#17 Ben Franklin Effect: Why we should all be asking for way more favours

Social convention suggests that if you want to make a new friend, you should do something nice for them. But according to Ben Franklin, we’ve been doing it all wrong. In this episode, Mel and Dan explore how we can use non conventional techniques to gain our customers’ trust and loyalty forever more.

Dan: 00:00 Feels like our emotional brain is the real world, and then our rational brain is the PR department, that just tries to explain what happened here.

Mel: 00:08 We could look at it that way.

Dan: 00:09 It's like “no, no, this was a very strategic decision that this human being has just made here”

Mel: 00:10 Of course.


Mel: 00:29 Hi, and welcome to Bad Decisions.

Dan: 00:32 The show that helps us understand why we choose what we choose.

Mel: 00:35 Why we think what we think.

Dan: 00:36 And how to exploit this stuff for fun and commercial gain.

I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat, a creative agency built for today.

Mel: 00:42 And I'm Dr Mel Weinberg. I'm a performance psychologist.

Dan: 00:45 A performance psychologist who loves this track?

Mel: 00:47 Loves this track.

Dan: 00:48 Play the track. (music)

Mel: 00:56 Welcome back. Well, welcome back to us, really.

Dan: 00:58 Yeah, it's been a minute.

Mel: 00:59 It's been a little while, we've been doing some things.

Dan: 01:01 Yeah, some conferences.

Mel: 01:02 Yeah.

Dan: 01:03 Good to be back in the booth.

Mel: 01:04 Alright. So, we're bringing things back with a heuristic that is actually named after somebody ... Have we done one of these yet?

Dan: 01:14 I think this is our first.

Mel: 01:15 The heuristic actually has a person attributed to this.

Dan: 01:18 Yeah. So, maybe if we take people behind the scenes. Yeah, we did a little bit of research. What are the heuristics we want to talk about in the next few episodes? And this one just stood out like dog's balls.

Mel: 01:26 Before I even knew what it was I was like, “this is the heuristic we're doing today.”

Dan: 01:31 Yeah, and what is the heuristic we're doing today?

Mel: 01:32 It is the Benjamin Franklin effect.

Dan: 01:35 The Benjamin Franklin effect. (music)

Mel: 01:42 Dan, who's Benjamin Franklin?

Dan: 01:45 Yeah, because this is what I was thinking too. I mainly know Benjamin Franklin from the ‘It's all about the Benjamins Baby' right? So, this guy gets to have his face on the $100 bill of the US currency, basically global currency, right. And as if that was not a great enough accolade, he also gets his own heuristic named after him, and I was thinking, this guy must be pretty seriously talented, and I was ready to be disappointed.

Mel: 02:13 Because that's how you know you've made it, right? Once you get a heuristic named after you, you are set.

Dan: 02:17 What? A heuristic, but there's only one $100 bill, that job only goes to one person, and it's him!

Mel: 02:22 Yeah, but he got a heuristic named after him, surely that's better.

Dan: 02:24 He has a rap song! There are rap songs! Anyway, so I was like, you know what? I'm definitely going to be hating on this guy. I'm going to go do some research because there is nobody that deserves to be on a $100 bill and have a heuristic named after them. But if there was, I admit, it was Benjamin Franklin.

So, this guy is basically just a freak. He was born one of, what, like 17 children? Very poor family, very miserable upbringing, not great prospects at life, and you know what? I was going to try and paraphrase this off Wikipedia but look, they've done a pretty good job here. If we just rattle this off, right-

He was an American polymath, which for those of you unfamiliar with the term polymath, I mean, that's basically somebody who is exceptionally knowledgeable about many, many areas. So that's pretty good start-

Mel: 03:08 One day I want to be a polymath.

Dan: 03:09 Yeah. I'd just be happy to be a unimath, just to know a lot about one thing ...

One of the founding fathers of the United States. Yeah, good for him. He was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, investor, humorist, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

Mel: 03:27 What have you done in your life?

