The Ben Franklin Effect: Harnessing Favors To Build Relationships

Car salesman employing the Ben Franklin Effect

The Ben Franklin Effect is a psychological phenomenon which suggests that when an individual does a favor for someone else, it actually increases the chance they will like the person for whom they performed the favor. This surprising aspect of human psychology is intricately linked with the concept of cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person’s beliefs are inconsistent with their actions.

At its core, the effect leverages the desire for consistent behavior and perception within one’s self. If someone does a favor, it’s easier for them to believe they did it because they like the individual, rather than acknowledge dissonance.

By understanding this effect, one can see the subtle ways in which asking for and doing favors can influence relationships. The effect doesn’t suggest manipulation but rather emphasizes the complex way in which people’s feelings and actions towards others are intertwined.

The phenomenon serves as an intriguing example of how one’s actions can lead to a change in feelings, highlighting how individual behavior can influence and transform interpersonal dynamics.

Historical Origins

In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, he recounts a pivotal interaction that would later be identified as the basis for the Ben Franklin Effect. Franklin, a founding father of the United States, and a prominent politician, cleverly asked a rival legislator who disliked him for a favor.

Specifically, he requested the loan of a rare book from the legislator’s library. To Franklin’s surprise, the favor was granted, which led to a remarkable transformation in their relationship. The legislator’s attitude towards Franklin softened, cementing the realization that requesting a favor could increase another’s goodwill.

“He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged,”

Franklin wrote.

The incident in 1764 exemplifies the dynamic where doing a favor — such as lending a book — can cause the favor-giver to view the favor-recipient more favorably. Franklin’s strategic yet simple request from the library built bridges between him and the once rival legislator.

The event is significant in illustrating Franklin’s understanding of human nature and solidifies his role not only as a founding father of the United States but also as an early observer of social psychology, well before the formal study of the subject in 1969 when the term “Ben Franklin effect” was officially coined.

Research on the Ben Franklin Effect

In 1969, psychologists Jon Jecker and David Landy conducted a seminal experiment in the United States at the psychology department of a university. Their study aimed to understand the connection between doing favors and liking the person for whom the favor was done.

The researchers invited students to participate in a Q&A competition where they could win cash prizes. Participants were thereafter divided into three groups.

The first group was asked by the experimenter to return their compensation, suggesting the psychology department was running low on funds. The second group was approached by someone not associated with the experiment to return the money, and the third group was allowed to keep the compensation.

The results indicated that those who returned the money directly to the experimenter reported increased liking for him, therefore supporting the hypothesis of the Ben Franklin Effect — that doing someone a favor can lead to increased positive sentiment.

Studies Beyond Jecker and Landy

Subsequent studies have expanded the understanding of the Ben Franklin Effect beyond the initial findings of Jecker and Landy. For instance, psychologist Yu Niiya in Japan has worked to elaborate on these principles, noting cultural differences in the phenomenon.

In these later studies, variations of the original experiment have been employed, examining factors such as cognitive dissonance — the psychological discomfort someone experiences when their beliefs do not align with their behavior. The research indicates that the Ben Franklin Effect holds in different cultural contexts, albeit with some variation in its strength and manifestation.

Yu Niiya believes that the Ben Franklin effect supports psychoanalyst Takeo Doi’s amae concept, as outlined in his 1971 book The Anatomy of Dependence. It asserts that dependent, infantile conduct can result in a parent-child bond in which one party perceives themselves as the caregiver. In effect, amae fosters a relationship in which one person feels responsible for the other, allowing them to act immaturely and make demands.


Current research on the effect principally relies on anecdotal evidence from historical accounts and social psychology experiments which may lack the depth of large-scale, empirical studies.

Skeptics argue that the effect could be a result of confirmation bias or post-decision dissonance. This suggests that after helping someone, individuals rationalize the effort by assuming they must like the person they helped.

The effect may not hold true if the person feels coerced into giving the favor, or if the act of helping leads to discomfort or inconvenience. In such cases, it could actually induce negative attitudes. Lastly, if the favor is perceived as manipulative, it may backfire, eroding trust rather than building rapport.

Psychological and Social Implications

This seemingly simple act can influence how one person views another, boosting likeability and fostering rapport. Individuals often perceive those for whom they have done a favor more positively, due to cognitive dissonance which rationalizes their effort in helping.

The Ben Franklin effect also plays a pivotal role in influence and perception. A favor can act as a social currency, subtly shifting power dynamics and enhancing the influencer’s standing in the eyes of the beneficiary. This form of social psychology showcases how strategic acts of kindness can alter perceptions and increase a person’s influence within their social or professional circles.

Moreover, the Ben Franklin effect has its roots in the development of friendship and affection. It illustrates that a person’s positive behaviors, such as granting a favor or showing kindness, can alleviate past tensions or grudges. This can pave the way for stronger bonds and increased liking, which are critical components in long-standing friendships and relationships.

The Benjamin Franklin effect can also be seen in effective mentor-protege relationships. According to one source, these interactions are defined by a basic imbalance of information and influence. Attempting to proactively repay favors with a mentor might backfire, as the role reversal and unsolicited aid may place your mentor in an unanticipated and embarrassing scenario.”

The Ben Franklin effect was mentioned in Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie describes the request for a favor as “a subtle but effective form of flattery”.

Applications in Business and Sales

In the sales profession, a salesperson may utilize the Ben Franklin effect by asking potential clients for a small favor, such as seeking their expert opinion on a matter relevant to their field.

When clients invest time or effort, they are more likely to feel a connection to the salesperson and the product. Subconsciously, people tend to justify their actions, making them more inclined to support and trust the salesperson, which can lead to increased sales and the establishment of a loyal customer base.

Strong customer and client relations are the cornerstone of any successful business. By applying this effect, businesses create an environment where clients feel valued and understood.

This might involve a customer support representative asking clients for feedback to improve services, thereby not only enhancing the product but also instilling a sense of partnership between the client and the business. The act of contributing can make clients more amenable to future business endeavors, reinforcing a continuous and beneficial relationship.

  1. Brehm, S. S.; Kassin, S.; Fein, S. (2005). Social Psychology (6th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0618403370
  2. Jecker, Jon; Landy, David (1969) Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour. Human Relations. 22 (4): 371–378. doi: 10.1177/001872676902200407
  3. Niiya, Yu (September 2015). Does a Favor Request Increase Liking Toward the Requester? The Journal of Social Psychology. 156 (2): 211–221. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2015.1095706
  4. Pine, Frank Woodworth, ed. (1916). Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Henry Holt and Company