The Ben Franklin effect

Hey, can you do me a favor?

Of course you can, and when you do it, you’ll like me.

Oh, and you won’t really have a choice about it. Because if you didn’t like me, you wouldn’t do me a favor, so when you do me the favor, you’re bound to like me. It’s a duty to your dumb brain and inevitable retrospective distortion. You can’t bear the story of not liking me and having done me a favor; what a fool you’d be then! No, no. Much better to create and trust the narrative that you like me; that I’m eminently likeable; that you were totally right to spend time and energy doing something for me.

That, my friend, is the Ben Franklin effect. (Thanks, Cracked, for doing me the favor of introducing this concept to me. I guess you like me.)

And that, my friends, is something I think I’ve been doing to people most of my life.

Let’s start with my parents. I always wonder why they not only love me, they actually like me. Is it because my life is their ultimate favor to me, and so they have to like me? Yet as Fences argues, parents are under no obligation to like their children; they just owe them a duty, not a favor. You perform duties because you have to, so there’s no need to justify the choice; typically, with favors, you are choosing. Or at least you choose to tell yourself that you chose, and then the way you justify the choice? Ben Franklin effect: because you like that person or that thing. (Okay, so duty works this way, kind of, too. Semantics antics.)

Okay, so giving me my life aside, my parents provide anything and everything for me whenever I ask for it; more frequently, even when I don’t ask for it. They’re hitting me with favors all the time, and there’s no way they could justify this consistent behavior without liking me. Whether they really like me or not is irrelevant at this point; they committed to the story a long time ago, and it would take a lot to change it. If I started doing them favors more often, would that change their mind? Would they get all suspicious and start to doubt why they ever liked me in the first place? Love is duty; like is agency. What a sad fate it would be to fall back on freedom-less duty and have to just love their son…

It’s not just my parents who have done me favors. In the last few months alone, sort of homeless and unemployed, I’ve been extraordinarily privileged to have people house and feed me, i.e. they’ve done me favors. I never stopped to consider if they liked me or not, or if they were just being nice, or if they believed in karma or something…I didn’t care why they were helping, I was simply grateful they were. I definitely didn’t earn it. I hadn’t done any of them any great favors, and yet they only seemed to get more generous as time went on. The story was sticking: they had to like me or they wouldn’t tolerate me accepting their magnanimity so extensively (I don’t want to say exploiting or taking advantage of…though an impartial observer might suggest as much…then again, that interpretation is grounded in toxic beliefs about property and what not…yeah, don’t worry, Lou, you’re justified in your behavior).

There has to be a threshold where this faithful liking transforms into disdain, right? When you do someone a favor, part of you (okay, me) invariably goes: I wonder when they’ll repay me OR I’m an asshole for thinking that doing this favor anticipates mutual benefit or some return one day. And then, if I feel like an asshole, I’ll really start to like the other person at my own expense. Ben Franklin effect in effect again! (Or confirmation bias in effect this entire post.)

Anyway, when I reflect on my life, I’ve been remarkably selfish. Even today, whenever someone is about to ask me for a favor, I curl up into myself; maybe I’m so used to being retroactively liked that I can’t like anyone else in advance? Or I’m an asshole trying to scapegoat some psychological phenomenon for my self-centered inclinations. Definitely that.

Regardless, I certainly don’t like myself for this habit. All I’ve done is impinge on the good graces of everyone I’ve ever met. Not consciously, but as a matter of course. I’ve gotten way too comfortable with people giving me comfort and never asking for anything in return. Give me the chance to like you back! What? That’s my choice? I’m choosing to avoid it? Oh, that’s right, I control my own behavior and only my own behavior. Good. I’ll choose to help and like others more frequently.

What I’m ultimately trying to say is thank you to everyone in my life for being so kind. If the Ben Franklin effect happened as a result of your willed, authentic hospitality, I’m sorry. I intended no coercion. Hopefully I’m likeable despite you doing me a favor. (Like doing me the favor of liking me?) And maybe it’s a thing so beyond both of us that it doesn’t make sense to dwell on it any further than laughing at how novel (and yet how) obvious a concept it is.

I like and love all of you, and I hope I’ve returned some of the positive emotional and physical energy you’ve extended to me.

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