Musings On The Franklin Effect

The Franklin Effect is a concept in pop psychology which asserts that, if Alice does a favor for Bob, then Alice will be more inclined to do more things for Bob in the future. While I’ve observed a real effect like this, I think it’s different from the usual story in subtle but important ways.

The Franklin Effect takes its name from a passage in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography:

I therefore did not like the opposition of this new member, who was a gentleman of fortune and education, with talents that were likely to give him, in time, great influence in the House, which, indeed, afterwards happened. I did not, however, aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. 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. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” And it shows how much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue inimical proceedings.

The usual explanation for this effect is that it works by changing the giver’s self-concept. Once you do someone a favor, the story goes, you automatically think of yourself as the recipient’s friend, and you’ll be more likely to do friendly things for them going forward.

By now I’ve given and received quite a few favors, and my experience doesn’t quite match this explanation.

As a recipient of favors, I’ve found that it matters a lot what I do with what I’m given. When I make good use of the favor and demonstrate this to the giver, the effect works more or less as described, albeit more weakly than one would assume from a naive reading of Franklin’s text. When I do this *and also* make myself helpful to the giver, this is often the start a deep, ongoing relationship. On the other hand, when I don’t do much with the favor (or on one occasion when the favor was useful but I stupidly neglected to demonstrate this to the giver), the effect is small or negative.

As a giver of favors, I find that I feel very differently depending on whether I think it led anywhere. I do favors for people when I want to help them for whatever reason, and I watch to see which favors result in actual help vs. which seem to go nowhere. (Relatedly, I’ll often give an opportunity to someone I don’t know well as a way of evaluating what they can do.) If it helped, I’m inclined to do more for the person, because I feel confident my future efforts will also be helpful. If not, then I become skeptical of my ability to help the person. I’m wary of pouring too much effort into a project that’s unlikely to work, and I’ll usually cut my losses after two or three failures if there are no other considerations. From watching others, I think this is a very common pattern, even if I’m more explicit about it than most.

Here’s what I think is actually going on: Requesting a favor from a stranger or acquaintance has two important components. There’s a request for charity, and also an overture towards partnership. People often want to dispense limited charity on the basis of magnanimity, civic responsibility, ego, or some such. People also want to partner with good allies or useful coalition members. The Franklin Effect relies on the overture towards partnership. The charity component can help facilitate the early steps of the process, but is otherwise irrelevant as far as turning one-off favors into ongoing relationships.

When you request a favor, some people will consciously evaluate your suitability as a coalition partner, and many more will do so subconsciously. Everyone will notice, consciously or subconsciously, whether you subsequently act like a good coalition partner. This includes social things like showing due appreciation, and also material things like doing favors in return. The latter will work better for people who have real value to offer each other, like Ben Franklin and his rival-turned-friend in the Pennsylvania Assembly.

I sometimes see my friends try to use the self-concept model of the Franklin Effect to get support from influential patrons. They’ll try to get a favor or endorsement from a big name, not because the favor is useful in itself, but because it represents a step forward in the ongoing project of catching the patron’s eye. I rarely see this turn into anything lasting in the way my friend wants. Because they lack the fundamentals that would allow them to become a good friend or ally, my friend can only ask for charity, which by itself is not a foundation for an ongoing relationship.

All this is to say that the Franklin Effect is not a hack to beguile people into helping you. Rather, it is an audition that gives you a chance to demonstrate your worth.

One thought on “Musings On The Franklin Effect”

  1. I think it also depends on whether the favor makes the person feel higher or lower status. Loaning out a rare but desired book says the person is rich and/or cultured. Compare what would have happened had Franklin asked him to clean his shoes.

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