When friction enters a working relationship, sometimes the best path through isn’t to talk it out. Sometimes the best path through is an indirect one — ask for a favor. Here’s how the Ben Franklin Effect works.
Benjamin Franklin had a problem. It was 1737 and a political opponent had made a long speech against Franklin. This fellow’s education, fortune, and talents were likely to make him quite powerful one day and Franklin needed a way to turn this fellow into a fan.
Having heard that the fellow had a rare book in his personal collection, Franklin wrote a note expressing his desire to borrow it for a few days. Franklin received the book promptly and returned it in about a week, along with a second note that expressed his favorable view of the book.
Franklin’s tactic had the intended effect:
When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. – The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Ben Franklin Effect turns a common assumption on its head, sort of the reverse psychology of favors. David McRaney, author of You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself, puts it this way:
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.
Reciprocity theory would suggest that currying favor is best achieved by doing a favor. The other person then feels obligated to repay in kind. It’s this kind of future obligation that helps build relationships and social norms.
But we’re more complicated than that. As Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr has said so eloquently, sometimes the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.