Dan: 03:28 Yeah. Well, he didn't have a podcast, I can tell you that much. Though he did basically help commercialise electricity, which means that we can have podcasts.

Mel: 03:36 Got you there.

Dan: 03:37 As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American enlightenment and the history of physics and, look, basically the guy just invented everything and did everything so, you know what? He deserves the $100 bill. Good on you Benny-boy.

Mel: 03:49 Well done. But bringing us to the heuristic, here's the thing for all the wonderful things he did, there was this one asshole who just didn't like him.

Dan: 03:49 Yeah, I mean look, everyone's got haters.

Mel: 03:49 Everyone's got haters.

Dan: 03:49 We've got haters. Kanye's got haters.

Mel: 04:02 Yeah.

Dan: 04:03 Benny-boy Franklin had haters.

Mel: 04:05 He had this hater, right? And he actually realised that at some point he was going to maybe need this hater to be on his side, and so he thought, I need to figure out a way to get this hater to like me, right? He was known for having a way with people and understanding sort of the way that people work.

Dan: 04:22 Yeah, apparently that for all of his accolades he was also like an extremely gifted interactor.

Mel: 04:22 Interactor?

Dan: 04:27 Interactor. He was like a really-

Mel: 04:30 He was really good interactor-

Dan: 04:32 He was really good with people, and I'm going to say, you go to look at the photos of him, he is not the most handsome guy in the world. Full respect for the bald on the top, mullet at the back, but mate, he had a way with words and probably-

Mel: 04:44 And a way with people.

Dan: 04:46 ... A way with people.

Mel: 04:48 So, what he could have done is he could have gone to this hater and offered to do something nice for him, right? Or given him a compliment, flattered him, said, “You're awesome, I actually want to be friends with you.” But that's not what he did. He went about it in a more subtle and indirect way. What he decided to do was to ask this ... He wrote a letter to this hater, and he said, “Listen mate,” which I'm sure is the way that he said it. We sound like the two most naïve Australian podcasters when we're talking about US history, but anyway-

Dan: 04:48 No, no, no. This is what happened.

Mel: 05:16 He said, “Listen mate, look ...”-

Dan: 05:17 Mate.

Mel: 05:20 “... There's a book in your library that I understand is really rare and it's actually really hard to get and I know that you've got it. Look, could you do me a favour? Is there any chance that you could let me borrow that book?”

Dan: 05:32 Yeah, so let's get this right. So this guy dislikes Benjamin Franklin?

Mel: 05:35 Yeah.

Dan: 05:36 Benjamin Franklin has the audacity to ask this man for a favour of the loan of an extremely rare book from his personal library. And how does the man respond?

Mel: 05:45 Well, how do you think he responds? He says, “Wow, Benjamin Franklin wants to borrow my book! Wow. I've got something that he needs. I'm going to wrap it up really nicely, put a bow on the top and send it by horse and carriage to Mr Benjamin Franklin.”

Dan: 05:59 Right. And then what happened?

Mel: 06:01 The hater, who will be known as the hater in this story, sent it-

Dan: 06:04 Yeah. Doesn't even get named.

Mel: 06:05 No, we don't even know who he was.

Dan: 06:07 Hater.

Mel: 06:07 But he sent the book, right? And Benjamin Franklin, who knows whether or not he read the book, but he returned it about a week later and when he returned it he wrote a note saying, “Thank you so much, that was so lovely of you. I really appreciate it.”

Dan: 06:22 Wow. What a dreamy guy.

Mel: 06:23 And then what happened was that the next time that they actually met in person the hater, who had never spoken a word to Benjamin Franklin in the past, or never a kind word at least, all of a sudden wanted to be his best friend.

Dan: 06:35 What do you know.

Mel: 06:35 He came over, he spoke to him, and from then on they were the best of friends. It's a beautiful story of friendship and a little bit of deceit.

Dan: 06:44 So, I mean this is weird, right? Because what the Benjamin Franklin effect basically tells us is that, if you want somebody to like you, rather than doing something nice for them you are far better off asking them to do something nice for you.

