The 18th-century observation now confirmed by science
Photo licensed from Shutterstock // Mingdof
Ben Franklin sought to transform an adversary into a supporter. The usual methods failed him, so he tried an unusual approach, something he'd later describe as an old maxim.
In 1969, researchers would confirm his maxim. Today, we call it “The Ben Franklin Effect.”
I first came across it at a sales training years ago and would learn more about it from Franklin’s autobiography. In it, he writes a story about an adversary of his in the Pennsylvania legislature.
Franklin wished to befriend or at least neutralize this adversary, so Ben asked him for a favor — to borrow a rare book. The adversary sent it, and Franklin returned it a week later with a note expressing his gratitude. When they next spoke, Franklin's nemesis displayed great civility, a departure from their previous encounters. In time, they became lifelong friends.
He summed it up this way.
He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged — Ben Franklin
I know, a bit too 18th century, so I’ll modernize his quote. In short, logic suggests that if you do someone a favor, they’ll reciprocate. Not so, according to the theory. You are more likely to receive a favor from someone if they have already done one for you.
Cognitive dissonance explains why it works.
Let’s suppose you perform a favor for someone to whom you feel indifferent towards, or maybe even dislike. You now experience dissonance, an inconsistency between your belief and your action, which you must resolve. I just went out of my way to do a favor for this jerk. Why?
Your mind reaches for harmony between the two, so you alter your beliefs to fit your action. Okay, he’s not all bad. Actually pretty cool at times. It’s far easier to convince yourself you like the other person than it is to reason away your action or pretend it never happened. And since we do favors for people we like, we’re more likely to grant additional ones.
Once I learned of this, the possibilities intrigued me. I’ve always suffered from a lack of charisma and have struggled with meeting new people. I was eager to try out this strategy, not to manipulate others, but to improve my likability.
The truth about the “Ben Franklin Effect.”
No, you can’t go around asking people to do you favors and expect them to oblige. You might even annoy most of the folks you meet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t employ the essence of what Franklin observed centuries ago.
If you read over the snippet about Franklin’s original request, you might notice the second factor at play. It wasn’t just a favor that he asked; it was a special kind, one that probably evoked a feeling of pride in his adversary.
Franklin’s nemesis took great pride in his rare book collection. By asking to borrow from it, Franklin validated his adversary’s passion. He implicitly stated, “You have excellent taste and judgment in books.”
That kind of validation generates warmth and appreciation. It’s hard to avoid liking someone who compliments you on your passions, skills, or taste.
Three steps to enhance your likability
Like most techniques to improve your interpersonal relationships, you need to put in effort on the backend before you execute on the frontend.
1. Learn about the people you wish to befriend
Pay attention to the subtle clues people drop in their conversations. What skills do they pride themselves in? What passions do they pursue? Ask questions to learn more about their interests. Pay attention to the things they speak of most. That's how you discover what’s important to them.
By acquiring this information, you can seek small favors in a way that validates their passions and abilities.
2. Ask for a targeted but easy favor
Ask for a favor that’s easy to deliver but meaningful for you to receive. Don’t put someone in an uncomfortable position. Never ask someone to do you a favor when you should be paying them for their work. That’s a short path to unlikability.
By acquiring the right knowledge in step one, you’ll avail yourself of opportunities as they arise.
Perhaps an acquaintance of yours touts their chops as a foodie, always boasting about their connections with local restaurants. Since you have a date night planned with your partner, an opportunity presents itself.
You need a restaurant. Call that foodie acquaintance of yours. Ask them for a favor.
“I have a special dinner planned for Friday,” you say. “It's a special night, and I need to pick the perfect place. Can you do me a favor and help me?”
If they take pride in that sort of thing, they'll appreciate your recognition of their expertise. And since the ask is simple, they'll oblige, perhaps even offering to set up the reservation with her contact.
3. Use the gratitude sandwich
Always express gratitude once the favor completes. Start with a sincere thank you. Include a sentence about how it benefitted you or what it meant to you. Sandwich it with a closing, thank you.
“Thank you for getting us into that restaurant. It was an unforgettable evening. My partner can’t stop talking about it. You made me a hero. Thanks again. I appreciate your help.”
Avoid saying something like, I owe you one, or I’ll make it up to you. That makes it transactional. Friends do things for each other out of kindness; they don’t enter into transactions.
Ben Franklin made a lifelong friend when he asked an adversary to borrow a book. Simply asking people for favors won’t make you more likable. It might even make them resent you.
Instead, learn about people’s passions and interests. Ask for a targeted but easy favor when the opportunity arises. And always remember to express gratitude in a way that demonstrates how much it meant to you.
All you need to know
The Ben Franklin Effect is a useful tool to improve your likability.
1. Learn about the people you wish to befriend.
2. Ask for a targeted but simple favor - one that validates the giver's skills or tastes.
3. Use the gratitude sandwich once the favor is granted.