The Benjamin Franklin Effect. Why do I keep doing favours for someone I shouldn’t like?

Hard on equipment. I’ve got a friend who has a habit of borrowing my tools, and bringing them back broken. It’s usually done with a cheeky smile and an infuriating comment along the lines of “…it’s busted butt; you need to buy better quality tools”. Despite this, I am still happy to call them my friend. Strangely, I continue fall into the same old trap of lending them a cherished tool (about once every 10 years.)

What’s going on here you might be asking (I often ask that myself)? Apparently it might have something to do with a cognitive bias called the Benjamin Franklin Effect. It’s not just me being a complete sucker and desperate for friends…

The Benjamin Franklin Effect. Basically it boils down to idea that you will like someone if they ask you for a small favour or help of some sort.

The story behind it goes back to the time when Franklin was in the Pennsylvania State Legislature. He was standing for election when a powerful political rival (who didn’t like him), spoke against him in speech. Franklin won the election, but knew he would need to work with his opponent in the future. One of the steps he took was to write and ask the individual if he could borrow a rare book he had in his personal library. Franklin was known to be an enthusiastic reader. The individual lent Franklin the book, and received it back a week later with a note of thanks. From that point on the opponent became friendlier towards Franklin, a relationship that lasted for many years. The event is documented in Franklin’s biography and you can read more about it here.

Cognitive bias or load of guff? There’s a lot written online about the Benjamin Franklin Effect. There’s even more on You Tube including some very dubious material suggesting it will help with ‘dating’ – don’t go there!

This is what I’ve taken from the sources I’ve been looking at:

  • Some people don’t like other people; fact of life
  • The reasons can be straightforward (they have done you harm) or can be massively complicated; part of unconscious bias or reasons you’ll never understand.
  • Whatever the reason(s), you just don’t like that person.
  • That person then asks you for a small favour or help.
  • Something relatively easy to do / low cost.
  • You oblige…
  • At this point you’ve scrambled your brain, cognitive dissonance sets in (link here).
  • Basically you have done something that is contradictory to what your brain ‘believes’ to be the truth. ‘You don’t like that person, but you lent them that rare book!…’
  • The psychological stress from the cognitive dissonance is too much to cope with, so the brain re-scrambles itself to think, ‘I actually like that person – that’s why I lent them the book’.
  • So, you go from disliking someone to liking them, and from now on will now do kind things for them.
  • It’s as easy as that (or maybe not)!

It’s all just manipulation and flattery. I did run my understanding of the Benjamin Franklin Effect past a trusted source. Someone with a massive ‘guff’ detector. She told me it was all just manipulation and flattery.

In their opinion, The Benjamin Franklin Effect works perfectly on people with big egos who like to feel like they have ‘rescued’ someone by helping them out – flattery. Subtle flattery, but still flattery.

On the part of the person asking for ‘help’, they are showing some vulnerability to the more powerful person. Not too much vulnerability that could lead to damage, but just enough to get a ‘foot in the door’ – manipulation in other words.

When it was put like that it did seem a bit obvious and errr… manipulative. Especially when my trusted source said it often works perfectly on powerful people with fragile egos. Hmmmm… !

The jury is out. I did mention that there is a lot that has been written on this subject. Here are a couple of links that might help you make your own mind up.

Brain Pickings (Maria Popova) The Benjamin Franklin Effect: The Surprising Psychology of How to Handle Haters.

Psychology Today. The Power of Merely Requesting a Favour.

Effectiviology. The Benjamin Franklin Effect: How to Build Rapport by Asking for Favors

Back to my friend and the broken tools. Logic tells me that my friend who breaks tools should not be my friend, and I should not continue to lend them tools. But I still do it. Even more weirdly I’ll often take the tool to them, and do the job, so that they don’t break my tool.

There might be something even more weird going on there, ‘Olympic Medal Standard’ use of the Ben Franklin effect, mixed with a bit of malicious compliance. Now I’ve really got cognitive dissonance and my brain is totally scrambled.

Best not to think too deeply about this. If doing favours for people makes me like them, I’m happy with that. The more friends I have the better. When I do get stressed about broken tools I take solace in music, and the fact I’m not alone. Here’s a lovely song by Canadian Country and Western singer Corb Lund, Hard on Equipment (Tool for the Job). Corb ‘knows’ my friend… enjoy.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Doing favours for people and helping them out, unconditionally, is a good thing. The Benjamin Franklin Effect suggest you might like them more as a result of responding to a request for a favour.
  2. Asking for a favour suggests a degree of vulnerability, which might make people think differently about you.
  3. Whether you are asking for a favour or giving one, treat it as an unconditional thing. Don’t over think it and don’t try to exploit the other person or the situation. That’s not nice.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

1 Response

  1. Stephen Lock

    Could it simply be that the exchange reminds us that we are not really separate at all? It prevents othering. The objects themselves have no meaning.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking and interesting post. Be well, S

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