Mel: 06:58 Yeah, hey Dan, on that note could you do me a favour?

Dan: 07:02 No. Yes. When? Money? Am I being played here?

Mel: 07:06 Can you explain to me a little bit more why this happens.

Dan: 07:08 Yeah. So, we've sort of been digging around because this does seem really weird, because we would like to think that because I think in a certain way, I would act in accordance with that, but this would suggest that it's actually maybe even completely backwards, that because I've acted in that way, that changes how I feel about something.

Mel: 07:25 Yeah. So, we see this ... There's obviously some research that I'm going to talk about.

Dan: 07:28 Of course there's research. Do we have research music?

Mel: 07:30 We have research music. Play the research music.


Okay. Of course whenever these heuristics come into play they're in situations of uncertainty. Okay? So there has to be some element of uncertainty and in this case it's the uncertainty around the intentions of the other person.

Dan: 07:56 Right.

Mel: 07:57 Okay, so let's remember that while I tell you about the research. So, the research for this is actually pretty old in research terms. It dates back to 1969-

Dan: 08:06 Summer of '69.

Mel: 08:07 The summer of when all good -

Dan: 08:09 Someone should right a song about all this research.

Mel: 8:11 - when all good research was happening. Like all the cool people in that time were really doing research.

Dan: 08:16 Yeah, and other people had some guys from school and they started a band and tried to real hard.

Mel: 08:21 Anyway, Jecker and Landy were two researchers who-

Dan: 08:21 Not in the band.

Mel: 08:26 Not in the band. They were actually the cool guys doing the research, and they set up this study where they had three different groups. They were given some menial tasks, it doesn't actually matter what the participants were doing as part of the experiment, but there was an experiment to involve, to explain, the nature of the study to all three groups.

At the end of this study, like on their way out, that's where the experiences of the groups differ. So, on the way out one of the groups is basically asked by the experimenter to do him a favour. The experimenter says, “Look, we’re having some trouble in terms of the funding for the department and I know you were just given 20 bucks to participate in this study, but I'd really appreciate it if you'd consider donating it back to the department.”

Dan: 09:10 I know you kind of glossed over it but what did they do that they got paid 20 bucks for? Just loosely. Like you said it was a menial task, what are we talking here?

Mel: 09:16 It was just like something boring, they're either just like turning things on a wheel or sorting cards. It doesn't actually matter what they're doing.

Dan: 09:22 For an hour?

Mel: 09:22 Yeah.

Dan: 09:23 Scientists are cruel. Poor people.

Mel: 09:26 But that wasn't the point.

Dan: 09:27 Turn these wheels for one hour for science-

Mel: 09:30 Be a monkey for us.

Dan: 09:31 Yeah, seriously. Alright.

Mel: 09:34 I feel like we have talked about way less ethical forms of research though that scientists have conducted.

Dan: 09:38 Yeah, there were no anal probes in this one, that's a good-

Mel: 09:38 A good start.

Dan: 09:41 A good start.

Mel: 09:42 So that's the first group, right? They're asked on the way out by the experimenter to donate that twenty bucks to the poor lab.

Dan: 09:48 Right. “Couldn't even afford interesting tasks for you to do. All we could afford was wooden wheels.” Yeah.

Mel: 09:53 The second group on their way out, they come into contact with the receptionist of this lab and the receptionist asks them on the way out, “Look, would you mind donating back your money?” Or, “Could you do us a favour, could you donate the money back to us?”

Dan: 10:08 The cheek.

Mel: 10:09 Yeah, and the third group just left with their money. They weren't asked to donate it at all. So, the thing they're actually measuring was a post-study questionnaire of how much they liked the experimenter.

Dan: 10:26 Right. Not the receptionist. She was like the decoy.

Mel: 10:30 Not the receptionist. Yeah, she's just there. We're assuming that she was a female as well. But anyway-

Dan: 10:35 1969, let's be honest.

