The Ben Franklin Effect and Cognitive Dissonance

March 20, 2018

The answer comes from a very odd story we can’t help but share with you. This tale is based on something we do every day but usually unconsciously. It’s something our brains do to resolve the unease we feel when there’s some disharmony or disconnect between what we think and what we do. Let’s look at it now!

What is the origin of the Ben Franklin effect?

The origin of the Ben Franklin Effect is strange. Everyone knows that Ben Franklin, inventor of the lightning rod, was a founder of the United States of America. But he had quite an opponent in the legislature. His formidable enemy had no problem at all voicing his objections to the scientist’s political agenda, both publically and privately.

This special hostility didn’t go unnoticed by Franklin, and actually worried him greatly. But the way he went to solve it was unusual. Franklin’s first thought was genius: to ask him to do a favor. Since he knew he was dealing with a highly cultured individual, he asked him for a very rare book from his private library. But Franklin didn’t actually have any interest in the book.

Ben Franklin


The enemy felt quite honored and flattered by the request, so he didn’t hesitate to give it to him. That’s how Franklin beat his enemy and took a first step towards intimacy that turned into life-long friendship.

What’s behind the Ben Franklin effect?

Whether or not the story is true, the Ben Franklin effect has a deep psychological foundation. This very human need to please is actually based on cognitive dissonance. To put it another way, it comes about from our desire to avoid this kind of dissonance in the first place.

That is, what Franklin achieves with his request is to create a contradiction for his enemy. On the one hand, they’re intense political rivals, but on the other hand he asks him for a favor. The situation isn’t contradictory in and of itself. But it’s likely that Franklin’s enemy saw some kind of contradiction in it. This contradiction was a feeling of political ill will set alongside a friendly action.

Perceiving a contradiction like this tends to create some discomfort, pushing a person to readjust their way of thinking. This is exactly what Franklin’s enemy did. It’s probably also because his behavior (loaning the book) was more socially and personally desirable than purely political hostility.

So in some way Franklin’s enemy had to change the way he saw Franklin if he wanted to justify his own generosity. This new perspective also certainly helped start a friendship that would only get stronger and stronger.

Does our brain try to justify the unjustifiable?

It seems like our brain tries to justify our actions by trying not to hurt the image we have of ourselves. That’s why cognitive dissonance shows up and we try to get rid of it.

For example, say there’s a military conflict that we know is unjustifiable. If we still participate in (even just by saying nothing), our mind will look for reasons to justify our stance. These reasons may range from something about freedom to patriotism or even religion.

The Ben Franklin effect and pleasing people.

As you can see, cognitive dissonance is a normal part of our lives. On the personal and professional level, we often feel the need to justify actions we don’t actually agree with.

In fact, you’ve probably found yourself working with people you dislike or stuck helping people you find unpleasant. Whatever your situation might be, your mind will start up mechanisms to explain and justify your actions. So most likely, after doing someone a favor, you’ll have a better opinion of that person.

The way our mind works is very strange. It tries to protect our self-image and the connection between our thoughts and actions by modifying our opinions. And the phenomenon doesn’t end there. Because once the justification or new opinion arises, we’ll be more sensitive to any little piece of information that supports it. We’ll also be more skeptical of any information that opposes it.