Cognitive Bias Series: Making a Stranger Into a Friend

Cognitive Bias Series: The Ben Franklin Effect

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.

Mason Chamberlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Ben Franklin Effect is a simple idea that sometimes asking for help is better than offering it.
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.

Making a Stranger a friend
Making a stranger Into a friend starts with an authentic desire for deeper connection.
What’s Next

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?


Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

57 thoughts on “Cognitive Bias Series: Making a Stranger Into a Friend”

  1. I can see how this is so true. Someone asking you for help, like you say, makes you feel needed. Feeling needed makes you feel important and improves your self-worth. This feeling is then associated with the person that saw you as someone that could help them. But also like you, say it’s important to be aware of people taking advantage of your good nature Another interesting & thought-provoking post, Angela.

    1. You absolutely nailed it. Andrew Carnegie’s whole “Win Friends and influence People” thing has a section on this, I think. And he couldn’t have said it better than you did! I’m so glad you enjoy the post (and the series.) I know I’m learning a lot as I write it. So, it makes me happy that there’s value for others too!

  2. Often, to prove my independence, I take on house maintenance tasks that require way more strength or expertise with a power drill than I can manage. I hate that I have to ask for help. But when I do, it comes readily along with a positive response and a sense of gratitude at being there to help. Asking for help is giving a gift to someone. That someone will feel trusted enough to support my need and provide what help they can. Leslie Wall states it accurately that seniors want to be needed, useful. Perhaps that is why seniors are the most likely to volunteer (and that they have more time). It’s fine to be independent, but acknowledging our need pays respect to our humanness.

    1. WOW. You really “get” what this whole thing is about. I’m so glad. I agree with you: …acknowledging our need pays respect to our humanness. Beautifully said.

  3. this was great. Your right I think you have more of a connection with someone you have helped. A shared activity, memory whatever. I so want society to get past this asking for help is a sign of weakness as it is limiting and unnecessary.

    1. I’m so glad you stopped by to read. It’s funny how such a simple thing can really make a difference (but only when it comes from an authentic place of course.) I agree with you, we can do better as a society on this, for sure.

  4. Your post is quite thought provoking Angela.
    I think the older I get the more at ease I am with asking for help. When I was younger, I suppose I thought I could do it all myself and not look like an idiot if I asked someone, but now, I am more comfortable to ask for help, and I don’t really care if I look like an idiot or not! Is this a maturity aspect I wonder???!!!

    1. It very well could be. I was like you–resistant to accepting help. But I think Kathy made a good point in her comment too–when we ask for help it’s usually met with a nice response. So why don’t we do it more? There’s a balance of course. But, I do think finding the way to ask for help without thinking it’s a bad thing could help all of us build stronger relationships. Something to ponder, for sure!

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you took the time to read and ponder. That “help” thing really is a challenge. I do find these bias posts to be interesting to research. I could be years at it…seems our brains like to do weird things and it’s fun to explore.

  5. I’m going through a difficult time right now, and I’ve had to ask for a lot of help. It’s not tough to ask close friends and family but it is tough to ask people I don’t know very well, only because I will have to explain the whole story.
    I’ve never found asking people at work for help overly useful in this way, it seems that it is one more thing for people to do. (We might be odd in this, though) thank you for sharing! This is very interesting 🙂

    1. I’m sorry you’re going through a tough time, but glad you are getting help from friends and family. You make a great point about work–it could be that the culture isn’t supportive of that kind of thing. Which is too bad, I think. I’m glad you found it interesting. I’m glad you stopped by. I’m hoping things turn around for you soon.

  6. Great post! This is so relevant to people with chronic illness. We often feel like we are a burden and don’t ask for help, trying to maintain some form of independence, but this often comes at a cost to our own health and well being. This is an important point to remember: our relationships can benefit when the people around us feel needed and wanted rather than shut out and pushed away. Thank you for sharing this insight!

    1. You articulated that beautifully. Shutting others out can be exponentially painful, not just for you but for loved ones as well. I’m glad you found some insight here and I appreciate your comment!

  7. I remember reading somewhere that although we all want to feel needed, this is particularly true for men. Typically we raise our boys to derive their value from their accomplishments and contributions and thus they seek out relationships where they feel needed and necessary. When they don’t, they can lose who they are as a person. There can be a disconnect between “I love you just because you are you” and their need to be valued for what they do. That’s why being unemployed can be so demoralizing. Anyway, didn’t mean to ramble! My point is, we think telling people they are worthy just because they exist is always appreciated but for a lot of people they need to hear they are needed because of how they contribute and often we have to give people those opportunities, too! On another note, I’m terrible at asking for help!

    1. Oh my, this is an excellent and important thought (or thoughts). I agree that boys have it tougher in this respect, the whole “white horse” syndrome that Brene Brown speaks about in her second TED talk goes into this in some detail. And I think your excellent point on the “just because you’re you” is well put. It is important to offer unconditional love and support. But it means something different when we can be specific. I think it helps us build our character in a different way. When others notice our specific unique contributions to their lives it offers insight into what we should do more of. Thank you so much–what a cool and complex idea, more to think about.
      And maybe we could all ask for help a little more, you never know it might change the world!

  8. I think it’s also how you are raised. I have no problem asking neighbors for soy sauce (last week) when I was completely out and roads were too dangerous to drive. But that woman on the other hand never, ever, ever asks me for anything. I’ve noticed there are some neighbors who subscribe to the “it’s a weakness” menatality and refuse to ask for help. Right or wrong, this offends me a little. I feel like I am a friend when I can help a friend every now and then. My other neighbor/friend always takes my son to the bus stop for me so I can get a head start on the commute. When she was sick yesterday and asked for me to take the kids, I was honored b/c she came to me for help. Does all that make sense?