Mel: 10:36 So, what happens is they actually measure the liking for the experimenter, and what they found was that that middle group who were asked by the receptionist to donate the money at the end, they had the least amount of like for the experimenter overall. Okay? They were just like, “Don't really feel much for this experimenter at all.” Interestingly, the group who reported that they liked the experimenter the most were the group who were actually asked by the experimenter to return the money that they had been given. And so, again this just speaks to this idea of this is weird, right? The experimenter has just asked them to return the money that they'd been given and that makes them like him more.

Dan: 11:16 Yeah. It's weird, right? It feels like you should go on asking people for shit and making friends.

Mel: 11:20 Yeah. This is my new way of making friends. “Hey everybody, could you all do me a favour?”

Dan: 11:25 Do me a favour.

Mel: 11:26 “If you do it you're my new friend.”

Dan: 11:28 Yeah. In so thinking about how this kind of works, and I know this is probably the bit that you would normally do, because it's kind of sciency, but I found this interesting that there's this notion of cognitive dissonance, which we've spoken about in previous episodes, which is just what fancy people call confused, and it's this idea that we think to ourselves, “I did something nice for this person and I only do nice things for people that I like. I can't take back the thing that I've just done, so therefore I must like this person.”

Mel: 11:52 You must.

Dan: 11:53 Alright.

Mel: 11:53 There's no other reason why you would-

Dan: 11:55 This is my only logical explanation for why I just did something for someone I didn't like, and now I like them more.

Mel: 11:59 Yeah. So, this is what happens when we do things when we're in conditions of uncertainty. We've talked about how our emotional brain acts in times of uncertainty and then our rational brain kicks in after the fact, and it's like, “Hang on a second, what did we just do and why did we do that? Ah, because I like them. Right, I get it.”

Dan: 12:13 I don't know if we've spoken about it like this before, but it feels like our emotional brain is like the real world and then our rational brain is the PA department that just tries to explain what happened here.

Mel: 12:25 We could look at it that way.

Dan: 12:26 It's like “no, no, this was a very strategic decision that this human being has just made here.”

Mel: 12:30 Of course.

Dan: 12:31 Okay, so this is weird, right? So, I want somebody to like me who doesn't like me. I ask them to do me a favour, they do me a favour and now they like me more than they did before.

Mel: 12:40 So they like you and they've done you a favour.

Dan: 12:40 And they've done me a favour-

Mel: 12:40 You've run twice.

Dan: 12:43 They've done me a favour. I'm totally winning.

Can we unpack this a little bit? Like, maybe from a psych perspective. Why would this work?

Mel: 12:49 Yeah. So, we can think about it from the perspective of the person who's asked to do the favour. The person who doesn't like you, like what's wrong with him for a start-

Dan: 12:58 For a start.

Mel: 12:59 But they're asked to do you a favour and what happens? What's their experience like?

What's happening for them is that they're getting ... When you ask somebody to do you a favour, you're actually suggesting to them “hey actually you've got something that I need.” Like Ben Franklin was doing at the start, you've got something that I need, which puts you as the favour-askerer in a position of vulnerability, right? You're saying, “I'm actually vulnerable because I actually don't have it all.” Right? “I'm a really cool person, I have a lot of things going for me. There are a lot of reasons to like me, but you know what? You have something that I need.”

Dan: 13:31 Yeah. So, Benjamin Franklin doesn't have the rare book and the researcher doesn't have the 20 bucks.

Mel: 13:36 That's right. And so there's something that you need. And typically in these situations it operates when there's an imbalance in power. Okay? So, the experimenter is obviously in a position of power over the people in the experiment. That's just the way it works.

Dan: 13:52 Benjamin Franklin was probably in a position of power over this random hater because he was already quite prominent and powerful by that point.

Mel: 13:57 He was more powerful, yeah.

So, this is all about addressing the power imbalance and actually evening it out. So, the person who's on the other side, the participant, is usually the person who feels vulnerable. And what happens is when the experimenter shows vulnerability, all of a sudden they've got something in common. All of a sudden they've got something that they both understand and all of a sudden there's a basis for them to form a trusting relationship going forward.

