their actions and perceptions.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You ask for a favor from someone who is not a friend.

  2. They agree to do it.

  3. Their brain looks for logical explanation as to why they have done you a favor.

  4. Their brain struggles to reconcile the behavior towards you with the favor.

  5. It reframes the favor concluding that they like you.

This is the Ben Franklin Effect in action.

Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is probably best known for his scientific inventions including swim fins, bifocals, and the lightning rod. But he was much more than a scientist. Franklin was a statesman, author, publisher, diplomat, and one of the leading figures in our nation’s history. One of 17 children, Franklin only received 2 years of education.

At age 17, he left Boston practically penniless and started his own printing business in Philadelphia. Over the next two decades he became enormously wealthy as a print shop owner, publisher of the popular “Poor Richard’s Almanack” and founder of the first public lending library, the first non-religious college, and the Pennsylvania Gazette, the first national newspaper. He also entered the political arena and used his skills to record and print public records, bills, and other official documents – including the state’s paper money.

When he ran for his second term as clerk of the General Assembly, one of his rivals criticized him in a speech to the legislature. As a widely respected as a savvy politician, a successful entrepreneur, and an intelligent man of discerning literary taste, he was not used to dealing with haters and that just didn't sit well with him.

So, what did he do?

Benjamin sent a letter to his rival asking if he could borrow a book from the man. Flattered, the rival sent the book. Franklin returned it almost immediately with a thank-you note. After that, the two enjoyed mutual respect for one another and become great friends.

In Franklin's words:

“When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.” – Ben Franklin

How did Franklin turn a hater into a friend simply by asking to borrow a book? It has everything to do with how we reconcile cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, beliefs, attitudes, or opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent. To resolve this state of dissonance, we look for ways to justify it rather than admit we made a mistake. In other words, we change our view of the world to fit with how we feel or what we’ve done.

When we do a favor for someone, especially if we do so without any apparent external reward, our brain tends to resolve the dissonance between our actions (doing a favor) and our feelings (not particularly liking the person) by adjusting the latter. We persuade ourselves that we must like the person for whom we did the favor, thereby increasing their likability in our perception.

Reciprocation Bias

The bias has been studied in numerous settings. The initial study was done by Jecker and Landy in 1969, in which students were invited to take part in a Q&A competition run by the researcher in which they could win sums of money. After this competition was over, one-third of the students who had "won" were approached by the researcher, who asked them to return the money on the grounds that he had used his own funds to pay the winners; another third were asked by a secretary to return the money; another third were not at all approached. All three groups were then asked how much they liked the researcher. The second group liked him the least, the first group the most – suggesting that a refund request by an intermediary had decreased their liking, while a direct request had increased their liking

In a 2014 study, participants were tasked with solving a series of puzzles with a partner who they thought was also a participant in the experiment, but who was in fact working for the researchers. This partner asked some of the participants for help in solving a puzzle, and those who were asked for help, which they all agreed to provide, later displayed the Ben Franklin effect, by expressing more positive feelings toward their partner than participants who were not asked for help.

Research aside, the Ben Franklin effect has its limitations. Benjamin Franklin had an excellent reputation, and the rivalry with his foe was purely professional. Both of them saw the benefit from each other’s friendship. In addition, Benjamin Franklin was a book collector, and was known for his literary prowess. That’s why he asked to borrow a book, and not a hat. And that's why the request was so flattering to the rival.

Before you go asking random strangers for favors, remember that context matters. But, the fundamental construct of the Ben Franklin effect has merit. Whether or not you believe in it, the act of approaching someone and asking for a favor puts you in contact with that person. That interaction creates an opportunity for you and the other person to engage, share ideas or information, and potentially help one another. It is an important life skill to be able to influence how others perceive you but also to learn how best to approach others.


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