The Benjamin Franklin Effect

The Misconception: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

The Truth: You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

Benjamin Franklin knew how to deal with haters.

Born in 1706 as the eighth of 17 children to a Massachusetts soap and candlestick maker, the chances Benjamin would go on to become a gentleman, scholar, scientist, statesman, musician, author, publisher and all-around general bad-ass were astronomically low, yet he did just that and more because he was a master of the game of personal politics.

Like many people full of drive and intelligence born into a low station, Franklin developed strong people skills and social powers. All else denied, the analytical mind will pick apart behavior, and Franklin became adroit at human relations. From an early age, he was a talker and a schemer – a man capable of guile, cunning and persuasive charm. He stockpiled a cache of cajolative secret weapons, one of which was the Benjamin Franklin Effect, a tool as useful today as it was in the 1730s and still just as counterintuitive. To understand it, let’s first rewind back to 1706.

Franklin’s prospects were dim. With 17 children, Josiah and Abiah Franklin could only afford two years of schooling for Benjamin. Instead, they made him work, and when he was 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James who was a printer in Boston. The printing business gave Benjamin the opportunity to read books and pamphlets. It was as if Ben Franklin was the one kid in the neighborhood who had access to the Internet. He read everything, and taught himself every skill and discipline one could absorb from text.

At 17, Franklin left Boston and started his own printing business In Philadelphia. At age 21,  he formed a “club of mutual improvement” called the Junto. It was a grand scheme to gobble up knowledge. He invited working-class polymaths like himself who wanted to experiment in 1700s lifestyle design the chance to pool together their books and trade thoughts and knowledge of the world on a regular basis. They wrote and recited essays, held debates, and devised ways to acquire currency. Franklin used the Junto like a private consulting firm, a think tank, and he bounced ideas off of them so he could write and print better pamphlets. Franklin eventually founded the first subscription library in America and wrote it would make “the common tradesman and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries,” not to mention, give him access to whatever books he wanted to buy. Genius.

By the 1730s Franklin was riding down an information superhighway of his own construction, and the constant stream of information made him a savvy politician in Philadelphia. A celebrity and an entrepreneur who printed both a newspaper and an almanac, Franklin had collected a few enemies by the time he ran for the position of clerk of the general assembly, but Franklin knew how to deal with haters.


As clerk, he could step into a waterfall of data coming out of the nascent government. He would record and print public records, bills, vote totals and other official documents. He would also make a fortune literally printing the state’s paper money. He won the race, but the next election wasn’t going to be as easy. Franklin’s autobiography never mentions this guy’s name, but according to the book when Franklin ran for his second term as clerk, one of his colleagues delivered a long speech to the legislature lambasting Franklin. Franklin still won his second term, but this guy truly pissed him off. In addition, this man was “a gentleman of fortune and education” who Franklin believed would one day become a person of great influence in the government. So, Franklin knew he had to be dealt with, and thus he launched his human behavior stealth bomber.

Franklin set out to turn his hater into a fan, but he wanted to do it without “paying any servile respect to him.” Franklin’s reputation as a book collector and library founder gave him a reputation as a man of discerning literary tastes, so Franklin sent a letter to the hater asking if he could borrow a selection from his library, one which was a “very scarce and curious book.” The rival, flattered, sent it right away. Franklin sent it back a week later with a thank you note. Mission accomplished.

The next time the legislature met, the man approached Franklin and spoke to him in person for the first time. Franklin said the hater “ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

What exactly happened here? How can asking for a favor turn a hater into a fan? How can requesting kindness cause a person to change his or her opinion about you? The answer to what generates The Benjamin Franklin Effect is the answer to much more about why you do what you do.

Let’s start with your attitudes. Attitude is the psychological term for the the bundle of beliefs and feelings you experience toward a person, topic, idea, etc. without having to consciously think. Let’s try it out – Justin Beiber. Feel that? That’s your attitude toward him – a cascade of associations and feelings zipping along your neural net. Let’s try some more. Read this and then close your eyes – blueberry cheesecake. Nice, huh? One more – nuclear bomb. There you go again, a thunderhead of brain activity is telling you how you feel about that topic. Ask yourself this: how did you form that attitude?

For many things, your attitudes came from actions which led to observations which led to explanations which led to beliefs. It is well known in psychology the cart of behavior often gets before the horse of attitude. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience day-to-day. It doesn’t feel that way though. To conscious experience, it feels like you are the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants is performing actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.

