The Ben Franklin Effect

Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a pretty amazing guy. The quintessential Renaissance Man, he was a scientist, inventor, author, musician, scholar, business man and politician. There are many popular stories and quotes from Franklin’s life, but one in particular demonstrates his astute understanding of human behavior. In fact, this story became so well-known that it eventually led to what  is now a well-known psychological phenomenon, aptly called, The Benjamin Franklin Effect.

The Story:  Franklin first entered politics when he ran for and won election to the position of clerk of the state’s general assembly. During his first term, like all politicians, Franklin made both a lot of friends as well as a few enemies. At the end of his term, one of those adversaries threatened Franklin’s political career when he stood before the state legislature and delivered a long and scathing speech in opposition to Franklin’s reelection. Although Franklin still won the election, he realized that the gentleman in question, as someone of substantial influence, would be better to have as a friend than as an enemy. So, Franklin set about to change his adversary’s opinion. He sent a letter to the man asking for a favor – the loan of a rare and highly sought after book that the man was known to have in his personal library. Flattered, Franklin’s detractor immediately sent the book, along with a polite note, in response. Franklin read the book and returned it a week later with a note of thanks. According to Franklin’s autobiography, the next time the legislature met, the man immediately approached and spoke cordially to Franklin. They discussed the book and several other common interests. Franklin related that his former enemy and he eventually became close friends, a friendship that continued until the man’s death.  To quote from Franklin’s autobiography “”He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

                      friend book

The Ben Franklin Effect: Doing something nice for someone makes you like them more:  Typically, we think that we do nice things for the people we like and we do less nice things to the people that we dislike. Similarly, we think that doing something nice for someone (i.e. loaning them a book), makes them like us better, not the opposite. However, it appears that, at least some of the time, the opposite is actually true. We come to like people who we do nice things for, and equally, we come to dislike those who we treat poorly.

How the BF Effect works:  Current self-perception theory tells us that our brains behave like an outside observer, continually watching what we do and then contriving explanations for those actions, which subsequently influence  our beliefs about ourselves. I know. Weird. Sounds backwards, doesn’t it? But, according to current research, this is the actual sequence for many of the things that we believe to be true about ourselves.

Our observing brain doesn’t like it when our actions don’t match the beliefs we have about ourselves, a situation commonly referred to as cognitive dissonance. So, whenever your behavior is in conflict with your beliefs (for example if you do a favor for someone you may not like very much or vice versa, when you do something bad to someone you are supposed to care about), this conflict immediately sets off alarm bells in your brain. The brain has a clever response – it goes about changing how you feel in order to reduce the conflict and turn off the alarms. So, if you believe that you don’t like someone, but then you help them or do something nice for them, your brain simply changes how you think about that person. You start to think “Gee, this guy is pretty cool; I actually do like him after all“.  Similarly, if you have been snarky toward someone you care about, your brain convinces you that the person must have deserved the poor treatment and……here is the really yucky part……you start to find fault with the person and like him less. A horrific and extreme example of this form of cognitive dissonance and its resolution is the way in which initially unwilling Nazi soldiers came to dehumanize and hate their Jewish victims.

The research:  There are many studies of cognitive dissonance and several specifically that examine the Benjamin Franklin Effect. One of the first experiments invited volunteers to participate in a psychology experiment in which they would have the chance to win money (1). An actor pretending to be a scientist attempted to make the subjects dislike him by being rude and demanding as he administered a rigged series of tests to them. The subjects were successful in the tests regardless of how they answered and so all were awarded the promised money.  At the end of the session, the fake scientist stopped one-third of all the subjects as they were leaving and asked them to return the money. He told them he was paying for the experiment out of his own pocket and the study was in danger of losing its funding. All agreed to return the money (i.e. they did the meanster a favor). Another third left the room and a secretary (who they had not met before) asked if they would please donate their winnings back into the research department fund, providing the same reason. Again, everyone agreed. The final third simply left with their winnings. (Note: Remember The Steve Series: In this study design, the secretary group was a positive control and the group that kept their money was the negative control group).

The Results: The study objective, hidden from the participants, was to measure the volunteer’s attitudes about the unpleasant scientist in the three different scenarios. All of the participants completed a questionnaire at the end of the day that asked them to rate the likeability of the scientist. True to the BF Effect, those participants who had done the scientist the favor directly rated him as significantly more likeable than either those who were asked by the secretary or those who left with their money. Even though they were treated very rudely, doing something nice for the obnoxious scientist caused people to think of him more positively.

