The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to like someone more after they do that person a favor. In the following article, you will learn more about this effect, and about how you can use it in order to build rapport with people.
The Ben Franklin Effect
Simply put, the Ben Franklin effect is a phenomenon where the act of doing a favor for someone, especially a person that you slightly dislike or feel neutral about, makes you like them more.
One study, for example, showed that when a researcher asked participants to return the money that they earned in an experiment, as a personal favor to him, they tended to rate him as more likable afterward. A different study on the topic found a similar effect, where asking someone for help with solving a puzzle made the helper feel closer to the person asking for help.
This phenomenon has generally been explained using cognitive dissonance theory. As one study says:
As long as a person likes the recipient of the favor, feels that he is deserving, or that he would probably return the favor, the person is able to offer himself ample justification for having performed the favor. There are instances, however, when an individual is ‘put on the spot’ and winds up performing a favor for someone he does not hold in high esteem, a complete stranger, or even someone he actively dislikes. In such instances, he has insufficient justification for performing the favor since he does not particularly like the person and has no reason to expect that the person would reciprocate the favor.
Accordingly, if an individual performs a favor for a person about whom he initially has neutral or negative feelings, he may come to like that person as a means of justifying his having performed the favor. This prediction is derived from the theory of cognitive dissonance… If one does a favor for a disliked person, the knowledge of that act is dissonant with the cognition that one does not like the recipient of the favor. That is, since one does not usually benefit persons whom one dislikes, the situation is dissonance arousing. One way in which a person might reduce this dissonance is to increase his liking for the recipient of his favor, i.e., come to feel that he was deserving of the favor.
Essentially, what this means is that when someone does you a favor, they need to justify it to themself. If they already like you, this isn’t a problem, but if they dislike you, they need to have a reason that can help them explain to themself why they are helping you.
The simplest explanation that someone can choose for why they would help you is that they must like you in some way. This justification works even if that wasn’t the case before they performed the favor, and its use is supported by other research on the topic, which shows that being kind to someone increases how much you like that person.
In addition, it’s important to remember that this effect isn’t limited just to people who dislike you:
Favors performed for persons about whom one has neutral or only moderately positive feelings might also create dissonance. This would be the case as long as the costs (in effort, time, etc.) involved in doing favors for such people lacked sufficient justification.
That is, as long as the favor is big enough in scope compared to how much the person performing it likes you, then the Ben Franklin effect should cause them to like you more if they perform that favor.
The name of this effect comes from a story in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, who describes how he dealt with the animosity of a rival legislator.
Specifically, after hearing that his rival has a rare book in his library, Franklin wrote to his rival asking him if Franklin could borrow the book for a few days. The rival obliged, and a week later Franklin returned the book, with a letter expressing how much he liked it. The next time the two met, Franklin’s rival spoke to him with great civility and showed a willingness to help him in other regards, leading the two men to become good friends.
Franklin consequently referred to this effect as an old axiom, stating that:
He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.
How to take advantage of the Benjamin Franklin effect
At this stage, you already understand the basic premise of the Benjamin Franklin effect. Next, you will see a few tips, which are based on other research on the topic, that will help you take advantage of this effect as effectively as possible:
- First, remember that the scope of the favor doesn’t matter as much as the favor itself. That is, in most cases the increase in rapport comes from the fact that the other person performs a favor for you, even if it’s relatively small. This is especially true if the other person dislikes you, rather than simply feels neutral or moderately positive towards you.
- In addition, don’t be afraid to ask for help, since people often underestimate how likely other people are to help them. This bias occurs because when we seek help, we focus on the expected cost of helping us, while potential helpers focus on the perceived social cost of refusing a direct request for help (i.e. saying “no”), which most people want to avoid whenever possible.
- You can take advantage of the effects of reciprocity, by performing a small favor for the other person, before asking them to perform a favor for you. Essentially, by performing a favor for the other person first, you make it less likely that they will refuse to help you later, even if they did not ask you for a favor in the first place. However, if you do this, make sure to perform the initial favor only a short amount of time before asking for a favor yourself, because the effects of reciprocity diminish over time.
- Similarly, after asking them for a favor, you can perform a small favor in return, in order to increase the likelihood of them helping you if you ask for a favor again. Therefore, if you need to ask for a big favor, it’s sometimes better to start by asking for a small favor which you can reciprocate, before moving to the main request later on.
Most importantly, make sure to use common sense when taking advantage of this effect. This means that you should be realistic with regards to who you asking for favors, and with regards to what that favors you ask for.
In addition, don’t forget that how you ask for the favor is also important, and can have a significant effect on your success rates, though the best way to ask for a favor will vary in different scenarios. Overall though, in almost all cases, being kind and polite will get you the farthest, especially if your overall goal is to build rapport with the other person.
Summary and conclusions
- The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to like someone more after they do that person a favor.
- This happens because when you do someone a favor, your mind tries to justify it to itself by explaining that you must like that person, in order to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance.
- As such, the Benjamin Franklin effect is most notable in cases where the person performing the favor either dislikes the person that they are helping, or feels neutral toward them.
- When taking advantage of this effect, it’s important to remember that in general, the act of performing the favor is more important than the scope of the favor, so that even a small favor can lead to a significant increase in rapport.
- You can increase the likelihood that someone will be willing to do you a favor by taking advantage of the effects of reciprocity, where performing a favor for the other person first makes them more likely to help you later.