At the lowest level, behavior-into-attitude conversion begins with impression management theory which says you present to your peers the person you wish to be. You engage in something economists call signaling by buying and displaying to your peers the sorts of things which give you social capital. If you live in the Deep South you might buy a high-rise pickup and a set of truck nuts. If you live in San Francisco you might buy a Prius and a bike rack. Whatever are the easiest to obtain, loudest forms of the ideals you aspire to portray become the things you own, like bumper stickers signaling to the world you are in one group and not another. Those things then influence you to become the sort of person who owns them.

As a primate, you are keen to social cues which portend your possible ostracism from an in-group. In the wild, banishment equals death. So, it follows you work to feel included because the feeling of being left out, being the last to know, being the only one not invited to the party is a deep and severe slice into your emotional core. Anxiety over being ostracized, over being an outsider has driven the behavior of billions for millions of years. Impression management theory says you are always thinking about how you appear to others, even when there are no others around. In the absence of onlookers, deep in your mind, a mirror reflects back that which you have done, and when you see a person who has behaved in a way which could get you booted from your in-group, the anxiety drives you to seek a re-alignment. But, which came first? Your display or your belief? As a professional, do you feel compelled to wear a suit, or after donning a suit do you conduct yourself in a professional manner? Do you vote Democrat because you champion social programs, or do you champion social programs because you voted Democrat? The research says the latter in both cases. When you become a member of a group, or the fan of a genre, or the user of a product – those things have more influence on your attitudes than your attitudes have on them, but why?

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Self perception theory says your attitudes are shaped by observing your own behavior, being unable to pinpoint the cause, and trying to make sense of it. You look back on a situation as if in an audience trying to understand your own motivations. You act as observer of your actions, a witness to your thoughts, and you form beliefs about your self based on those observations. Psychologists John Caciappo, Joseph R. Priester and Gary Bernston at the University of Chicago demonstrated this in 1993. They showed Chinese characters to people unfamiliar with Chinese ideographs and asked them to say whether they thought each character was positive or negative. Some people did this while lifting upward on the bottom of a table while others pushed downward against the surface. On average, the characters rated highest across all subjects were the ones they saw while pulling upward, and the ones they rated as being most negative were the ones they saw while pushing down. Why? Because you unconsciously associate flexing with positive experiences and extension with negative. Pushing and pulling affects your perception because from the time you were an infant you have pulled toward you that which you desired and shoved into the distance that which repulsed you. The very word – repulsion – means to drive away. The neural connections are deep and dense. Self perception theory divides memories into declarative, or accessible to the conscious mind, and non-declarative, that which you store unconsciously. You intuitively understand how declarative memories shape, direct, and inform you. If you think about pumpkin spice muffins you feel warm and fuzzy. Self-perception theory posits non-declarative memories are just as powerful. You can’t access them, but they pulsate through your nervous system. Your posture, the temperature of the room, the way the muscles of your face are tensing – these things are informing your perception of who you are and what you think. Drawing near is positive. Pushing away is negative. Self perception theory shows you unconsciously observe your own actions and then explain them in a pleasing way without ever realizing it. Benjamin Franklin’s enemy observed himself performing a generous and positive act by offering the treasured tome to his rival, and then he unconsciously explained his own behavior to himself. He must not have hated Franklin after all, he thought; why else would he do something like that?

“A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” – Albert Camus

Many psychologists would explain the Benjamin Franklin effect through the lens of cognitive dissonance, a giant theory made up of thousands of studies which have pinpointed a menagerie of mental stumbling blocks including confirmation bias, hindsight bias, the backfire effect, the sunk cost fallacy, and many more, but as a general theory it describes something you experience every day.

Sometimes you can’t find a logical, moral or socially acceptable explanation for your actions. Sometimes your behavior runs counter to the expectations of your culture, your social group, your family or even the person you believe yourself to be. In those moments you ask, “Why did I do that?” and if the answer damages your self-esteem, a justification is required. You feel like a bag of sand has ruptured in your head, and you want relief. You can see the proof in an MRI scan of someone presented with political opinions which conflict with their own. The brain scans of a person shown statements which oppose their political stance show the highest areas of the cortex, the portions responsible for providing rational thought, get less blood until another statement is presented which confirms their beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened. Try it yourself. Watch a pundit you hate for 15 minutes. Resist the urge to change the channel. Don’t complain to the person next to you. Don’t get online and rant. Try and let it go. You will find this is excruciatingly difficult.