At this point, you may be asking, “What does any of this have to do with dogs“?

pancake dog

Well, a lot, perhaps. Here’s another study for you to ponder: In a study conducted at the University of North Carolina, participants were asked to teach a group of students to repeat a tapping pattern that they read from a set of instructions (2). They worked with each student individually and were instructed to use one of two teaching methods which were randomly assigned to each of their students. In one method, the teacher offered encouragement and praise when the learner repeated the tapping pattern correctly. In the second method, the teacher criticized and insulted the learner whenever they made mistakes. (Hmmm…..sound familiar trainers?).  Afterward, the study participants who acted as teachers completed a questionnaire that included questions about how likable they found each of their students to be.  Here are the results:

  • The study participants rated the students who they had praised and encouraged as highly attractive, friendly, pleasant and likable.
  • By comparison, they rated the students who they had insulted and berated as particularly unlikable and unattractive.
  • The researchers concluded that the volunteer teachers’ treatment of each student created their perception of that student. They liked the students who they were required to be kind to and they disliked the students who they were required to punish.
  • The Benjamin Franklin Effect works in both directions – kind behaviors create positive perceptions while hurtful behaviors lead to unfavorable perceptions.

Take Away for Dog Folks: Reading about the BF effect lead me to think about dogs and training (well okay, it is true that pretty much everything leads me to think about dogs). In this particular case, the Ben Franklin effect caused me to think more about the human side of the relationship rather than about the dogs themselves. Trainers who promote methods that emphasize positive reinforcement typically focus on the effects that these methods have upon the dogs. There is a general consensus that dogs who are trained with primarily positive reinforcement (+R) tend to be less stressed, are more willing and motivated to learn, and enjoy learning to a greater degree than dogs trained using negative reinforcement-based methods (-R).

However, we don’t always consider the effects that these two approaches may have upon the trainer. The Ben Franklin Effect suggests that how we treat our dogs during training influences how we think about them as individuals – specifically, how much we like (or dislike) them.  When we do nice things for our dogs in the form of treats, praise, petting and play to reinforce desired behaviors, such treatment may result in our liking them more. And, if we use harsh words, collar jerks or hitting in an attempt to change our dog’s behavior, then, well, if good ol’ Ben is correct, we will start to like our dog less. If the Ben Franklin Effect is correct, we are heavily (and unconsciously) inclined to like the dogs who we treat well (use +R) and to dislike the dogs who we, well treat poorly (-R).

Think about it. When you see someone yelling at their dog…….does that person really appear to like that dog? Is cognitive dissonance (and the BF effect) leading them to conclude that their dog must be bad, poorly behaved, dumb, unlikable, unattractive, since he is deserving of such correction? Similarly, does the regular use of positive reinforcement, telling our dogs “Yippee, you did it!! You are SO smart and so very good!” subconsciously also encourage us to love them more?

My bet is that it does, but of course this needs to be studied scientifically……..behavior graduate students – interested?

Inge and Connor Fall 2013

Be nice. Be kind. Do favors. Ben says you will love your dog more for it.


1. Jecker J, Landy D. Liking a person as a function of doing him a favour. Human Relations 1969 22:371-378.

2.  Shopler J, Compere J. Effects of being kind or harsh to another on liking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1971; 20:155-159.

22 thoughts on “The Ben Franklin Effect

  1. Wouldn’t “harsh words” and “physical punishment” (unless, I suppose, one yelled at or beat a dog continuously until they got the desired response) fall under +P?


    • (And wait- “physical punishment” by definition can’t be -R! It’s “punishment”! One could use physical pain/force/etc as -R, but punishment can’t be reinforcement.)


      • Katie – You are confusing an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus with how that stimulus is used, as either -R or +P. For example, physical punishment in the form of a collar correction can be used to positively punish pulling on lead (pulling decreases; pulling is punished) and negatively reinforce walking on a loose lead at the same time (the dog avoids/reduces the unpleasant stimulus; walking on the loose lead increases and so is negatively reinforced). In your first comment, yelling/hitting continuously until the dog stops doing what they are doing punishes the unwanted behavior and negatively reinforces the behavior that the dog learns to offer to turn off or avoid the punishment. Similarly, a pleasant stimulus can be used as either +R (petting and attention for sitting; sitting increases) or as -P (remove attention for an unwanted behavior). If you would like more detailed information, please see my book “Canine and Feline Behavior and Training”. Linda Case


        • No, I understand that an aversive stimulus can be used as -R or +P (like I said in the above comment “[if] one yelled at or beat a dog continuously until they got the desired response”. I was nitpicking at the word physical PUNISHMENT. That cannot be -R, because something cannot be punishment (reduce frequency of behaviour) and reinforcement (increase frequency of behaviour) at the same time. A physical AVERSIVE can be used as -R.


