Do Yourself a Solid. Use the Benjamin Franklin Effect

Pete Weishaupt
Apr 6, 2017 · 3 min read

You can observe a lot just by watching. — Yogi Berra

The Benjamin Franklin Effect is defined as the psychological phenomenon in where a person who has performed a favor for someone is more likely to do another favor for that person than they would be had they received a favor from that person. We would appear to internalize the reason we helped that person is because we like them.

As Benjamin Franklin put it in his autobiography: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

I interpreted this as a guy will probably more likely do you another favor if he’s already done you one, than want to do you a favor because he “owes” you one.

The story, as told by Benjamin Franklin, shows how he dealt with a rival legislator. Franklin says having heard the rival had a certain book in his library, he wrote a note asking to borrow the book. This rival legislator agreed to lend Franklin the book (a favor). After Franklin returned the book with a thank you note, he noticed the rival legislator, who hadn’t ever spoken to him before, did so, and with a great civility. Afterwards, the two became great friends and the friendship continued until the death of the legislator. In other words, they became BFFs.

The 800lb brains describe this perception of Franklin as representative of cognitive dissonance, which says people change their attitudes or behavior to resolve tension, or dissonance, between thoughts, attitudes, and actions. In the case of Franklin, the dissonance between the rival legislators negative attitude of Franklin, and his acknowledgement he’d done Franklin a favor by lending him the book, was unwittingly resolved by turning the negative attitude into a lifelong friendship.

As I first understood it, if someone does you a favor, they can’t possibly not like you. We don’t do favors for people we don’t like. Armed with this discovery, and maybe not fully understanding it, I was ready, fire, aim for a situation in my previous job.

The boss and I had gotten off to a rather rocky start. I had questioned some things and was basically told not to rock the boat. As an example, my boss pointed to another employee who had rocked the boat, was passed over for promotion, and shortly after had to retire. I was told, “don’t be that guy.” This situation culminated in a mutually agreed, off-the-record, non-attributable, closed door meeting. Harsh words were exchanged, and the next few weeks turned into months of animosity. You could’ve cut the bad air between us with a knife.

During this time, having learned of the Benjamin Franklin Effect and discovering my boss was an avid golfer, the wheels in my head started turning. Knowing of his love for golf, I simply asked him for some advice on which type of putter to use. He ended up lending me one of his. Weirdly, or maybe exactly as was supposed to happen based on cognitive dissonance, we ended up becoming really good friends. He’s retired now, but we still see each other from time to time and remain friends.

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