Benjamin Franklin Effect: The Simplest Way To Choose Our Leaders

Listen to article

Imagine that you've just given me a valuable gift. Now here's a question: who is more likely to love the other, you that gave or I that received?   The receiver? Wrong. Another question: who is more likely to return the favour or give again?   The  receiver? Wrong again. It happens that the person who gives will love the one he gives more; also, he's more likely to give that person again.   The opposite is also true.   He, who takes or injures or cheats or bullies another person, is more likely to do it over and over again; not only that, he's more likely to dislike the victim than the victim is likely to hate the tormentor. It's called Ben Franklin Effect.  

  What makes psychology interesting is that unlike law or economics, it's more than horse sense.   Sometimes it's even counter common sense.   Have psychologists done any research to confirm Franklin Effect? They have. They've even mapped it on to a theory called cognitive dissonance.   But before we get into that, or discuss how we can use this heavily experimented phenomenon to objectively choose our leaders, let's see what Ben Franklin, the polymath and bibliophile actually said.  

  In his book, Franklin 1868/1900, he said, 'He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself has obliged.'  

  This insight was a result of a personal experience.   Franklin was annoyed by a political opponent in the Pennsylvania state legislature. He thus set out to win him over; this is described on pages 216-217 of the aforementioned book:  

  I did not ... aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him but, after some time, took this other method. 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 returned 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. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself has obliged."  

  In sum, if you can get a foe to do you a favour, he will be even more willing to do you more favours.  

  Now let's go to the laboratory where psychologists have tested this phenomenon.  

  In 1969, Jecker and Landy involved students in an intellectual contest where they could win significant money.   Thereafter, they divided the participants who had won money into three groups. The researcher personally asked group A to return some of the money because he had used his own money for the contest. Group B was asked to return some of their money not   to the researcher but to an institution - the university.   Group C wasn't asked to return any money.  

  Afterwards, all the three groups were asked to rate their likeness of the researcher.   Group A (which did the researcher a personal favour by returning some of the money they won) rated the researcher higher than the other two groups; that's, group A liked the researcher more than B and C liked him.  

  This counterintuitive phenomenon can be explained by cognitive dissonance theory.   It simply states: one, contradictions are uncomfortable; two, because they're uncomfortable, contradictions motivate change.  

  Not clear?  
  As humans, we always try to justify our actions. If we do something good for a person, it means that we like that person.   In the event that we did something nice for an enemy, as in the case of Benjamin Franklin, we always try to resolve the conflict between the receiver of gift being an enemy and our act of giving the gift.   So we resolve that the receiver is actually not an enemy but someone we like and value. The general idea is that people will consciously or unconsciously justify their actions. This is because we like to believe that we have control over all of our own actions (despite significant evidence that suggests this isn't necessarily true).  

  The opposite is also true: If you were mean to someone, he must have deserved it.   If a politician steals from the people, he will justify his action by believing consciously or otherwise that they deserve to be stolen from.  

  The psychologist, David Straker said in Changing Minds '[A]nd we come to hate our victims, which helps to explain wartime atrocities. We de-humanize the enemy, which decrease the dissonance of killing and other things in which we would never normally indulge.'  

  Now let's view this from a religious angle.   Prophet Muhammad told his followers to give gifts because it 'increases love.'   But from what you've read thus far, you understand that it is only the love of the giver that will increase and not the other way round.  

  Actually, Prophet Muhammad didn't only encourage the giver to give but he also advised the receiver.   He said: when we receive a gift, we should return it with something more valuable, if we can't do that, we should reciprocate with something of equal value and so on until he said if we can't afford anything we should pray for the giver.   This way, the love is no longer a one way traffic because everybody gets to be a giver.  

  Actually, in one of his sayings, Prophet Muhammad used the word 'exchange' gifts: 'In the book "Al-Adabul mufrad " or "Book of Morals" a sound hadith reported Muhammad saying: 'Exchange gifts, as that will let you attain love of one another.'   (Bukhari no: 594.)  

  Aisha narrated 'Allah's Apostles used to accept gifts and used to give something in return.' (Bukhari Volume 3, Book 47, Number 758.)  

  He also said 'Whoever does you a favour, respond in kind, and if you cannot find the means of doing so, then keep praying for him until you think that you have responded in kind.' [Book of Sunnan By Abu Daawood]  

  Here, prayer is also counted as a gift. We shall get to the psychology and science behind prayer in a second.  

  How can we use the Franklin Effect to choose our leaders?  

  So   if, as the effect says, you do something nice for someone, it tends to make you like the person more; and if you do something mean to someone, it tends to make you like them less,   irrespective of the receivers actions, how can we use this idea to remove the guesswork in choosing our leaders?  

  The answer is simple.   We should ask ourselves one question.   What has he given to the people before?   Our history shows that all those leaders who did great things gave a lot to the people. Giving can be money; in Where I Stand Mahmud Gumi relates that when Ahmadu Bello the Sardauna of Sokoto was murdered in 1966, his murderers, Nzeogu and the gang lamented, 'who's going to pay these overdrafts?'   Sarduana gave the people so much that he had to borrow to do so. And because he did so, he loved the people; and because he loved the people, he was able to make the people feel government's presence in their lives.   Is it any wonder that after more than 40 years nobody has been able to match his achievements even in a tiny state in the north?    