So, it's all about evening up that power balance.

Dan: 14:22 I guess the second half of it ... Number one, the person has showed some vulnerability, but I feel like there's also a kind of subverted compliment or an acknowledgement of expertise. So, not only am I showing you that I'm vulnerable, but I'm asking you to help me with something that you clearly know about. So, objectively I'm asking you for a favour, but really what I'm doing is I'm saying “Hey, you know something that I respect and could you share that knowledge with me.” So, if we think about asking a colleague to proof-read something before it goes off to a client, you are objectively asking them a favour but in a backhanded kind of way you're acknowledging that they have some value to contribute, or some expertise that you would like to tap into.

Mel: 15:03 It seems so deceitful when you think of it like that. Like, the person who asks the favour gets that person to like them and also gets the favour done for them. Like, it seems like there's a clear winner in this situation, but the other person thinks they're winning.

Dan: 15:15 Yeah. What I've concluded today is doing favours for people is a losing man's strategy. Losing person's strategy.

Mel: 15:22 But it's also the basis of functioning communities. And we actually need to have those interactions in order to build what we call social capital and to build trust.

Dan: 15:32 Yes, because, what? Trust is built on vulnerability?

Mel: 15:35 Well, in order for a trusting relationship to ensue, somebody at some instance has to start off by taking a back seat and showing vulnerability. Somebody has to say, “I'm vulnerable, I need something. Can you help?”

Dan: 15:47 Yeah. It is interesting thinking about it in a pitching situation. When you walk in to pitch to a prospective new client, the prospective client has all of the power. Basically they're the judge. If you've never pitched for anything in your life before, it's basically like going on some terrible reality TV talent show where you have a panel of judges and hopefully you impress them.

Mel: 16:07 Now you're talking my language.

Dan: 16:09 And an interesting strategy I read about for a pitch, which to be honest I've never executed before, is to open the pitch with the reasons why the client should not pick you, which obviously are going to be things that you're going to fix up later in the presentation. But if you start on the front foot by showing a vulnerability, where if you say, “Look, if what you guys are looking for is an agency that has delivered more aged-care campaigns than anybody else in the country, we are definitely not the guys.” So, you sort of declare your vulnerability first and maybe that forms the basis of a trusting relationship.

Mel: 16:43 Yeah. I mean, if you've looked at any TED Talk, that's why they're effective.

Dan: 16:47 They all start with a story.

Mel: 16:48 They all start by offering vulnerability.

Dan: 16:50 Story about my childhood.

Mel: 16:51 Of course. Because you think that the person who is up there giving the TED Talk is an expert. That's why they're there. You think that they know way more about whatever it is they're going to talk about than you do, and hopefully they do if they're standing up there. But the first thing that you do, the script for a TED Talk, is tell your personal story. Make yourself vulnerable to the audience first. Reel them in, and then hit them with what you actually are an expert in.

Dan: 17:12 I'm going pants-less. That speech. You want to see vulnerability, people?

Mel: 17:18 So, when you talk about how it works with your clients, it makes me think of the way that I work in practise as well. So, if you think about a client/therapist relationship, there's a clear power imbalance there, right? A client comes in feeling pretty vulnerable and feeling like the therapist is there to solve all of their problems and has all the knowledge and expertise in order to do that effectively. One of the most important things that you can do as a therapist in order to build rapport is to become vulnerable to the client, to sort of balance out that power, by actually saying, “You know what? You're actually the expert in your life, or in whatever it is that you're doing. Can you tell me a little bit about that.”

So, I work a lot with athletes, right? From all different sports. And I like to think of myself as a pretty sporty person, but there are some pretty weird sports out there.

Dan: 17:18 Unique. Interesting.

