Benjamin Franklin Effect: what it is and how it influences our relationships
This psychological phenomenon has to do with the need to please others.
Our common sense makes us think that we do favors for people we like and deny them to those we don't like. But is this really so, or do we really like the people we have done favors for?
The Benjamin Franklin effect suggests that, actually, it is not that we are nice to those we like, but that we like those we have been nice to.
This curious psychological phenomenon has a lot to do with another very famous one: cognitive dissonance. Let's discover below how the Benjamin Franklin effect occurs, its relationship with cognitive dissonance and some situations where it can occur.
What is the Benjamin Franklin effect?
The Benjamin Franklin effect, also called the Ben Franklin effect, is a psychological phenomenon that a psychological phenomenon that implies a change in our perception of someone depending on how we have behaved towards him or her..
Basically, this effect describes the situation in which, if we do a favor for someone we initially disliked or were simply indifferent to, we will start to like him or her. Although our logic would lead us to think that we are nice to those people we like, the effect means that the relationship is reversed: first comes the action and then the perception.
The origin of this curious effect can be found in the figure of Benjamin Franklin, known for being the inventor of the lightning rod and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
The story goes that, when Franklin was in the Pennsylvania Legislature, there was a political rival who had once spoken out against him. Although we do not know the name of this opponent of Franklin, we know from Ben's own testimony that he was a man of wealth and education. Benjamin Franklin felt very uneasy about this animosity towards his person, and for this reason he decided to win over his rival in a really ingenious, intelligent and curious way.
Franklin, instead of offering his opponent a favor, asked him to do so. Knowing that he was a cultured man and that he owned a library with rare volumes, the ingenious Ben asked his political rival to lend him one of his books. The opponent immediately lent him the book, flattered to be recognized as a learned man. Franklin returned the book within a week, with a note thanking him profusely for the favor.
When Franklin and his opponent met again in the Legislative Assembly, the gentleman spoke to him, something he had never done before, and did so with great politeness. It was from then on that a solid friendship was forged between the two men, which would last until his death. In fact, this anecdote is the practical demonstration of one of Benjamin Franklin's great phrases: "It is more likely that someone will do you another favor who has already done you a previous one than one who owes it to you".
The Effect and Cognitive Dissonance
What is the explanation for such a counterintuitive phenomenon? It seems that the explanation for the occurrence of this effect lies in the concept of cognitive dissonance. In a nutshell, cognitive dissonance refers to the situation of internal disharmony of our belief system, values and emotions that we suffer when we have two opposing or conflicting thoughts.
For example, if we consider ourselves anti-racist but it turns out that we have discovered that our favorite music group has made discriminatory comments towards people of one race, then we will enter into an internal conflict: should we continue listening to the group, despite their racism? Should we stop listening to them, even if their music is our favorite?
The relationship between the Benjamin Franklin effect and cognitive dissonance has to do with the very human need to listen to the group, despite its racism. has to do with the very human need to want everyone to like us.. If we ask a favor of a person who feels some hostility towards us, he or she is in an emotional dichotomy: on the one hand, there is the feeling of dislike towards us, but on the other hand, there is the fact that he or she has done us a favor.
If he had acted in a fully consistent manner, this person would not have done us any favor, but because of his need to please others, he has done us a favor. To avoid getting into too intense an internal conflict, his mind chooses to use arguments that are consistent with his behavior. It is as if he is self-deceptive, thinking: "if I have done someone a favor, it is because I really like him, therefore, I like that person because I have done him a favor".
Examples in real life
Cognitive dissonance would be behind the explanation of why the Benjamin Franklin effect occurs. The mind, with the intention of avoiding an internal conflict that is too tense, tries to look for justifications for its behavior, in this case, for having behaved in a way that is too tense.In this case, having behaved well with someone it did not like in the first place. However, is it possible for this to happen in the opposite way, i.e., to hate someone because we have behaved badly with them?
Yes, it is. A fairly clear example of this is armed conflicts. When a war occurs, the soldiers who participate in it and have to kill those on the enemy side try to find explanations that justify the conflict and their actions. That is to say, they try to protect themselves from the mental tension that would be generated by having to kill and the maxim that killing is wrong comes into conflict..
To avoid incoherence, soldiers shield themselves in reasons linked to religion, nationalism or freedom, seeing them as valid arguments to defend their actions and position.
Moving to more everyday and less warmongering contexts, we can observe the Benjamin Franklin effect in personal and work situations. For example, when we are in an office and we have to help a colleague whom we do not like very much. In that same context, our mind will try to look for explanations to justify that action.This may come down to the fact that it was the boss who forced us to do it.
As for the couple, it is possible that our boyfriend or spouse asks us to do him a favor that we do not like. Even if we do not agree, since we love him/her, we do what he/she asks us to do. If we didn't, it wouldn't just be him or her who would spout the typical "if you loved me, you would have done it" line, but it would be us who, in the depths of our minds, would echo this phrase over and over again.
- Tavris, C., and Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)