Skip to content

The Ben Franklin Effect: Giving to Get Business Results

Benjamin Franklin is a notable historical figure for many reasons.

One reason is a brilliant observation: that you can get someone to like you, by getting them to do a favor for you. This is known as The Ben Franklin Effect.

His autobiography describes how he once used this knowledge to his advantage, turning a rival legislator into a helpful friend:

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.

The Ben Franklin Effect is powerful because it combines 3 psychological principles:

  1. Cognitive dissonance: Positive behavior (such as giving or helping) leads to positive attitudes (such as liking)
  2. Foot-in-the-door: Asking a small favor increases the chances of receiving other favors in the future
  3. Prosociality: Giving and helping are generally positive and enjoyable for the giver

How can organizations benefit from these insights?

Research has shown that simple interventions to promote employee giving can lead to valuable business results. Here’s how.

Giving can improve happiness and job satisfaction

In one study, employees at a bank completed measures of happiness and job satisfaction.

Then each received a $50 voucher from their employer to donate to a charity of their choosing.

When the employees were surveyed again later, their happiness and job satisfaction had increased significantly.

(Note that smaller amounts might not always work as well. Another group of employees only received $25 to give to charity, and their happiness and job satisfaction did not increase.)

Giving can improve team cohesiveness and performance

If Ben Franklin can turn a rival into a helpful friend, it shouldn’t be too surprising if giving to teammates can increase their cooperation.

Two studies tested the idea of the Ben Franklin effect. One study focused on sales teams, the other focused on sports teams. Each person participating in these studies received about $20 to spend. Half were told to spend the money on themselves, whereas the other half were told to spend that money on a teammate.

When people spent the money on teammates, the overall performance of their teams improved.

When people spent the money on themselves, performance did not change.

The researchers estimated the return on investment (ROI) of these interventions.

  • For every $10 spent on a sales teammate, there was a $52 increase in sales revenue.
  • For every $10 spent on a sports teammate, there was an 11% increase in winning percentage.
  • When people spent the money on themselves, it was always a net loss.

Maybe it’s time to rethink what we can do with bonuses and use the Ben Franklin effect to drive results.