In their fantastic book about cognitive dissonance, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write about the great psychologist Leon Festinger who, in 1957, infiltrated a doomsday cult. The cult was led by Dorothy Martin who called herself Sister Thedra. She convinced her followers in Chicago an alien spacecraft would suck them up and fly away right as a massive flood ended the human race on December 21, 1954. Many of her followers gave away everything they owned, including their homes, as the day approached. Festinger wanted to see what would happen when the spaceship and the flood failed to appear. Festinger hypothesized the cult members faced the choice of either seeing themselves as foolish rubes or assuming their faith had spared them. Would the cult members keep their weird beliefs beyond the date the world was supposed to end and become even more passionate as had so many groups before them under similar circumstances? Of course they did. Once enough time had passed they could be pretty sure no spaceships were coming, they began to contact the media with the good news: their positive energy had convinced God to spare the Earth. They had freaked out and then found a way to calm down. Festinger saw their heightened state of arousal as a special form of anxiety – cognitive dissonance. When you experience this arousal it is as if two competing beliefs are struggling in a mental bar fight, knocking over chairs and smashing bottles over each other’s heads. It feels awful, and the feeling persists until one belief knocks the other out cold.

Festinger went on to study cognitive dissonance in a controlled environment. He and his colleague Judson Mills set up an experiment at Stanford in which they invited students to join an exclusive club studying the psychology of sex. They told students to get in the group they would have to pass an initiation. They secretly divided the applicants into two groups, one read sexual terms from a dictionary out loud to a scientist, and the other read aloud entire passages from the most famous romance novel of all time, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As Tavris and Aronson point out, this was 1950s America, so either task was massively embarrassing, but reading aloud sex scenes filled with F and C-bombs evoked a megadose of awkwardness. After the initiation, both groups listened to an audio recording of the sort of group discussion they had just earned the ability to join. The scientists made sure the discussion they heard was as dry and boring and un-sexy as they could make it, going so far as to focus the sex talk on the mating habits of birds. They then had the students rate the talk. The people who read from the dictionary told Festinger the sex group was a drag and probably not something they’d like to continue attending. The romance novel group said the group was exciting and interesting and something they could not wait to begin. Same tape, two realities.

“These findings do not mean that people enjoy painful experiences, such as filling out their income-tax forms, or that people enjoy things because they are associated with pain. What they do show is that if a person voluntarily goes through a difficult or a painful experience in order to attain some goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive.” – Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson from their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

Festinger and another colleague, J. Merrill Carlsmith, pushed ahead with this research in 1959 in what is now considered the landmark study which launched the next 40 years of investigation into the phenomenon, an investigation which continues right up until today.

Students at Stanford University signed up for a two-hour experiment called “Measures of Performance” as a requirement to pass a class. Researchers divided them into two groups. One was told they would receive $1, or about $8 in today’s money. The other group was told they would receive $20, or about $150 in today’s money. The scientists then explained the students would be helping improve the research department by evaluating a new experiment. They were then led into a room where they had to use one hand to place wooden spools into a tray and remove them over and over again. A half-hour later, the task changed to turning square pegs clockwise on a flat board one-quarter spin at a time for half an hour. All the while, an experimenter watched and scribbled. It was one hour of torturous tedium with a guy watching and taking notes. After the hour was up, the researcher asked the student if he could do the school a favor on his way out by telling the next student scheduled to perform the tasks who was waiting outside that the experiment was fun and interesting. Finally, after lying, people in both groups – one with $1 in their pocket and one with $20 –  filled out a survey in which they were asked their true feelings about the study. What do you think they said? Here’s a hint – one group not only lied to the person waiting outside but went on to report they loved repeatedly turning little wooden knobs. Which one do you think internalized the lie? On average, the people paid $1 reported the study was stimulating. The people paid $20 reported what they just went thorough was some astoundly boring-ass shit. Why the difference?

According to Festinger, both groups lied about the hour, but only one felt cognitive dissonance. It was as if the group paid $20 thought, “Well, that was awful, and I just lied about it, but they paid me a lot of money, so…no worries.” Their mental discomfort was quickly and easily dealt with by a nice external justification. The group paid $1 had no outside justification, so they turned inward. They altered their beliefs to salve their cerebral sunburn. This is why volunteering feels good and unpaid interns work so hard. Without an obvious outside reward you create an internal one.

That’s the cycle of cognitive dissonance, a painful confusion about who you are gets resolved by seeing the world in a more satisfying way. As Festinger said, you make “your view of the world fit with how you feel or what you’ve done.” When you feel anxiety over your actions, you will seek to lower the anxiety by creating a fantasy world in which your anxiety can’t exist, and then you come to believe the fantasy is reality just as Benjamin Franklin’s rival did. He couldn’t possibly have lent a rare book to a guy he didn’t like, so he must actually like him. Problem solved.

