Ben Franklin Effect, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Subtle Art of Asking for a Favor

It's a surreal graphic of Benjamin Franklin's US currency portrait stretched over a balloon. Behind it is an electric blue landscape
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

If someone does a favor for you, you like them more, right?

But what about the person doing the favor for you? One would expect that you risk making that person feel put out, surely. Inconvenienced. And they might hold having done that favor against you.

But curiously, researchers have found that they don’t. And actually, a person who does a favor for you will instead grow to like you more.

This phenomenon is known as Ben Franklin effect, as he wrote about a certain interaction his autobiography whereby Franklin ingratiated himself to a rival in the Pennsylvania legislature by asking if he could borrow a very rare book from him.

His former rival agreed and sent it to him, whereby Franklin wrote a warm letter back approximately a week later expressing his gratitude.

From then on out, their relations became positive. They were friends for the rest of his rival’s life.

Cognitive Dissonance Is a Heckuva Force

Ben Franklin effect is thought to be caused by a psychological force called cognitive dissonance.

Essentially, cognitive dissonance is a form of mental stress that results whenever a person holds two contradictory beliefs, especially when their beliefs and their behaviors do not match. Most people are motivated to resolve cognitive dissonance, since it can be very unpleasant. There are a number of ways to accomplish this.

Typically a person has four different options to reduce cognitive dissonance:

  1. Change their behaviors.
  2. Justify the behavior, by changing their beliefs.
  3. Justify the behavior by coming up with additional beliefs that help to bridge the gap and explain the state of conflict.
  4. Deny any new information that conflicts with their dissonant beliefs (see also: confirmation bias).

Doing a favor for someone we dislike (or don’t know at all) produces cognitive dissonance, because we dislike (or are indifferent to) that person but by doing the favor are treating them like we like them. It’s quite an uncomfortable state of affairs.

When Ben Franklin effect strikes, it takes the second approach to reducing cognitive dissonance. We change our beliefs about the person we’re being kind to, subconsciously revising our opinion on them, leading to us liking them.

The Risk of Soliciting a Favor

So if you want someone to like you, you should ask them for a favor then?

Well maybe. But then again, maybe not.

Because all of this hinges on the premise that a person who dislikes us (or doesn’t know us at all) will do us that favor in the first place. If they don’t agree to the favor, and/or the request is perceived as rude, the interaction can backfire and they will like us less, not more.

In Ben Franklin’s own case, he was careful to do a few important things:

  1. He asked respectfully.
  2. He tied the favor requested of his rival to something flattering or a source of pride. Franklin asked to be lent a very rare niche book that his rival possessed and was also quite proud of owning. Something that his rival would be eager to show off.
  3. He also made sure to warmly thank his rival after being lent the book, reciprocating the kindness, so as to lower the risk of his rival coming up with new beliefs to resolve the cognitive dissonance (for example, that Franklin were ungracious or had been rude regarding the favor).

Additionally, it can be very helpful when you’re asking someone a favor to give them an out. Something like “No worries if the answer is no.” Or “no pressure, just thought I’d ask.” The reason for this is to ward against a psychological phenomenon known as reactance, which refers to people’s tendency to rebel or do the opposite when they feel like someone is trying to take away their freedom or limit their choices.

If the person you’re asking the favor of feels like you’re pressuring them or trying to force them, they’re more likely to say no. Giving them an out helps mitigate that.

Pitching and Asking Others to Promote You

As the manager of a popular website and a large Facebook page, I’m frequently approached by people who are asking me for favors of some kind. Usually for exposure. I get a lot of requests from people who would like me to promote their brand, offer them some exposure, advertise their latest project.

The principles I just wrote about certainly apply.

I find I’m much more likely to say yes to someone pitching me if:

  • They are respectful, polite, and professional in tone.
  • They express genuine familiarity with me or Poly Land and seem to be knowledgeable about my writing, what Poly Land is all about, and our mission.
  • They can connect what they’re doing meaningfully to what Poly Land does. (This isn’t a matter of simply working in the same topic area. Some polyamory/consensual non-monogamy platforms don’t have a lot in common with us. Some sites in other areas really do.)
  • They are not pressuring me at all and ideally are giving me an out.
  • They are offering to return the favor somehow via a collaboration.

Returning the Favor Via Collaboration

For example, if a writer sends me a URL to their website, I’ll check it out if I have time and curiosity, but I’m unlikely to post about their site much unless I genuinely think the readership will be interested.

However, if a blogger approaches me and pitches a guest post for Poly Land that is something that would interest our readers, then I’ll certainly promote their website in the process.

Similarly, if a podcast invites me on their show, I will certainly promote the appearance, but I’m highly unlikely to repeatedly post advertisements for an unfamiliar podcast simply because they ask. And I’m especially unlikely to say yes if I’m pressured or guilted in any way.

And typically, after that initial collaboration, I will find that I have increased positive regard with that person and am far more likely to just randomly do them favors in the future, consistent with Ben Franklin effect.

*

This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

*

Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

Liked it? Take a second to support Poly.Land on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

You may also like