Why We Like People Who Ask Us for Favors

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Here’s a quick quiz. Person A does a favor for you. Person B asks you to do a favor for him. Who are you liable to like more? The answer: Person B.

It seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t we favor those who do us favors? Not necessarily. Often, the opposite is true: We don’t like people who are nice to us. We like people to whom we are nice. This quirk of human nature, known as the Ben Franklin Effect, explains a lot about how relationships work, and how we might improve them.

Benjamin Franklin stumbled across the phenomenon in 1736 when serving as clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly. A powerful new member of the assembly, “a gentleman of fortune, and education,” didn’t care for Franklin and threatened to make life miserable for him. What to do? Franklin could have kowtowed to this member and attempted to win him over with flattery. But he took a different approach.

Having heard that the man owned a rare and valuable book, Franklin asked if he could borrow it for a few days. The man agreed, and Franklin returned it dutifully with a nice note. “When we next met in the House he spoke to me, (which he had never done before) and with great civility,” Franklin recalled in his autobiography. The two became fast friends. Franklin’s takeaway: “He that has once done you a kindness will be ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Read More: The Science Behind Why Nice People Finish Last—And How to Fix That

Several studies have confirmed this. In 1969, psychologists Jon Jecker and David Landy enlisted 74 volunteers to take part in an academic contest, with cash prizes for the top performers. After the contest, they were (secretly) divided into three groups. The first group was approached by the lead researcher, purposely acting like a “rather distasteful individual” who asked each contestant to do him a favor and return the money they won; he had been using his own funds and was running short. The second group was approached by an office assistant who also asked contestants to return the money, claiming it was a drain on the psychology department’s anemic budget. The third group was simply allowed to keep their winnings. Participants were then asked to gauge the likability of the lead researcher. Those in the first group had a much more positive impression of him than did those in the third group. (The same did not hold true for those in the second group, suggesting that an indirect, outsourced request for a favor does not endear you to others.)

It mattered not how much money participants were asked to forsake. What mattered was the direct request for a favor. Jecker and Landy’s conclusion: “Under certain circumstances, when an individual performs a favor for another person, his liking for that person will increase.” Several subsequent studies reached the same conclusion, though with a few refinements. The Ben Franklin Effect is more pronounced when it involves a social request (asking for advice) rather than a transactional one (asking for money). Timing is important too: rather than waiting, it's best make a request soon after meeting someone for the first time.

But how can we explain the Ben Franklin Effect? Why do we like those who ask favors of us? Some psychologists point to cognitive dissonance as an explanation. It’s difficult to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. It makes us uncomfortable. We resolve this tension by changing our mind. “I don’t like Joe, but I am doing a favor for Joe,” we might think. “So maybe I do like him after all.

While cognitive dissonance explains a lot, this concept alone doesn’t explain the Ben Franklin Effect. One 2015 study found that it was, rather, the “affiliative motive that the request conveys.” That is, we humans want to maintain good relations with other humans, and one way to achieve this is by doing favors for others. Known as the “reciprocation bias,” it explains a lot about altruistic behavior. We like being useful and, by extension, we like those who give us the opportunity to do so. It is in our genes. As the archaeologist Richard Leakey wrote in his book People of the Lake, “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.” The Ben Franklin Effect supercharges that network of obligation.

Yet there is much we still don’t know about the Ben Franklin Effect. Does it apply equally across cultures, or are some communities more prone to it? Does it have a limit? Is there a point beyond which asking a favor of someone makes you less, not more likable? Asking to borrow a book is one thing; asking to borrow a car is another.

Or is it? Ben Franklin himself stretched the limits of the psychological phenomenon that bears his name. While serving as U.S. representative to France during the Revolutionary War, he asked favors galore from his host country. The young United States desperately needed French aid, financial and military, if it was going to gain its independence. Rather than appeal to France’s self-interest, Franklin aimed higher. France should help the Amercian rebels because it was the right thing to do. The Amercian cause was humanity’s cause. Spoiler alert: Franklin’s appeal worked. After some initial reservations, the French fully backed the American cause, and helped secure its independence.

The practical implications of the Ben Franklin Effect are profound and far reaching. Those looking to make new friends would be wise to leverage the phenomenon. It works when two people know each other, and even among strangers, suggesting it “could be a viable strategy not only for maintaining or strengthening a current relationship but also for initiating a new relationship,” said Yu Niya, a professor at Japan’s Hosei University and author of a study on the Ben Franklin Effect.

In the business world, companies eager to attract loyal customers would be wise to ask something of them: helping design a new product for instance. That is exactly what Lay’s Potato Chips did with their 2012 “Do Us a Flavor” campaign. Consumers were asked to suggest a new flavor. The company received nearly 4 million submissions. The winner: Cheesy Garlic Bread. Lay’s, in return, saw a spike in sales after the campaign ran. Another word for the Ben Franklin Effect is engagement.

Perhaps the most fertile arena for deploying the Ben Franklin Effect is politics. Leaders from opposing parties could reach across the aisle not by dispensing favors but by requesting them. As behavior scientist Lauren Braithwaite writes in The Decision Lab, “At its core, the Benjamin Franklin effect transforms adversaries into allies.” And it does so, remarkably, inexplicably, one favor at a time.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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