Ben Franklin Effect, Fact or Crap?

A couple weeks back in my Psych 221 class we discussed a psychological phenomenon called the Ben Franklin Effect. The way this phenomenon was described to us was as follows: Back during the time of Benjamin Franklin -who was an active member of the academic community, and who was known for being a founding father of the United States- there came a point where Ben didn’t see eye to eye with a peer whom he needed to take his side on an issue. In order to secure this person’s friendship Ben Franklin employed a technique that has now been named after him.

Instead of outright asking for his rival’s support, he decided to gain his rival’s trust by first asking him to do something for him. The idea being that if the rival agreed to do a small favor for Ben, the rival would then in his mind have to reason why would he do such a thing for someone he disagreed with. The rival would eventually come to the conclusion that he assisted Ben with his smaller favor because he liked Ben. In this case Ben Franklin asked his rival to borrow a book (and keep in mind books were a rare commodity to come by in that time period). After doing the favor of letting Ben borrow his book, his rival reasoned that the only reason he would loan such a valuable possession is because Ben was a good guy, and a suitable friend. According to the story, afterwards they were friends till their dying days

So what psychological factors play a role in the Ben Franklin effect? In social psychology an important concept is that of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is mental discomfort brought about by an event that challenges your system of beliefs. When presented with cognitive dissonance, humans use one of three methods to reduce it; this is known as dissonance theory.

When presented with dissonance humans either**:

  1. Change their attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs so that the dissonance they are feeling no longer distresses them, thus reducing it.
  2. Acquire new information that eases the dissonance. It doesn’t necessarily have to be correct information, but new information about the topic you are feeling dissonance because of can help you justify and lower the dissonance you feel
  3. Reduce the importance of the cognition they are feeling. This means that people convince themselves that the importance of their dissonance is less important than it actually is, thus lowering the dissonance they feel.

So when it comes to the Ben Franklin effect, which is asking someone a small favor in order to get them to like you, there is some basis in psychological theory that supports the method. By asking someone who doesn’t know you well to do you a favor, it creates dissonance for them, because why should they do you a favor? The hope is that they change their attitude towards you in order to reduce the dissonance they are feeling; if this is the route towards reducing dissonance that they choose, they will do the favor for you and behave positively towards you in the future.

Of course, on the flip side, if you ask someone a favor, create cognitive dissonance within them, and they refuse the favor, they will justify why they didn’t help out. This results in new attitudes forming that are negative towards you, because in order to reduce dissonance, the other person reasons that they only didn’t perform the task or favor because they don’t like you.

So basically the Ben Franklin effect does have basis in fact. Whether or not you should use it is up to you, because you may be successful, but there is potential for a drastic backfire.


** Aronson, Elliot, Timothy B. Wilson, Robin M. Akert, and Samuel R. Sommers. “Chapter 6.” Social Psychology Ninth Edition. N.p.: Pearson, n.d. N. pag. Print.

1 thought on “Ben Franklin Effect, Fact or Crap?

  1. Devon Green

    I had never heard of this theory before and I find it really interesting. It makes me think of when people I wasn’t completely familiar with have asked me to do a favor for them and whether or not I complied. Also it made me think how my opinion of that person was afterwards. I wonder if i’ve ever done this theory without realizing it.

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