The Benjamin Franklin Effect: The Surprising Psychology of How to Handle Haters
By Maria Popova
“We are what we pretend to be,” Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” But given how much our minds mislead us, what if we don’t realize when we’re pretending — who are we then? That’s precisely what David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library) — a “book about self-delusion, but also a celebration of it,” a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why “self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes,” and the follow-up to McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011. McRaney, with his signature fusion of intelligent irreverence and irreverent intelligence, writes in the introduction:
The human mind is obviously vaster and more powerful than any other animal mind, and that’s something people throughout all human history couldn’t help but notice. You probably considered this the last time you visited the zoo or watched a dog battle its own hind legs. Your kind seems the absolute pinnacle of what evolution can produce, maybe even the apex and final beautiful result of the universe unfolding itself. It is a delectable idea to entertain. Even before we had roller skates and Salvador Dalí, it was a conviction in which great thinkers liked to wallow. Of course, as soon as you settle into that thought, you’ll accidentally send an e-mail to your boss meant for your proctologist, or you’ll read a news story about how hot dog-stuffed pizza is now the most popular food in the country. It’s always true that whenever you look at the human condition and get a case of the smugs, a nice heaping helping of ridiculousness plops in your lap and remedies the matter.
This tendency of ours is known as “naïve realism” — the assertion that we see the world as it actually is and our impression of it is an objective, accurate representation of “reality” — a concept that comes from ancient philosophy and has since been amply debunked by modern science. McRaney writes:
The last one hundred years of research suggest that you, and everyone else, still believe in a form of naïve realism. You still believe that although your inputs may not be perfect, once you get to thinking and feeling, those thoughts and feelings are reliable and predictable. We now know that there is no way you can ever know an “objective” reality, and we know that you can never know how much of subjective reality is a fabrication, because you never experience anything other than the output of your mind. Everything that’s ever happened to you has happened inside your skull.
In sum, we are excellent at deluding ourselves, and terrible in recognizing when our own perceptions, attitudes, impressions, and opinions about the external world are altered from within. And one of the most remarkable of manifestations of this is the Benjamin Franklin Effect, which McRaney examines in the third chapter. The self-delusion in question is that we do nice things to people we like and bad things to those we dislike. But what the psychology behind the effect reveals is quite the opposite, a reverse-engineering of attitudes that takes place as we grow to like people for whom we do nice things and dislike those to whom we are unkind.
This curious effect is named after a specific incident early in the Founding Father’s political career. Franklin, born one of seventeen children to poor parents, entered this world — despite his parents’ and society’s priorities in his favor relative to his siblings — with very low odds of becoming an educated scientist, gentleman, scholar, entrepreneur, and, perhaps most of all, a man of significant political power. To compensate for his unfavorable givens, he quickly learned formidable people skills and became “a master of the game of personal politics.” McRaney writes:
Like many people full of drive and intelligence born into a low station, Franklin developed strong people skills and social powers. All else denied, the analytical mind will pick apart behavior, and Franklin became adroit at human relations. From an early age, he was a talker and a schemer, a man capable of guile, cunning, and persuasive charm. He stockpiled a cache of secret weapons, one of which was the Benjamin Franklin effect, a tool as useful today as it was in the 1730s and still just as counterintuitive.
At age twenty-one, he formed a “club of mutual improvement” called the Junto. It was a grand scheme to gobble up knowledge. He invited working-class polymaths like him to have the chance to pool together their books and trade thoughts and knowledge of the world on a regular basis. They wrote and recited essays, held debates, and devised ways to acquire currency. Franklin used the Junto as a private consulting firm, a think tank, and he bounced ideas off the other members so he could write and print better pamphlets. Franklin eventually founded the first subscription library in America, writing that it would make “the common tradesman and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries,” not to mention give him access to whatever books he wanted to buy.
This is where his eponymous effect comes into play: When Franklin ran for his second term as a clerk, a peer whose name he never mentions in his autobiography delivered a long election speech censuring Franklin and tarnishing his reputation. Although Franklin won, he was furious with his opponent and, observing that this was “a gentleman of fortune and education” who might one day come to hold great power in government, rather concerned about future frictions with him.
The troll had to be tamed, and tamed shrewdly. McRaney writes:
Franklin set out to turn his hater into a fan, but he wanted to do it without “paying any servile respect to him.” Franklin’s reputation as a book collector and library founder gave him a standing as a man of discerning literary tastes, so Franklin sent a letter to the hater asking if he could borrow a specific selection from his library, one that was a “very scarce and curious book.” The rival, flattered, sent it right away. Franklin sent it back a week later with a thank-you note. Mission accomplished. The next time the legislature met, the man approached Franklin and spoke to him in person for the first time. Franklin said the man “ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”
Instant pause-giver: In what universe does inducing an opponent to do you a favor magically turn him into a supporter? This, it turns out, shares a psychological basis with the reason why the art of asking is the art of cultivating community — and, McRaney explains, it has a lot to do with the psychology of attitudes, those clusters of convictions about and emotional impressions of a person or a situation:
For many things, your attitudes came from actions that led to observations that led to explanations that led to beliefs. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience from day to day. It doesn’t feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels as if you were the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants performed actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.
Indeed, this is what Gandhi touched on when he observed that our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our character, our character becomes our destiny, and it’s also the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which aims to change how we think by first changing what we do, until we internalize a set of beliefs about how those actions define who we are. McRaney explains how this works:
At the lowest level, behavior-into-attitude conversion begins with impression management theory, which says you present to your peers the person you wish to be. You engage in something economists call signaling by buying and displaying to your peers the sorts of things that give you social capital… Whatever are the easiest-to-obtain, loudest forms of the ideals you aspire to portray become the things you own, such as bumper stickers signaling to the world you are in one group and not another. These things then influence you to become the sort of person who owns them.
