The Ben Franklin effect is an oddly simple phenomenon. It was first discussed, as one could guess, by the man himself in his autobiographical writings. Benjamin Franklin used it on legislators that he was at odds with, to make them be more kind to him.
Franklin said, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” What he was getting at is that if you ask someone for a pencil once and they oblige, it establishes a kindness pattern. They’re more likely to help you again later on and perhaps in a bigger capacity. That’s right, you might get a pen out of it next time. Whoa, Nelly. And the final part of his quote is not to be glossed over: this kind person may even be nicer to you than someone you have done a favor for, who technically owes you one back.
Maria Konnikova, psychologist, writer for The New Yorker, and author of The Confidence Game , explains that this same principle is also called ‘Foot in the Door’ and is a favorite tactic of con artists; they will start by asking you for a small favor first, and if you acquiesce, then they’ll go for a bigger request. The other tactic Konnikova describes is a bolder move, a strategy aptly called ‘Door in the Face’. Unlike the Ben Franklin effect, this goes overboard. Instead of asking for something small and manageable like $20 for example, they’ll ask if they can borrow your brand-new car for a weekend. The other person will freak out, say no, and slam the preverbal door in the con artist’s face, who backs off, apologizes, and says they understand. We’re all friends, after all. After this, they move on to what they really wanted. It’s not as bad as the first one, but since people want to stay on decent terms with each other, weighted by guilt, many people feel the need to say yes to the second favor. You just lost yourself $20.
These are two common psychological games that con artists use. These techniques allow them to become friends with their victims, ease them into the con, and play on their empathy. So it is best to always be on the lookout for red flags of deception, like a friendship moving too fast, followed by a request for a favor, or someone who mirrors all your interests or beliefs in an attempt to win you over (suspiciously) quickly.
Maria Konnikova’s book is The Confidence Game.