Make Friends Like the Benjamin

Benjamin Franklin had a counter-intuitive yet simple philosophy for making friends. It goes like this: Ask people for favors (with some caveats).

As Franklin wrote 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.

When I first read this, I thought it completely counter-intuitive. It stands to reason that to make more friends one should do favors for people, not ask for favors from people. It’s always so nice when people are thoughtful. Who doesn’t like surprise gifts from a partner? Who doesn’t appreciate someone holding the door for you? Or getting picked up at the airport?

No one. We all love it. But Ben Franklin’s keen observation (and subsequent research) has shown that it is the favor-giver that ends up feeling more loyalty and goodwill than the favor recipient in ALL of these cases.

Think of that time a friend called you with an urgent favor to ask. Unless it’s that friend who ALWAYS has a crisis and constantly needs favors (more on that below), you probably jumped to attention and helped. We LOVE feeling needed. In fact, being of service to others (and consequently feeling appreciated) has been shown to improve our self-esteem more than just about anything else aside from exercise.

Why is this?

Because when we do good things for people we feel like better people. We’re givers. We’re generous. We’re gregarious. We feel we stand in a better light in the eyes of the favor-asker than before. And as a result, we begin to associate that good feeling with the person who asked the favor.

On the other hand, if someone does a favor for you, you only really get the momentary benefit of the favor itself — not the lasting psychological benefit of having given the favor. And we love that feeling of being a giver. We love it so much, that after doing someone a favor we are much more likely to like the recipient of the favor more than if we hadn’t done anything for them.

This phenomenon was studied in 1969 in the landmark paper “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour.” Researchers rigged an elaborate experiment in which a portion of the subjects was asked to return their “winnings” to the researcher at the end of the study, as he was ostensibly short on funds personally. Those who were asked personally by the researcher had a higher opinion of him at the end of the study than other subjects.

But another interesting phenomenon was also observed. Another portion of the subjects were asked by a third party to return the money. Those people ended up having a worse opinion of the researcher than the norm. Why? Impersonal asks are off putting.

What this all means is that good ol’ Ben Franklin’s friend-making philosophy comes with a few caveats:

  1. Make Personal Asks. There’s a huge difference between asking one person for one specific favor than asking an entire group of people for a favor. Broadcasting your request impersonally makes people feel less important, not more important. So, that group blast you sent out asking for contacts in X industry? Yeah, best not to do that again. (And yes, I’ve been so guilty of this one!)
  2. Make Sure the Request is Doable. We’ve said people like feeling generous. But they also like feeling competent. If you ask someone to do something they don’t know how to do or can’t do, you may actually reduce their loyalty to you because your request made them feel dumb or inadequate in someway, and that’s not a feeling you want associated with spending time with you.
  3. Say Thank You. There’s really nothing worse than going out of your way for someone only to feel unappreciated. Feeling appreciated is the bonus lovey-dovey emotion we all crave at the end of doing something for someone. Starve the person of that feeling, and all the good feelings of doing the favor for you in the first place go out the window.
  4. Go Easy on the Number of Requests. Like everything, there’s an S-Curve of the effectiveness of asking for favors. Never ask for any, and you build no loyalty. Ask for too many, and you may burn bridges by being the guy who “only calls when he needs something.” I’ve made that mistake with some friends before, and it’s a long road back.
  5. Give Back. Not everyone keeps score, but enough people do that if you only ask for favors and never do any in return, and you might end up in the same boat as numbers 3 and 4 above. Sometimes just the smallest gesture is enough to make someone feel like the score is even. Think of the politician who will sends donors photos of themselves with her after attending her fundraiser. It’s perhaps the most expensive photo they’ll ever have, but you can bet they will hang it on their wall.