Benjamin Franklin Effect: This psychological trick makes you more personable

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Nobody likes to feel like a scrounger.

That’s why it can sometimes be so uncomfortable to ask someone a favor – be it correcting your résumé, taking care of the dog or borrowing 20 euros because you forgot that you can only pay in cash in a restaurant.

Do you feel uncomfortable because you think you will be found annoying or less liked because of it? Don’t worry, this is unfounded. There is a psychological phenomenon known as the “Benjamin Franklin Effect” that explains why people often like you even more when they have done you a favor.

David McRaney, author of the book “You Are Not So Smart,” explained on where the effect got its name. It is believed that Benjamin Franklin once had an enemy whom he described as a “gentleman with wealth and education” who was likely to become an influential figure in government.

To get him to his side, Franklin asked him if he could borrow one of the books from his library. The man was flattered and lent him the book. Franklin brought it back after a week – with a thank you letter.

The next time they met the man was extremely friendly. They remained friends until Franklin’s death.

We want to like the people we help

Psychologists found evidence that the Benjamin Franklin effect can actually work in 1969. As part of their small-scale study, volunteers were able to win money. A third of them were then told by the lab assistants that the psychology department had paid for the study and were now out of money, and asked to return the money they won.

Another third was approached by the study director himself, who said he had personally paid for the study and now has no more money. He also asked the participants to give him the money. The last third was allowed to simply keep the money.

The interesting result: the participants liked the researcher most when they could do him the favor of giving him the money back. On the other hand, they liked him least of all if they could keep the money.

From this, the researchers concluded that we like someone more when we do him or her a favor. The researchers suspect that the Benjamin Franklin Effect is based on cognitive dissonance: We find it difficult to agree with ourselves that we are doing someone a favor and hate this person – so let’s assume we like them.

We assume that people ask us for help because they want to be our friends

Another psychologist conducted a similar small study on the same subject in the United States and Japan. In both countries, participants liked other people supposedly working on the same task more when they asked for help. Interestingly, this effect did not occur when the researcher asked them to help this person.

The psychologist behind the study, Yu Niiya from Hosei University in Tokyo, therefore suspects that the Benjamin Franklin effect is not a result of cognitive dissonance. Instead, she believes that the person who is being asked for help can sense that the person seeking help is wanting to become friends with them – and therefore willingly reciprocate the positive feelings.

The phenomenon is called “reciprocal affection” and describes the tendency to like people who like us. That is, you can get people to like you and do each other a favor if you help them beforehand. This principle can be applied in different situations, for example when dating or at work.

We like people who like us

In 2007 a team led by Jerry M. Burger from Santa Clara University carried out three experiments to find out how small mutual favors can lead to friendships. In a study of 105 students, he found that respondents were more likely to comply with a request (such as sharpening a pencil) after receiving an unexpected favor (such as being brought a free bottle of water).

Speaking to the Harvard Business Review, Robert Cialdini, a retired professor of psychology and marketing from Arizona State University, said that you can subtly remind the person helping you to do you a favor later. Instead of saying “no problem”, Cialdini advises saying something like “of course, that’s something colleagues do for each other”.

Regardless of the exact mechanisms behind the Benjamin Franklin Effect, you can take away that you shouldn’t worry so much if you have to ask someone for help. In fact, you can even phrase your requests to help you strategically, just as Franklin once did.

This text has been translated from English. You can find the original article here.


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