History Psychology

Do Me a Favor and Read This Post

Once upon a time, Jesse Grant and Thomas Hamer were good friends. They had a lot in common. Both were self-made men who had risen from poverty. Both had come to the Ohio frontier to seek their fortune, and both had found it–Grant as a businessman and Hamer as a lawyer. They belonged to the same debating club and often found themselves on opposing sides of the political issues of the day. Eventually the debate spilled out of the club. We don’t know exactly how their disagreements lead to the dissolution of their friendship, but we do know that Grant was a loudmouth know-it-all who had a lifelong habit of pissing off those he loved. In any case, the friendship ended and the men didn’t speak to each other for many years.

Eventually, Grant found a unique way to heal the breach: he asked Hamer for a favor. Grant wanted his son to attend the military academy at West Point. Hamer, who was now the congressman for Grant’s district, had the power to make the appointment, which he did without hesitation. That favor worked out pretty well for Jesse’s son, Ulysses. It also restored the friendship between Jesse and Thomas.

Jesse Grant didn’t have much formal education, but he was known to have read every book he could get his hands on. Perhaps one of those books was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. In it, Franklin describes how he managed the animosity of a rival legislator:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

When we want someone to like us, our natural inclination is to do them a favor. Oddly enough, asking the other person to do the favor is actually more effective. This is called the Ben Franklin effect. Psychologists have studied this in all kinds of clever experiments and offered a few possible explanations for why it works. One of those explanations is called cognitive dissonance theory. Simply put, this theory holds that our minds seek consistency between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If we don’t like someone but we do something nice for them, the brain settles this discrepancy by saying, “Well, maybe we do like this person a little bit. We did him a favor, after all.”

How could you use this information?

If you want someone to like you, ask them to do you a favor. If you want to like someone that you currently don’t like, look for an opportunity to do them a favor. And, be on the lookout for those who might use this to manipulate you.