Bias number 17 is known as the Ben Franklin effect. This is a social cognitive bias that affects how people relate to others.
In essence, the Ben Franklin effect suggests that when asked to do something for another person, you are more likely to feel kindly towards that person. Conversely, you are more likely to feel neutral or negative towards a person to whom you have behaved badly.
While Ben Franklin didn’t name this strategy after himself, he certainly wrote in his autobiography about how he used this tactic to deal with a rival. In the story he recounts, Franklin found a government official’s behaviour challenging until he wrote to him asking to borrow a book. The politician, who had previously ignored Franklin, spoke to him when they next met in government meetings, and the two developed a lasting friendship.
The purpose of the Ben Franklin effect is to resolve unconscious tension between people, but what’s the underlying neurological process that governs this strategy?
The first part of the effect arises with the act of appearing vulnerable. Displays of vulnerability soften the competitive nature of the animalistic brain, in some cases generating a parental type of feeling. When a person no longer occurs as a threat, your inner chimp relaxes, allowing you to feel warmth and a connection towards the person.
The second part of the effect is the appeal to the goodness in people. When you provide people with an opportunity to make a difference to you, even if it’s a simple gesture like borrowing a book, you give them the opportunity to feel good about themselves. As human beings, we seek feeling good and avoid feeling bad, so we are more inclined to seek the company of those who validate our sense of self.
The third part of the effect is one of value. When you are able to lay down your concerns about another person’s view of you by asking for help or a favour, you acknowledge the other person’s worth. Trust is a trait that is lacking in a lot of relationships. By sending the subtle message that you value something about another person, in Franklin’s case his rival’s taste in books, you extend a hand of connection that boosts a person's sense of self-worth.
I have found that helping people understand this side of human nature softens the fear in those who struggle to ask for help. Recognising that your request for a favour is providing benefit to the person you are asking sheds a new light on the idea of making requests of people.
However, this kind of bias can be used to manipulate people into taking action that, while positioned as an action of kindness, is really an attempt to win favour with you. The ultimate goal of this is to win influence over your decision-making.
Take the idea of the friendly salesperson who asks you to help out by sharing your opinion about the market, your views on the product and so on. By massaging your ego, the salesperson is softening your resistance to the forthcoming sales pitch in the hope that your favourable feelings towards the salesperson will influence your business choice.
Other areas where you might find this bias in operation is during a recruitment process. People who offer subtle, considered compliments or appear vulnerable during an interview process are more likely to win favour than those who adopt a dry, precise, powerful attitude in answering questions.
Unless the recruitment criteria is clearly defined, many candidates have hoodwinked less seasoned interviewers through their "likeable" personalities. So, too, have prospective employees been influenced to join a dysfunctional team or company by a skilled interview, even if the company has a reputation for creating a negative cultural climate.
This process works in the opposite direction, too, meaning that negative behaviours perpetuate judgements and justifications, encouraging further negative behaviours. In an interview setting, for example, failure to show politeness by opening a door for someone can set up a negative assessment that results either in the job being rejected or a job offer not being extended, even if the role and the candidate are a good match.
What you are seeing here is the phenomenon called cognitive dissonance in action. Cognitive dissonance is the experience of discord in a person’s thinking that arises when behavioural assessment contradicts value sets and beliefs. Rather than resolving the conflict of thought and augmenting conclusions based on the information, most human beings will look for cognitive agreement to validate their beliefs and values.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Seek pleasure and avoid pain”? It's true even at a psychological level.
Human beings place value on beliefs that have no basis in truth or are emotional and devoid of rationality. If we see ourselves as a good person, we want to continue to see ourselves as a good person, and we seek that reinforcement in relationships. When we experience a failure, perhaps an inaccurate assessment of other people's intentions, we struggle to reconcile outward kindness and vulnerability with scheming intentions.
Similarly, if we see ourselves as a good person and find ourselves behaving in a negative way, we’ll create justifications for the behaviour rather than challenging our behaviour and the justifications we created to support our underlying belief systems.
It's not particularly logical, is it?
So, what’s the answer? How do you overcome the Ben Franklin effect? Should you live your life in a state of permanent skepticism about other human beings and yourself?
Not necessarily. What I would say is that it’s advisable to recognise when your relationship decisions are led by feelings and beliefs and when they are led by facts, especially in the beginning when the relationship is new.
Make fact-finding your mission. Be clear of your objectives. Recognise your emotional reactions as pieces of information that are neither more or less important than other pieces of information such as behaviour and results. Remember who is experiencing the emotion — the emotional processing part of your brain, or the limbic system that I affectionately term the inner chimp.
And remember that while the chimp may be powerful, it represents a small part of the overall capacity of your human brain. Learning how to use your neurology effectively enables you to rise above your animalistic nature and assume the fullness of your human capabilities.
You can let your chimp make a chump of you, or you can face the inner conflict and combine logic with creativity to expand your brilliance in relationships with others.
Mr Franklin, what do you suggest?