Silence Dogood and the Ben Franklin Effect

Aug 3, 2021

Silence Dogood was a middle-aged woman in 18th century America who was the widow of a minister and wrote about everything from the Massachusetts public school system to love and courtship. She published fourteen essays in James Franklin's newspaper, the New-England Courant. Except Silence Dogood was the pseudonym of a sixteen-year-old boy named Benjamin Franklin (the younger brother of James).

We often cite curiosity as Benjamin Franklin's most remarkable quality, but empathy and self-perception are right behind. Self-perception theory in psychology tells us that our brains act like outside observers, watching our actions and thinking up explanations for those actions. At some level, Franklin was able to internalize this and use it to his advantage.

Here's one example of Franklin in action. Franklin made some enemies in his first term in Pennsylvania's state assembly. One particular enemy threatened to end Franklin's political career, delivering a long and scathing speech. Franklin knew that he needed to win this rival over. Then he did this.

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.

He formalized the idea, attributing it to an old maxim:

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.

Doing a favor for someone else makes us like them more. This effect is the "Ben Franklin Effect." Researchers have found scientific evidence of this cognitive bias. Usually, we think the opposite — that we do things for people that we like. But when our observing brain sees us do a favor for someone, it creates cognitive dissonance. Why would we do something for someone we don't like? The brain cleverly corrects this dissonance by convincing you that you like the person you helped.

So, can I ask a favor?

You just might enjoy them more if you do.