Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Benjamin Franklin Effect

How can you turn an enemy into a friend? How can you cause (or encourage) someone to like you?

Many of today’s therapists would recommend an open, honest and frank discussion of your differences, sprinkled with heartfelt expressions of how you really, really feel.

They advise you to get it out in the open, to clear the air. Then you will presumably discover how a minor misunderstanding caused the two of you to despise each other.

Therapists of a more cognitive bent would follow the example set by Benjamin Franklin.

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings sets the scene:

When Franklin ran for his second term as a clerk, a peer whose name he never mentions in his autobiography delivered a long election speech censuring Franklin and tarnishing his reputation. Although Franklin won, he was furious with his opponent and, observing that this was “a gentleman of fortune and education” who might one day come to hold great power in government, rather concerned about future frictions with him.

Need I mention that some people would deal with this problem by fighting back, by returning slander for slander, by attacking the man’s reputation in order to diminish him.

Franklin believed that revenge was a bad idea. He knew that he might have to work with the man, so he tried to win him over.  

David McRaney describes how our Founding Father handled the situation:

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 standing as a man of discerning literary tastes, so Franklin sent a letter to the hater asking if he could borrow a specific selection from his library, one that 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 man “ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

Note well, Franklin did not express his anger. He did not confront the man. He did not sit down to have a conversation with him. He followed a venerable old rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

We can provide a fuller analysis of the transaction.

First, Franklin reached out to the other man.  He did not offer a gift; he did not challenge the man to a duel.

When someone trashes you, the last thing he expects is that you reach out to him. And yet, Franklin knew that he could not do so from a servile position. He could not act as though he was confirming the other man’s ill opinion of him.

Also, reaching out presupposes that the man did not really mean what he was saying. It suggests that Franklin wanted to take it as “politics.”

He did not know from the first whether the man really meant what he said, but he was willing to assume the best.

Second, Franklin asked for a favor, one that would cost the other man nothing.

When someone asks you for a favor that will cost you nothing, you are naturally inclined to grant it.

Franklin had found a way to test whether the other man’s enmity was for real or for show.

When the man agreed to do the favor, Franklin accepted it. A week later he returned the book with a thank-you note.

The transaction completed, both men had taken the opportunity to behave as honorable gentlemen.

Popova and McRaney explain that the story shows that if you want someone to like you, you should find a way to induce him to act as though he does. We like people we are kind to. We tend to like people more the more we act well toward them.

As per my analysis, this also involves reaching out to the other person and giving him the opportunity to reciprocate. It places the two of you in a neutral transaction that does not address contentious issues. It does not involve challenging him to justify his poor opinion of you.

It’s not the wish, as King Henry IV told his son, that is father to the thought, or even the deed, but the deed is father to the sentiment.

From here we can enter some forbidden territory, unexplored by Franklin, McRaney or Popova.

Let’s imagine a couple of young people who are out on a date. Let’s imagine that she wants him to like her more than he does. Should she allow him to make kind and courteous gestures toward her or should she let him know that all such gestures will be unwelcome? If he learns that his wish to hold the door for her or to help her with her coat or to pay the bill are signs of misogyny, will this make him like her more or make him feel more like a misogynist?


Sam L. said...

Feminists will never learn Franklin's secret.

Ares Olympus said...

I've heard of a reverse-franklin effect also....
"The reverse effect is also true, and we come to hate our victims, which helps to explain wartime atrocities. We de-humanize the enemy, which decrease the dissonance of killing and other things in which we would never normally indulge."

Do we like people because of who they are, or because of our generosity towards them? Do we dislike people because who they are, or because we were unkind to them?

I think the Franklin effect can go far, but only so far. I agree it is a helpful test of That is I've tested it, and someone's enmity, but there's a continuum, and many middle cases where the indirect approach is unhelpful, and its better to "clear the air" and ASK if something is wrong.

I can think of some cases where I tried it, like asking one asking a ride from someone who seemed upset with me that day, but it was on his way, and he accepted, but stayed quiet the whole ride, and small talk failed to help me, and I should have just said "Hey, is everything alright?"

Maybe the Franklin effect works best on extroverts, but Minnesota Nice introverts (including me perhaps), can be too proud to say what's wrong, too proud to say no, and resentful for doing anything more that letter of the law of kindness, thus making people regret asking for a small favor in the first place!

Ares Olympus said...

Sam L, I'm thinking if feminists have a problem with Frankin's secret, perhaps it is because of a socialization that tells them they are not allowed to say no.

Thinking more I can see there is a trap of granting "small requests" because they make it extra hard to say no for whatever reason, and so I think the requester has responsibility not just to receive a "yes", but make sure it is not a real yes, rather than a resentful one.

Like this thoughtful article:

How do you ask for something without feeling disappointed at a no? Do you ask in a way that doesn't require a clear yes or no? And if the person you are asking feels obligated to offer you a white lie excuse for their no, then you're two steps down - no only do you not know about the original question of enmity, but you've encouraged them to be dishonest, and people are not going to like you more for "forcing" them to be dishonest.

And towards the "power of no" article, it would seem best for people to be able to have open and honest relationships, so every feels free to say no, with no reason, or explanation unless freely offered.

So this suggests "no" should be practiced, and then you can deal with your own feelings on small cases of guilt, and then when the bigger ones come, its easier to say no and not blame the other for your own expectations of always being a kind and helpful person.

So Franklin's secret fits within that need, but only if you know how to not only accept a "no", you can recognize it is a hard thing to say, and so find ways to accept it enthusiastically, and then it will also empower you to do the same under your needs, and then we'll have a more honest world where you don't have to dislike people because you don't know how to gracefully negotiate a request.

Ares Olympus said...

Last quick reflection - the success of Franklin's principle is personal knowledge - that is to say it best works if you can appeal to the other person's known pride and vanity. So you have to ask for a small favor on something you believe the person WANTS to give or share.

But if you're playing the game blindly, or only request based on what YOU need, you're as likely to cause negative feelings in a request as positives ones, whether or not the request is granted.

Dennis said...

I would think one would start out thinking well of someone at the start until they prove otherwise. Especially when one might believe that a relationship may ensue. Accepting common courtesies is always the polite action to take. Understanding that a lot of men were brought up to have manners. Well they used to be.
When in college I used to love to open doors for feminists. I would just smile and wait. Never got a remark back. Equally, if they opened the door for me I would gladly accept the gesture. Far too much time is wasted on things that have little or no value. To be polite and courteous DOES NOT denote oppression. It is meant to be a sign of respect. When one gets in a big huff then one is really saying "I don't deserve respect." I would suggest that is why many women feel disrespected.
If one wants to waste their time on foolish feminist drivel then one can open the door for him and gauge his reaction. One of the things we need is more politeness, courtesy, and manners. It starts every meeting, transaction, et al with a sense of mutual respect. We have got to stop trying to find something nefarious in every bodies' actions and start acting like adults who might just enjoy one another's company.
Most people are decent individuals. I always meet everyone with a smile and a enthusiastic "How are you?' I suspect that it has saved my life a couple of time and I know it has gotten me out of a couple of speeding tickets.
For a woman a smile is one of the most powerful weapons she has going for her.