Mel: 18:01 Unique and, you know, every sport has its own little culture and psychology and nature attached to it and I do not claim in any way to understand all of that. So, one of the tools that I can use is to actually, and of course I'm actually genuinely interested, but by actually asking the client to explain their sport to me, or explain the technicalities, or talk to me about that, they actually have the opportunity to feel empowered and feel emboldened and actually feel like they're not as vulnerable or they have something they can teach me. And hopefully they like me and they come back for more.

Dan: 18:33 Also probably a better strategy than you going pants-less, because that's not right.

Mel: 18:36 It doesn't really work so well.

Dan: 18:39 I don't know how it's going to work for me either, but one of us should try it before next episode.

Mel: 18:43 I'm pretty sure there's some ethics against that.

Dan: 18:45 So, a lot of this is about human to human interaction and with human to human interaction it's important that things seem genuine. Like, we're not just asking for favours just for the sake of asking for favours. That the favours actually show some level of insight into something people could help us with, right?

Mel: 19:02 Yeah. I mean, the whole thing totally backfires if it seems disingenuous.

Dan: 19:04 Yeah, like the fact that Benjamin Franklin knew this guy had this book in his library definitely played into the whole effect. It wasn't just a random request for a Peanuts comic, or something like that.

Mel: 19:14 Yeah.

Dan: 19:15 I think while that's kind of natural in a human to human relationship, when brands want to get involved with this, when brands want to ask favours of people to get them to like the brand more, there's really automated versions of this. So, if you imagine you've just bought something off of Amazon and you get an email three days later saying please rate your experience. They're asking you a favour, but it feels kind of ...

Mel: 19:39 Well, I know why they're asking me a favour. It's because I've obviously just made a purchase and they don't really care about me, they're actually doing it because they want their feedback because they've got some ratings that they need to, you know, meet.

Dan: 19:49 Yeah. Whereas you can imagine, and obviously this is maybe not practical for every brand, but you could imagine if instead of doing that if somebody from Amazon called you and they're like, “Hey Dr Mel, we just noticed that you've bought your fourth psychology book and we're really interested in trying to improve our psychology offering, could you just spare a few moments to give us your thoughts on what we could do to improve our collection of psychology books on Amazon?”

Mel: 20:13 “Oh you want my expertise now to help you. Oh, of course!”

Dan: 20:17 “That's a favour we'd like to ask you, would that be okay with you?”

Mel: 20:19 “Oh, of course. I'd love to help.”

Dan: 20:21 And you could just imagine how good you would feel about Amazon as a brand after that.

Mel: 20:25 Well, I really like them because they actually valued my opinion.

Dan: 20:28 Yeah, which is nice. And we see this client agency world as well where, you know, somebody senior from a client might call me to ask how their team is going, and if we go back to our things about showing vulnerability and acknowledging expertise, like when a senior client asks me how their team’s going that does acknowledge vulnerability. It says how “I'm not really across all the details of everything, and hey you have some expertise because you're seeing how my guys are going and you're smart enough to know when guys are going well or not going well.” And of course I feel completely in love with clients that do that. They want my opinion, it’s great.

Mel: 21:01 Yeah.

Dan: 21:02 Alright, what do you reckon? Is that a wrap for big bad Benjamin Franklin effect?

Mel: 21:06 I think we've done it.

Dan: 21:08 Alright, so what's the moral of the story?

Mel: 21:10 If you want someone to like you ask them to do you a favour, and also recognise, and this is something important just as a little side note, there is strength in vulnerability, right? We often think that the things that attract us to people are strength, when actually what attracts us to people is their vulnerability.

Dan: 21:24 Oh, that's deep. We're going to end it on that.

Mel: 21:26 I think we should.

Dan: 21:27 Alright. Why don't we do our social media handles?

Mel: 21:29 Okay. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, whatever, @DrMelW.

Dan: 21:34 Yeah, and you can find me @Danmonheit, like just generally on the internet, type it into Google, I'll be there somewhere.

Mel: 21:41 You'll find him.

Dan: 21:41 Cool.

Mel: 21:42 And when you do, ask him to do you a favour.

Dan: 21:43 Yeah, I'd be happy to.

Mel: 21:44 See ya.