Anxiety over being ostracized, over being an outsider, has driven the behavior of billions for millions of years. Impression management theory says you are always thinking about how you appear to others, even when there are no others around. In the absence of onlookers, deep in your mind a mirror reflects back that which you have done, and when you see a person who has behaved in a way that could get you booted from your in-group, the anxiety drives you to seek a realignment.
This brings us to the chicken-or-the-egg question of whether the belief or the display came first. According to self-perception theory, we are both observers and narrators of our own experience — we see ourselves do something and, unable to pin down our motive, we try to make sense of it by constructing a plausible story. We then form beliefs about ourselves based on observing our actions, as narrated by that story, which of course is based on our existing beliefs in the first place. This is what happened to Franklin’s nemesis: He observed himself performing an act of kindness toward Franklin, which he explained to himself by constructing the most plausible story — that he did so willfully, because he liked Franklin after all.
This, as we’ve previously seen in the way we rationalize our dishonesty, is an example of cognitive dissonance, a mental affliction that befalls us all as we struggle to reconcile conflicting ideas about ourselves, others, or a situation. McRaney points to the empirical evidence:
You can see the proof in an MRI scan of someone presented with political opinions that conflict with her own. The brain scans of a person shown statements that oppose her political stance show that the highest areas of the cortex, the portions responsible for providing rational thought, get less blood until another statement is presented that confirms her beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened.
One of the most vivid examples of this process in action comes from a Stanford study:
Students … signed up for a two-hour experiment called “Measures of Performance” as a requirement to pass a class. Researchers divided them into two groups. One was told they would receive $1 (about $8 in today’s money). The other group was told they would receive $20 (about $150 in today’s money). The scientists then explained that the students would be helping improve the research department by evaluating a new experiment. They were then led into a room where they had to use one hand to place wooden spools into a tray and remove them over and over again. A half hour later, the task changed to turning square pegs clockwise on a flat board one-quarter spin at a time for half an hour. All the while, an experimenter watched and scribbled. It was one hour of torturous tedium, with a guy watching and taking notes. After the hour was up, the researcher asked the student if he could do the school a favor on his way out by telling the next student scheduled to perform the tasks, who was waiting outside, that the experiment was fun and interesting. Finally, after lying, people in both groups — one with one dollar in their pocket and one with twenty dollars — filled out a survey in which they were asked their true feelings about the study.
Something extraordinary and baffling had happened: The students who were paid $20 lied to their peers but reported in the survey, as expected, that they’d just endured two hours of mind-numbing tedium. But those who were only paid a dollar completely internalized the lie, reporting even in the survey that they found the task stimulating. The first group, the researchers concluded, were able to justify both the tedium and the lie with the dollar amount of their compensation, but the second group, having been paid hardly anything, had no external justification and instead had to assuage their mental unease by convincing themselves that it was all inherently worth it. McRaney extends the insight to the broader question of volunteerism:
This is why volunteering feels good and unpaid interns work so hard. Without an obvious outside reward you create an internal one. That’s the cycle of cognitive dissonance; a painful confusion about who you are gets resolved by seeing the world in a more satisfying way.
This dynamic plays out in reverse as well — as the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, being induced to perform unkind behaviors makes us develop unkind attitudes. It all brings us back to Franklin’s foe-turned-friend:
When you feel anxiety over your actions, you will seek to lower the anxiety by creating a fantasy world in which your anxiety can’t exist, and then you come to believe the fantasy is reality, just as Benjamin Franklin’s rival did. He couldn’t possibly have lent a rare book to a guy he didn’t like, so he must actually like him. Problem solved.
The Benjamin Franklin effect is the result of your concept of self coming under attack. Every person develops a persona, and that persona persists because inconsistencies in your personal narrative get rewritten, redacted, and misinterpreted. If you are like most people, you have high self-esteem and tend to believe you are above average in just about every way. It keeps you going, keeps your head above water, so when the source of your own behavior is mysterious you will confabulate a story that paints you in a positive light. If you are on the other end of the self-esteem spectrum and tend to see yourself as undeserving and unworthy [and] will rewrite nebulous behavior as the result of attitudes consistent with the persona of an incompetent person, deviant, or whatever flavor of loser you believe yourself to be. Successes will make you uncomfortable, so you will dismiss them as flukes. If people are nice to you, you will assume they have ulterior motives or are mistaken. Whether you love or hate your persona, you protect the self with which you’ve become comfortable. When you observe your own behavior, or feel the gaze of an outsider, you manipulate the facts so they match your expectations.
Indeed, Franklin noted 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.” McRaney leaves us with some grounding advice:
Pay attention to when the cart is getting before the horse. Notice when a painful initiation leads to irrational devotion, or when unsatisfying jobs start to seem worthwhile. Remind yourself pledges and promises have power, as do uniforms and parades. Remember in the absence of extrinsic rewards you will seek out or create intrinsic ones. Take into account [that] the higher the price you pay for your decisions the more you value them. See that ambivalence becomes certainty with time. Realize that lukewarm feelings become stronger once you commit to a group, club, or product. Be wary of the roles you play and the acts you put on, because you tend to fulfill the labels you accept. Above all, remember the more harm you cause, the more hate you feel. The more kindness you express, the more you come to love those you help.
So Milton Glaser was right after all when he observed, “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.”
You Are Now Less Dumb is excellent in its entirety, exploring such facets of our self-delusion as why we see patterns where there aren’t any, how we often confuse the origin of our emotional states, and more. Complement it with its prequel, then treat yourself to McRaney’s excellent podcast.
Published February 20, 2014