        • Ahh, wait- read that again and it makes sense. I just think it was a bit unclear and read it as a misunderstanding of “negative reinforcement” to mean punishment/any use of aversives the way a layperson would, and I think it could be confusing.


        • Wow, sorry- why don’t they let you edit comments? Very good point about how two quadrants can be working at once, just not on the same behaviour.


          • Hi Katie – Thanks for reposting and for reading. I appreciate your comments as they led me to think and then rethink things. And, I agree that WordPress is a bit stodgy about their comments section – they allow authors to edit, but not readers – not fair, really.


  2. Our Greta, rescued from being abandoned, pregnant, having to forage on her own, is the type who leaps at you, eager for attention. When we did the remove attention (i.e. turn my back) for her jumping, it got me angry how persistant she was, and I was unhappy that we had added her to the family – I did not like her. But then we started the routine of getting her to sit, and praising her for it (she still has a hard time with maintaining this, but we still work on it together), and I have found out that she is a wonderful dog, etc. It was as you said – I did not like her because we were always in a negative relationship. When we changed to a positive one, and I saw new things in her, likable ones. She is still the same dog – wants to jump, chases my cats as prey on occasion, scarfs anything she thinks might be food, but now those brown eyes looking at me are wonderful, and her attention is not resented.


    • Hi Polly – Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences with your Greta! I would love to see a study that examines owners perceptions of and degree of bonding to their dogs relative to the type of training that they use. Thanks for reading (and for being such a great dog mom)!


  3. What an interesting post! I think we also handicap our dogs sometimes with the names that we give them. Whatever word we use for their name primes almost every interaction they have with both us and other people (who may know less about their personality). I have also wondered if trainers who use effortful praise versus trait praise have a similar proxy effect on the dog’s handler (and perhaps even the dog).


    • Hi Kristina – That is so true! And what an interesting study that could be (Hmmm…..I could see an interesting survey study to examine how a dog’s name affects how both the owner and other people think about the dog). I am not sure what you mean by “effortful praise versus trait praise” but it sounds interesting – can you explain? Thanks!


      • Research indicates that praising kids for traits (i.e. “You’re so smart! You figured it out!” is problematic for several reasons. Praising effort (i.e. “I’m impressed with how much work you put into figuring that out! Good job!”) is much more effective and eliminates some of the issues with trait praise. Praising traits leaves the kid with a problem if she fails in the future (Am I no longer smart?), for example. While I doubt the dogs themselves would be sensitive to the difference for that reason, I do think it might well impact the sort of relationship people form with their dog and how they think about the animal. I think it is an important thing we overlook, not realizing that praising the student (or their dog in front of them) for their traits or the dog’s traits sets up all sorts of issues. I should add that at least in one recent study a hand-signal (thumbs-up) was much more reinforcing for kids than verbal praise. We are often not very good at knowing what is truly reinforcing for our dogs.


        • Hi Kristina – That is really interesting, and agree that while the dogs themselves probably do not notice the nuanced difference between “You did it! You are so smart!”, and “You figured it out! Wow!”, the use of trait- versus effort-directed praise seems like it could influence our views of our dogs (just as the names that we choose may). And further, how instructors phrase their praise to both the human owners and the dogs in their training classes may then influence how the owners’ perceptions of their own dogs, and subsequently how they train, interact, care for their dogs…….cool stuff……so many interesting questions, so little time (and so little funding….. 😦 !


  4. Great post! I’ve heard this principle applied in other circles, to human interactions, but it makes sense that it would apply to our relationships with dogs too. Thanks for writing and sharing!


  5. This effect on humans who train their animals with positive reinforcement was part of many conversations at a Clicker Expo I attended eons ago. No studies presented there, either, but enjoyed unanimous support. Of course this was the choir discussing it amongst themselves, but it fits the hypothesis.


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