So, has the Benjamin Franklin Effect itself ever been tested? Yes. Jim Jecker and David Landy, building on the work of Festinger, conducted an experiment in 1969 which had actors pretend to be a scientist and a research secretary conducting a study. Subjects came into the lab believing they were going to perform psychological tests in which they could win money. The actor pretending to be the scientist attempted to make the subjects hate him by being rude and demanding as he administered a rigged series of tests. Each subject succeeded 12 times no matter what and received some spending money. After the experiment, the actor told the subjects to walk up the stairs and fill out a questionnaire. At this point, the actor stopped one third of all the subjects right as they were leaving and asked for the money back. He told them he was paying for the experiment out of his own pocket and could really use the favor because the study was in danger of running out of funds. Everyone agreed. Another third left the room and filled out the questionnaire in front of an actor pretending to be a secretary. As they were about to answer the questions, the secretary asked if they would please donate their winnings back into the research department fund as they were strapped for cash. Again, everyone agreed. The final third got to leave with their winnings without any hassle.

The real study was to see what the subjects thought of the asshole researcher after doing him a favor. The questionnaire asked how much they liked him on a scale from 1 to 12. On average, those who got to leave with their money rated him as a 5.8.  The ones who did the secretary a favor gave him a 4.4. The ones who did the researcher a favor gave him a 7.2, suggesting the Benjamin Franklin Effect made them like him far more than the other two groups.

By Fernando Botero

Benjamin Franklin’s hater came to like Franklin after doing him a favor, but what if he had done him harm instead? In 1971, at the University of North Carolina, psychologists John Schopler and John Compere asked students to help with an experiment. They had their subjects administer learning tests to accomplices pretending to be other students. The subjects were told the learners would watch as the teachers used sticks to tap out long patterns on a series of wooden cubes. The learners would then be asked to repeat the patterns. Each teacher was to try out two different methods on two different people, one at a time. In one run, the teachers would offer encouragement when the learner got the patterns correct. In the other run of the experiment, the teacher would insult and criticize the learner when they messed up. Afterward, the teachers filled out a debriefing questionnaire which included questions about how attractive (as a human being, not romantically) and likable the learners were. Across the board, the subjects who received the insults were rated as less attractive than the ones who got encouragement. The teachers’ behavior created their perception. You tend to like the people to whom you are kind and dislike the people to whom you are rude. From the Stanford Prison Experiment to Abu Ghraib, to concentration camps and the attitudes of soldiers spilling blood, mountains of evidence suggest behaviors create attitudes when harming just as they do when helping. Jailers come to look down on inmates; camp guards come to dehumanize their captives; soldiers create derogatory terms for their enemies. It’s difficult to hurt someone you admire. It’s even more difficult to kill a fellow human being. Seeing the casualties you create as something less than you, something deserving of damage, makes it possible to continue seeing yourself as a good and honest person, to continue being sane.

The Benjamin Franklin Effect is the result of your concept of self coming under attack. Every person develops a persona, and that persona persists because inconsistencies in your personal narrative get rewritten, redacted and misinterpreted. If you are like most people, you have high self-esteem and tend to believe you are above average in just about every way. It keeps you going, keeps your head above water, so when the source of your own behavior is mysterious you will confabulate a story which paints you in a positive light. If you are on the other end of the self-esteem spectrum and tend to see yourself as undeserving and unworthy, you will rewrite nebulous behavior as the result of attitudes consistent with the persona of an incompetent person, deviant, or whatever flavor of loser you believe yourself to be. Successes will make you uncomfortable so you will dismiss them as flukes. If people are nice to you, you will assume they have ulterior motives or are mistaken. Whether you love or hate your persona, you protect the self with which you’ve become comfortable. When you observe your own behavior, or feel the gaze of an outsider, you manipulate the facts so they match your expectations.

Most animals just do what they do. Sea cucumbers and aardvarks don’t think about their actions, don’t feel shame, pride or regret. You do, even when there is no reason to. If you look back on a behavior, thought or emotion and feel befuddled, you feel an intense desire to explain it, and that explanation can affect your future behavior, your future thoughts, your future feelings.

Pay attention to when the cart is getting before the horse. Notice when a painful initiation leads to irrational devotion, or when unsatisfying jobs start to seem worthwhile. Remind yourself pledges and promises have power, as do uniforms and parades. Remember in the absence of extrinsic rewards you will seek out or create intrinsic ones. Take into account the higher the price you pay for your decisions the more you value them. See that ambivalence becomes certainty with time. Realize lukewarm feelings become stronger once you commit to a group, club or product. Be wary of the roles you play and the acts you put on, because you tend to fulfill the labels you accept. Above all, remember the more harm you cause, the more hate you feel, and the more kindness you deal into the world the more you come to love the people you help.

“This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, ‘He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.’ And it shows how much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue inimical proceedings.” - Benjamin Franklin

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  • Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007.
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