By Angela Noel
January 18, 2018
I need help.
Few three-word sentences are so loaded with meaning. On the one hand, I could be asking for something simple, like directions or the time of day. On the other hand, maybe I need something more, like a kidney or a cashier’s check payable to a bank in Nigeria. Either way, I’m guessing you react to that phrase. I know I do.
Many of us have a complicated relationship with needing and granting “help.” This relationship, bound up in the shortcuts our brains use–our cognitive biases–can make all the difference in building meaningful, collaborative connections with others. In this post, as I promised in the introduction to this series, we’ll explore how we build relationships, contribute in our communities, and get work done. Believe it or not, this little brain elf is called: The Ben Franklin Effect.
The Ben Franklin Effect
As a society, we value self-reliance. “I need help,” challenges that cultural norm. It’s an admission of weakness–or so we think. Wayne Baker, author of “5 Ways to get Better at Asking for Help,” suggests the reason many of us don’t ask for help is the fear of social obligation. If we receive assistance, what will we owe the giver? We don’t ask for help because the idea of owing someone, or appearing weak, freaks most of us out.
Ironically, when someone asks for help, we respond. Those Nigerian Princes have figured that out. Sure, a million-dollar payday may motivate the folks who fall for the phishing schemes. But helping someone out, even a stranger, matters too. It feels good to help people. It even feels good to help people we don’t like or don’t know well. In fact, the act of helping someone actually rewires how we FEEL about that person. This is the essence of The Ben Franklin effect.
Researchers in the modern age set about proving an effect noted by Ben Franklin in his autobiography. Franklin noted an “old maxim” he’d employed more than once in his capacity as statesman: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” The experiments first conducted in the late 60s and 70s and repeated in later decades confirmed Franklin’s maxim. When we feel needed, or as if we’ve offered a service to others they’ve found value in, we actually like the person we helped more.
Liking a person more contributes to cognitive ease, a phenomenon Daniel Kahneman discusses throughout his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Cognitive ease, according to the research, results in feeling good. And when we feel good, we’re more likely to feel safe and confident. In relationships, feeling safe and confident is the cornerstone of trust. An excellent example of this in the real world is the “Village Movement.”
The Village Movement
The Village Movement was defined by the New York State Office for the Aging as a membership organization covering a defined area or neighborhood. A consumer-initiated and consumer-led organization, a Village supports seniors and those living with disabilities to “age in place.” It works beautifully.
In a nutshell, members of the virtual community earn and spend credits by doing small jobs, like stacking wood, winterizing homes, and performing small repairs for seniors or others in need. In return, those volunteers spend the credits they earn among the community as well. Seniors contribute sewing expertise, gardening advice, storytelling, babysitting etc. Leslie Wall, the director of Community Connections in California said in an interview with NPR:
We expected seniors would want transportation and they would want visitors and someone to call them weekly. And what we found was the greatest need of our seniors was to be needed. We have seniors who want things to do that are vital, that matter, that make a difference.
Seniors, one of our most vulnerable populations, benefit, but so does everyone else. By both needing, and being needed, we change the way we feel about each other. It’s no longer a sense of obligation, pity, or a power-struggle, it’s a community among equals.
We all find ourselves in situations where we want or need someone else to like us. Examples abound from all facets of our lives: a new lover’s parents, co-workers, potential clients, hiring managers, literary agents . . . the list goes on and on. In Ben Franklin’s case, he wanted to win over a rival legislator. Instead of sucking up to him, Franklin asked to borrow a rare book in the fellow’s library that he was genuinely curious about. The guy could have said no, but he didn’t. This small act of kindness, and the subsequent connection it made between the two men, resulted in a lasting friendship.
Mutual, authentic, and meaningful relationship begin with positive vibes. Creating those good feelings can happen in a lot of ways. One way is to offer our help. But it might be even better to ask for help instead.
Obviously, when used by scammers and people hoping to exploit our brain’s positive bent towards connection and empathy for their own selfish ends, The Ben Franklin Effect and the cognitive ease it creates can be dangerous. I’ve naively given money or time to people who didn’t want a long-lasting mutually beneficial relationship with me. Lesson learned. I think another old maxim, trust your gut, should always play a role in whether we ask for, receive, or offer help. It’s a brain elf, remember. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it always is.
However, knowing how our brains work can help ease social tension, build relationships, and create community. This knowledge can also help us avoid evil buggers. Don’t be one, and don’t let one of them into your world. Perhaps that’s easier said than done. But I believe in us.
The bottom line is simply this: Good things come to those who ask.
Your turn: When have you wanted to make a good impression? Do you find it easy or hard to ask for help? Do you like to be asked for help if someone needs it?