  The gift of a leader to the people doesn't have to be money. When Archbishop John Onayeikan came first overall in the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) exams, Sarduana travelled long distance when the roads were still uncomfortable to celebrate with his son - John.  

  We can give many examples of leaders who gave and gave; like Murtala Muhammad who returned his property to the government.   You see, you can't stop giving to whom you love. And one feature (quality leadership) describes all these leaders who sacrifice their money, time, comfort, life and so forth.  

  What about civil servants who don't have much to give?   In this case we can ask if they gave more than 100 per cent in their previous assignments.   In our recent history, people like Dora Akunyili (NAFDAC), Ribadu, El Rufai and Ngozi Okonjo come to mind. These people worked so hard that we couldn't help but see the difference they made.  

  Similarly, we can recast the question and ask ourselves 'has he taken from the people before?' Did he steal government money and time or did he unfairly take the land of his neighbours?   Believe me, someone that has stolen before will steal again.   According to Ben Franklin Effect, that's the way the human mind works.   This thief has already resolved the cognitive dissonance and has concluded that the people deserve it.   Thinking that he has learnt his lesson or has repented is a dangerous mistake.  

  Further, in answering the question 'what has he given and what has he taken?' age, ethnicity and religion do not matter.   A thief is a thief.  

  Using Ben Franklin Effect to explain the apathy of our leaders  

  We often wonder: what are our leaders doing with all the money?   Can't they see the suffering of the people?   Don't they visit their villages and see the hopelessnes?   Can't they see people dying in the hospitals? Can't they see that the roads are bad?   And finally, are they humans?  

  The world used to wonder the same thing of the Nazis.   Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann as the head of Gestapo Department IV B4 was responsible for deporting Jews into ghettoes and then into concentration camps. Under this self-proclaimed "Jewish Specialist" many Jews died. In 1961 during his trial in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jewish people, the world attentively watched their televisions, trying to envision what Eichmann would be like. They expected a monster, infinitude of hatred, or probably the devil incarnate.  

  However, after watching the trial, Hannah Arendt reasoned in her contentious essay "The Banality of Evil" that Adolf Eichmann was just a regular man. Eichmann is you and me, she said. There was nothing extraordinarily evil about him. Additionally, Eichmann averred that he actually had no ill will toward Jews. However, Eichmann was hanged and cremated. His ashes were then sprinkled across the Mediterranean Sea ; on the other hand, Arendt was ostracized by the Jewish community for the rest of her life.  

  Arendt was a philosopher not a psychologist hence she couldn't conduct experiments to explain her argument. Yet the world yearned for explanation on how such cruelty was possible.  

  To answer the question, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted the most famous experiment in psychology to date.  

  Milgram puts out a newspaper advertisement offering male Americans around the vicinity of Yale University to participate in a psychology experiment about memory and learning. In the experiment, 40 participants were asked to shock a 'learner' for every mistake the learner made in word pairing test.   The electric shocks range from 15, slight shock to 450, danger: severe shock and XXX.  

  Of the 40 regular guys that participated in the experiment, 68 per cent delivered the maximum electric shock even when their victim shouted blood-curdling screams and became silent.  

  One of the reasons why these guys continued with such dehumanizing punishment was the situation.   Yale is an authority structure; so the participants must have reasoned even though shocking people for making mistakes in simple academic tasks goes against decency, Yale scientists must know what they are doing.  

  This is the same way that Aso Rock, National Assembly, and government houses are authority structures.   So if the occupants are doing something mean to the people, those who join them will reason that they must know what they are doing.  

  However, the most important point in Milgrams experiment that is relevant to this discussion is that in some variations of the experiment, the shock givers became tyrants and dictators.   Without orders from anybody and in the absence of the researcher, these dictators continued to give the maximum shock.   This is because by this time they've resolved that their victims deserved the punishment no matter how cruel.   So when our leaders start the process of tormenting the people, little by little they become set in their ways.  

  But why do Nigerians tolerate the cruelty of their leaders?  

  The answer lies in prayers.   How so?   Remember the Franklin Effect says the giver loves the receiver and from our discussion we've seen that even praying for someone is giving?

  Nigerians always pray for their leaders in the hope that God will reform them.   It's obvious that for several decades God has not answered these prayers, however, offering prayers for the leaders makes it easy for the people to love the leaders and even easier to forgive them; in the manner that a parent finds it quite easy   to forgive an errant child.   Some will confess that they love a certain leader for no apparent reason.   So our prayers -quite obviously - have not had any positive effect on the leaders but on us, the prayer warriors.  

  Because of this factor, Nigerians applaud their leaders even for idiotic things like replacing an incompetent cabinet with a more incompetent one.  

  Studies by researchers such as Florida State University psychologist Nathaniel Lambert have shown that when you pray for someone you do not only love him, but you also forgive him.  

  This writer remembers that even as a child after prayers in the mosque, supplications were always offered for the worshippers, the nation and the leaders irrespective of their actions.   And I know that Christians also do the same thing in the churches.  

  Should Nigerians stop praying for their leaders and focus their attention on choosing leaders who are givers?  

Ibraheem Dooba   can be reached at