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Ben Franklin Effect definition


The Ben Franklin Effect has been named after one of the most well-known Founding Fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, as he is quoted as having said the following: "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.” The Ben Franklin Effect, later studied by several scientists (Jecker & Landy 1969; Limperos et al. 2014), shows that doing someone a favour leads us to feel more favourable towards them in general and to be more inclined to do them a second or third favour. We follow the reasoning that if we have agreed to do them a favour then it must be because we like them (even when that’s not strictly the case) and so we subconsciously decide to like them even more in order to stay consistent with our own behaviour. Inversely, if we act in a negative way towards someone then we convince ourselves that it is because we have negative feelings towards them because they are not nice or worth good treatment etc. This is one of the explanations for atrocities often committed during war time as the “enemy” is dehumanised through this Ben Franklin Effect, which lowers the threshold of guilt and morality.

Contrarily to our usual assumption that our feelings towards someone will dictate how we treat them, the Ben Franklin Effect shows that our behaviour towards someone can actually dictate how we feel about them instead. In fact, if you can encourage people to act kindly towards you, they will begin to feel more kindly towards you too. In his autobiography, Ben Franklin illustrated this point with an example from his own life: in the 1730s when he started his political career, he managed to bias an “enemy” towards him in this manner. There was one Assemblyman who didn’t care for Franklin at all but he knew that if his political career was to be successful he would need this man to be on his side. So he asked him simply if he could borrow one of the books from his private library knowing that this would flatter the man, especially as Franklin was renowned in the literary world for being a successful printer and writer. Indeed, asking someone for help or a favour is a subtle yet very effective form of flattery as it suggests that we consider them to have something that we don’t, whether that be material, intellectual or skill-based. As expected, the man lent him the book and this small act of kindness led him to eventually change his view of Franklin and the two ended up being good friends.

The Ben Franklin Effect is used regularly in sales strategies, the most well-known being the “Foot-in-the-door Technique”, which consists of asking someone for a small agreement in order to later get a more significant one. The studies conducted by Limperos et al. (2014) also showed the way in which the Ben Franklin Effect could be applied to social media, for example through friend requests on Facebook. In web marketing, it is possible to enhance people’s perceptions of your brand and products through asking them for small favours, such as sharing something on social media, joining up to a newsletter, giving their opinion and feedback, etc.

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