The Benjamin Franklin Effect: Why It’s Better to Ask For a Favour Than Do One

Benjamin Franklin was the 8th of 17 children of a poor candlestick maker. The chances of him becoming one of the Founding Fathers of the US was low. But he went on to become, in his 84-year life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist. He was also a master in the game of personal politics.

To climb the social ladder, he had a latticework of secret weapons, one of which was the Benjamin Franklin Effect.

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

This translates to: To build rapport, don’t do a favour, rather ask for one.

Back in the day, when Franklin ran for his second term as a clerk, a fellow clerk publicly opposed Franklin, and tarnished his reputation. Although Franklin won, he was furious with this person. Yet he observed that this was “a gentleman of fortune and education” who might one day come to hold great power. Only a fool would not want his friendship.

Franklin wanted to turn this hater into a friend, but he did it in a different way. Back then Franklin’s reputation as a book collector positioned him as a man with cultivated literary taste, so Franklin wrote him a letter.

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. 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.

In order to win his friendship without “paying any servile respect to him,” Franklin asked for a favour instead of doing one. If you are a bit, what’s the right word, flabbergasted, then bear with me. This is backed by research. In 1969, researchers Jon Jecker and David Landy wrote:

It is generally assumed that a person performs favours for those people whom he likes; in fact doing a favour for someone is itself often an expression of esteem. Is it possible, however, that a person comes to like those people for whom he performs favours? We contend that it is. Under certain circumstances, when an individual performs a favour for another person, his liking for that person will increase. By performance of a favour we mean the voluntary exertion of effort, expenditure of time, or concession of material possessions for the benefit of another person without direct remuneration.

In a more recent study by psychologist Yu Niiya in 2014, participants were asked to solve a puzzles together with someone else, who was a researcher in disguise. When the participants were asked by their partner for help in solving a puzzle, they ended up having more positive feelings toward them later on, after the task was completed. To conclude, the more you help, the more you like.

But how do we explain such a phenomenon? If you feel it’s completely unintuitive, then you aren’t alone. Cognitive Dissonance offers some explanation about why people behave this way. According to Cognitive Dissonance, when a person’s beliefs clash with their actions, a mental discomfort is triggered. This forces them to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce the discomfort.

This usually happens when you hold two or more contradictory thoughts, ideas, or values. For example, if you are an atheist and you do something that only a theist would do, it triggers a mental discomfort.

So, putting it in context, if you dislike somebody, and yet you do a favour to that person, you experience cognitive dissonance. And to ease this, you try to find a way to justify your actions. Since your actions cannot be changed, you tweak your thoughts and beliefs to justify your actions. So, if you do a favour, most likely you like that person. Your actions precede your beliefs.

It’s a common belief that our ideas shape our actions, but often our actions shape our ideas as well. According to Self-Perception Theory people develop their attitudes by observing their own behaviour and concluding what attitudes must have caused them.

Often you’ll see yourself doing something and, unable to pin down a motive, you’ll try to make sense of it by constructing a plausible story. Then you form beliefs about yourself based on the story you fabricated.

This is what happened to Franklin’s nemesis. He observed himself performing an act of kindness toward Franklin, which he explained to himself by constructing the most plausible story—that he did so because he liked Franklin after all. Because doing a favour without liking somebody is nonsense.

There is a flip side as well. What happens when one does harm rather than a favour? In 1971, University of North Carolina psychologists John Schopler and John Compere carried out the following experiment:

They had their subjects administer learning tests to accomplices pretending to be other students. The subjects were told the learners would watch as the teachers used sticks to tap out long patterns on a series of wooden cubes. The learners would then be asked to repeat the patterns. Each teacher was to try out two different methods on two different people, one at a time. In one run, the teachers would offer encouragement when the learner got the patterns correct. In the other run of the experiment, the teacher insulted and criticised the learner when they erred. Afterward, the teachers filled out a debriefing questionnaire that included questions about how attractive (as a human being, not romantically) and likeable the learners were. Across the board, the subjects who received the insults were rated as less attractive than the ones who got encouragement.

In conclusion, the subjects’ own conduct toward the accomplices shaped their perception of them. “You tend to like the people to whom you are kind and dislike the people to whom you are rude.” This explains how soldiers are able to kill enemies in times of war, and why prison staff can become unnecessarily cruel to inmates.

Certainly, the Benjamin Franklin Effect has its limitations. Unlike gravity, psychological phenomenon aren’t absolutes. So don’t take it literally. Let me give you an example. Yesterday a random salesman came up to me and started pitching this new ride-sharing app that has launched. He requested me to install this app on my phone. He said that this would help him get his commission. I did it as a favour, but I didn’t end up liking him. I remained neutral.

Benjamin Franklin had an excellent reputation, and the rivalry with his foe was purely professional. Both of them knew that they would be able to benefit from each other’s friendship. On top of that, Benjamin Franklin was a book collector, and was known to have good taste in literature. That’s why he asked for a book, and not a pair of socks. That’s why his comment mattered. All these are important factors to build rapport.

The Benjamin Franklin Effect, like all other effects, shouldn’t be considered in isolation. There are several other psychological biases such as contrast effect, attractiveness bias, halo effect, authority bias, etc., that would determine whether a person ends up liking you or not.

Also, the negative effect is truer than the positive one. If you harm somebody, the likelihood of you disliking them is far more than the likelihood of you liking them upon doing  a favour. Negative emotions are stronger than positive emotions.

But as a rule of thumb, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We often tend to underestimate the likelihood that others will help us. It is because when we seek help, we focus on the expected cost of helping us. While the other person focuses on the perceived social cost of refusal. Which most people would want to avoid.

Also, if somebody does you a small favour, there’s a good chance this person would do you a bigger favour next time. So, it never harms to ask for favours.

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