When you want to make someone like you, what do you do? Compliment them? Buy them dinner? One of the best ways to win someone over is to ask a favor of them. It works via a phenomenon called the Benjamin Franklin Effect.
Born in 1706 as the eighth of 17 children to a Massachusetts soap and candlestick maker, the chances Benjamin would go on to become a gentleman, scholar, scientist, statesman, musician, author, publisher and all-around general bad-ass were astronomically low, yet he did just that and more because he was a master of the game of personal politics.
Like many people full of drive and intelligence born into a low station, Franklin developed strong people skills and social powers. All else denied, the analytical mind will pick apart behavior, and Franklin became adroit at human relations. From an early age, he was a talker and a schemer – a man capable of guile, cunning and persuasive charm. He stockpiled a cache of cajolative secret weapons, one of which was the Benjamin Franklin Effect, a tool as useful today as it was in the 1730s and still just as counterintuitive. To understand it, let’s first rewind back to 1706.
Franklin’s prospects were dim. With 17 children, Josiah and Abiah Franklin could only afford two years of schooling for Benjamin. Instead, they made him work, and when he was 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James who was a printer in Boston. The printing business gave Benjamin the opportunity to read books and pamphlets. It was as if Ben Franklin was the one kid in the neighborhood who had access to the Internet. He read everything, and taught himself every skill and discipline one could absorb from text.
At 17, Franklin left Boston and started his own printing business In Philadelphia. At age 21, he formed a “club of mutual improvement” called the Junto. It was a grand scheme to gobble up knowledge. He invited working-class polymaths like himself who wanted to experiment in 1700s lifestyle design the chance to pool together their books and trade thoughts and knowledge of the world on a regular basis. They wrote and recited essays, held debates, and devised ways to acquire currency. Franklin used the Junto like a private consulting firm, a think tank, and he bounced ideas off of them so he could write and print better pamphlets. Franklin eventually founded the first subscription library in America and wrote it would make “the common tradesman and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries,” not to mention, give him access to whatever books he wanted to buy. Genius.
By the 1730s Franklin was riding down an information superhighway of his own construction, and the constant stream of information made him a savvy politician in Philadelphia. A celebrity and an entrepreneur who printed both a newspaper and an almanac, Franklin had collected a few enemies by the time he ran for the position of clerk of the general assembly, but Franklin knew how to deal with haters.
As clerk, he could step into a waterfall of data coming out of the nascent government. He would record and print public records, bills, vote totals and other official documents. He would also make a fortune literally printing the state’s paper money. He won the race, but the next election wasn’t going to be as easy. Franklin’s autobiography never mentions this guy’s name, but according to the book when Franklin ran for his second term as clerk, one of his colleagues delivered a long speech to the legislature lambasting Franklin. Franklin still won his second term, but this guy truly pissed him off. In addition, this man was “a gentleman of fortune and education” who Franklin believed would one day become a person of great influence in the government. So, Franklin knew he had to be dealt with, and thus he launched his human behavior stealth bomber.
Franklin set out to turn his hater into a fan, but he wanted to do it without “paying any servile respect to him.” Franklin’s reputation as a book collector and library founder gave him a standing as a man of discerning literary tastes, so Franklin sent a letter to the hater asking if he could borrow a selection from his library, one which was a “very scarce and curious book.” The rival, flattered, sent it right away. Franklin sent it back a week later with a thank you note. Mission accomplished.
The next time the legislature met, the man approached Franklin and spoke to him in person for the first time. Franklin said the hater “ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”
What exactly happened here? How can asking for a favor turn a hater into a fan? How can requesting kindness cause a person to change his or her opinion about you? The answer to what generates The Benjamin Franklin Effect is the answer to much more about why you do what you do.
Let’s start with your attitudes. Attitude is the psychological term for the the bundle of beliefs and feelings you experience toward a person, topic, idea, etc. without having to consciously think. For many things, your attitudes came from actions which led to observations which led to explanations which led to beliefs. It is well known in psychology the cart of behavior often gets before the horse of attitude. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience day-to-day. It doesn’t feel that way though. To conscious experience, it feels like you are the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants is performing actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.
Sometimes you can’t find a logical, moral or socially acceptable explanation for your actions. Sometimes your behavior runs counter to the expectations of your culture, your social group, your family or even the person you believe yourself to be. In those moments you ask, “Why did I do that?” and if the answer damages your self-esteem, a justification is required. You feel like a bag of sand has ruptured in your head, and you want relief. You can see the proof in an MRI scan of someone presented with political opinions which conflict with their own. The brain scans of a person shown statements which oppose their political stance show the highest areas of the cortex, the portions responsible for providing rational thought, get less blood until another statement is presented which confirms their beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened. Try it yourself. Watch a pundit you hate for 15 minutes. Resist the urge to change the channel. Don’t complain to the person next to you. Don’t get online and rant. Try and let it go. You will find this is excruciatingly difficult.
The Benjamin Franklin Effect is the result of your concept of self coming under attack. Every person develops a persona, and that persona persists because inconsistencies in your personal narrative get rewritten, redacted and misinterpreted. If you are like most people, you have high self-esteem and tend to believe you are above average in just about every way. It keeps you going, keeps your head above water, so when the source of your own behavior is mysterious you will confabulate a story which paints you in a positive light. If you are on the other end of the self-esteem spectrum and tend to see yourself as undeserving and unworthy, you will rewrite nebulous behavior as the result of attitudes consistent with the persona of an incompetent person, deviant, or whatever flavor of loser you believe yourself to be. Successes will make you uncomfortable so you will dismiss them as flukes. If people are nice to you, you will assume they have ulterior motives or are mistaken. Whether you love or hate your persona, you protect the self with which you’ve become comfortable. When you observe your own behavior, or feel the gaze of an outsider, you manipulate the facts so they match your expectations.
Though we think that our actions take a certain progression — we want to do things and then do them — it’s often the opposite: we see ourselves doing something, and only later do we come up with a reason to justify why we did it. The Benjamin Franklin effect games this quirk of psychology to make the other person assume they liked you all along.
Pay attention to when the cart is getting before the horse. Notice when a painful initiation leads to irrational devotion, or when unsatisfying jobs start to seem worthwhile. Remind yourself pledges and promises have power, as do uniforms and parades. Remember in the absence of extrinsic rewards you will seek out or create intrinsic ones. Take into account the higher the price you pay for your decisions the more you value them. See that ambivalence becomes certainty with time. Realize lukewarm feelings become stronger once you commit to a group, club or product. Be wary of the roles you play and the acts you put on, because you tend to fulfill the labels you accept. Above all, remember the more harm you cause, the more hate you feel, and the more kindness you deal into the world the more you come to love the people you help.
So the next time you try to endear yourself to the colleague who just hasn’t warmed up to you, forget bending over backwards to help him out. Instead, ask him for something. It might be just the trick you needed.
Check out my related post: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life?