The Benjamin Franklin Effect

by | December 2, 2016 |

Benjamin Franklin is well known for his many famous quotes. He is less well known for knowing how to turn enemies into friends. Call it the Benjamin Franklin effect.

Franklin served in Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature (1736– 1764) both as delegate and as elected clerk of the general assembly. When he ran for his second term as clerk, one of his colleagues in the legislature delivered a speech criticizing him. Franklin won his second term, but his critic had gotten to him. He decided to do something about it.

And this is what he did: he sent a letter to his detractor asking if he could borrow a specific book from his library, a rare one. The detractor sent it along. Franklin read it then returned it with a thank you note. The next time the legislature met the detractor spoke to Franklin in person for the first time. Thereafter they became friends.

This anecdote is recounted in David McRaney’s curious and delightful You Are Now Less Dumb (2013), which debunks commonly held notions. I’ll mention three.


The Benjamin Franklin Effect

The first example of perverse human psychology is:

The Misconception: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

The Truth: You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

So, to turn a hater into a fan, ask him or her to do you a favor. Then sit back and enjoy your new friendship thanks to the Benjamin Franklin effect.

Go from:




The Backfire Effect:

Another quirk of human psychology is the Backfire Effect, which is especially toxic in the current political environment. It goes like this:

The Misconception: You alter your opinions and incorporate the new information in to your thinking after your beliefs are challenged with facts.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

Take an issue: the presence or absence of WMDs in Iraq, stem cell research, global warming, health care reform, gun control, social security, Planned Parenthood, the list is endless … and try to change someone’s opinion based on facts. It won’t happen.

I’ve long understood that changing your mind comes at a cognitive cost. If the cost of the new fact is too high – i.e. you have to rearrange too many old ideas to make room for it – you will not only keep your mental furniture in the usual arrangement, you will also further settle in.

Bad news, indeed, for anyone attempting to correct the record in someone else’s mind. Newspapers retractions don’t work.

Check out the truth/falsity of some of the latest political statements at Politifact

Did any new facts change your mind? Are you now questioning PolitiFact’s truthfulness?


The Sunk Cost Fallacy

A third example of human stupidity is the Sunk Cost Fallacy:

The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments, and experiences.

The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it.

Example: In an experiment people were asked to imagine spending $100 dollars on a ticket for a ski trip in Michigan. Then they were told of a better ski trip in Wisconsin for $50 and bought a ticket for this trip, too. When they discovered the trips overlapped and they couldn’t get their money back for either, most people chose the $100 okay vacation over the $50 better one.

Why? Because the loss seemed greater taking the cheaper vacation. That’s the fallacy. Notice that the money is gone either way.

I recently struggled with this one. In contemplating my latest round of downsizing, I had (more than) a moment of panic to imagine getting rid of some furniture I’ve had for a long time but now hardly use. In fact I’ve come to think of my present address as a very nice, climate-controlled storage facility. But still the thought of getting rid of several rooms of furniture is distinctly unpleasant, given that I’ve invested in having a place for them for so long.


As McRaney says: “Every garage sale is a funeral for someone’s sunk costs.”


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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