Growing up I was taught to abide by the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a nice thought, but it often fails to describe how the world actually works. In fact, the golden rule, in practice, may work exactly the opposite of they we think it should.
The Ben Franklin effect is a proposed psychological phenomenon: A person who has performed a favor for someone is more likely to do another favor for that person than they would be if they had received a favor from that person. Similarly, one who harms another is more willing to harm them again than the victim is to retaliate.
Benjamin Franklin, for whom the effect is named, quotes what he describes as an “old maxim” in his autobiography: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
In his autobiography, Franklin explains how he dealt with the animosity of a rival legislator when he served in the Pennsylvania legislature in the 18th century:
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.
Pretty weird right? The effect has widespread effects that you can exploit to further social and career relationships sure, but it’s also an interesting explanation for the world we live in. Racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and most other forms of hate take on a new light when viewed through the lens of the Ben Franklin effect. When we brought black slaves to America we saw them as less than human, which made us value them even less, which made us hate them, which made us fear them, which made us blame all social unrest and personal hardship on them, etc… thus the effect is self fueling and very difficult to counteract.
This perception of Franklin has been cited as an example within cognitive dissonance theory, which says that people change their attitudes or behavior to resolve tensions, or “dissonance,” between their thoughts, attitudes, and actions. In the case of the Ben Franklin effect, the dissonance is between the subject’s negative attitudes to the other person and the knowledge that they did that person a favor.
I identify the effect most prominently in the backlash and vitriol surrounding white, especially male, privilege. We live in a world where without the slightest doubt the average white male is born into a much more privileged life than any brown, black or opposite sexed person, but that idea is very difficult to resolve internally. The Ben Franklin effect causes us to instead settle on the idea that we are indeed not privileged, but that everyone else works less hard and/or that we work harder, that everyone else is a bad person, that everyone else has bad parents, etc…
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut
As primates, we are keen to social cues which portend our possible ostracism from an in-group. In the wild, banishment equals death. So, it follows that we work to feel included. Impression management theory says we are always thinking about how we appear to others. Even in the absence of onlookers, deep in our minds, a mirror reflects back that which we have done. When we see a person who has behaved in a way which could get them booted from the in-group it causes us to seek a re-alignment. But, which came first? Our display or our belief? Do I feel compelled to wear a suit to work, or after donning a suit do I conduct myself in a professional manner? Do I vote Democrat because I champion social programs, or do I champion social programs because I voted Democrat? In both cases, the research says the latter is true. Membership in a group has more influence on your attitudes than your attitudes have on them, but why?
The Benjamin Franklin Effect is the result of your concept of self being under attack. If you are like most people, you have high self-esteem and tend to believe you are above average in most everything. That belief keeps you going, so when your own behavior is mysterious to you, you will create a narrative in which you are painted in a positive light.
What lesson is there to learn? Pay attention to when the cart is before the horse. Remember promises and pledges hold power and are self fulfilling. Be wary of the roles you play and the acts you put on, because you tend to become what you play at being. Know that lukewarm feelings become bedrock when you commit to a group, club, product or ideal. If you can’t hold on to that, always remember the more harm you cause, the more hate you feel, and the more kindness you do unto the world, the more you will come to love the people you help.