    1. That does make sense! I think the feeling of “honor” is exactly right. When we can do for others, particularly when we know how capable and reliable someone else is, it does lead to a sense of a kind of warmth that really can only be described by “honored.” Excellent point!

  9. Great post, Angela! I do like being able to help others when they ask. Someone at my new job recently said to me that I’m really approachable and that feedback meant a lot. I just need to get better at asking others for help. I fear that they may see me as in competent at times.

  10. I love this post and I find it interesting that we like those we help better than those who help us. Feeling needed is so important and I hadn’t thought about that until now. I love how the village community idea. I think it’s important to make our elders feel needed. It also teaches our young people to give without expecting anything in return.

    1. I agree on all counts! What surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have, is that in the news story about the Village community the elders were truly contributing needed skills, like sewing, or carpentry, or child care. It really was a true collaboration among equals. I love that. Thank you so much for reading, Lisa!

  11. Absolutely love this series, Angela 🙂 As somewhat of a Psychologist myself I love reading the ins-and-outs of peoples behaviours. Cognitive Bias as a whole is something I actually spend a lot of time talking to people about, its amazing the things we overlook or take for granted. Even asking for help can feel so alien, it’s something I fail to do myself, and yet it can have a positive effect for numerous reasons. Great series!

    1. Thanks, Shaun! One of the things I’ve come to understand is just how difficult it truly is to be aware of the inner workings of my brain AND still function as a living breathing human. I do think having greater awareness produces better results, but it’s often only in hindsight that I realize a bias is at work. I’m so glad you like the series. Of course, I’d love to learn more about your insights based on your conversations with others as well!

  12. I’ve been looking forward to this installment!! This speaks to me on so many levels (as good writing – your writing – always does!). The reason the whole “pay it forward” movement was/is a success is that it makes us FEEL good to do something nice for others! To me, it feel BETTER to pay for the guy behind me in line at Starbucks than for me to be on the receiving end. That being said, if we don’t allow others to help us, we deny them this privilege – the chance to FEEL GOOD!

    1. YES! Exactly. I’ve been on the receiving end of some relationships and felt so uncomfortable I stopped being friends with the person. It became clear that the power dynamic was off. We weren’t equals any more and that’s not how friendships or productive relationships should be. Finding the balance of what feels right in each unique relationship definitely takes time. But, being aware of what it looks like to offer and never receive can help us, I think, build stronger foundations of trust because we’ll avoid the pitfalls.You really highlighted such an important point, I think. And by asking someone for help, we instantly acknowledge they have something of worth to offer us. And who doesn’t want to feel good about that? I Angela from hotmessmemoir mentioned the word, “honored” and I think that’s a beautiful way to sum up how it feels when we’re asked for our wisdom. What a gift that is to give! I am SO glad you’re enjoying the series, Alison. That means a lot to me.

  13. Excellent food for thought, Angela! I have always found asking for help to be a difficult task, and yes, self-reliance has always been important to me. I was raised like this, and both of my parents are still self-reliant and rarely ask for help. In my family, asking for help is a ‘last-resort’ kind of thing. So, this post of yours was extremely interesting to me. Even though I don’t often ask for help, and I value self-reliance, I love helping people. It does make me feel good to help others, and I see the appreciation in response. And yet, it’s still hard for me to accept help from others. Maybe I need to suck it up and ask for help. Maybe I’ll even gain a new friend or two. 🙂 Loved this post!

    1. Oh, Erin–I really appreciate your comment. Your absolutely right. It’s funny how I like helping people and knowing I was of service, but am sometimes reticent to ask others. But, I think it’s that exact thing–the knowledge that we ALL need to be needed that can help expand community. A topic that you and I both are passionate about. Thank you so much for reading and adding your thought. It means a lot to me!

  14. What an interesting concept. I tend to be the one helping and like most, have a hard time in turn asking for help. Yet I will admit, if I need to ask a random stranger for a small kindness, such as can you help me lift this or can you reach that from the high shelf, I never get turned down and they always leave me with a smile.

    1. Gosh, it is an epidemic isn’t it! What a world it would be if we were as likely to ask for help as to give it? I don’t know what that would look like because, like you say, we seem to have a hard time with it. All the comments here give me much food for thought. I don’t think the answer is “become a helpless blob” but having mutual trust and interdependence strengthens community. Much to think about! Thank you for reading!

  15. What a lovely post, I find one of the things we are losing in today’s society is the ability to verbally communicate. Text, e-mail, etc, Many of us ‘talk’ less on the phone, no longer hand write a letter and often know very little about out immediate neighbours. Plus as families live further apart we spend less and less time with our close family. Making an effort to communicate and stay in touch opens doors to help others and have others help you.

    1. Excellent point, Rosie Amber. I say a lot of words every day, but how many bring me closer to people? Are the things I text or email as meaningful and “connective” as actual human contact? I don’t have the answer, but I think recognizing that a little extra effort (in giving OR receiving) goes a long way offers valuable insight. Thank you!

  16. Such an interesting read Angela! Has to be one of the best of the weekend.

    Someone asking for your help can give you a warm fuzzy feeling. We all like to feel wanted and valued. It can be so powerful.

    As you say asking for help can be so hard to do.

    A thought provoking post!

    1. Thanks, Lucy! High praise indeed with so many great posts. I find the subject fascinating. So many people have said the struggle with asking for help rages on. I think that’s why the Village movement really struck me. With “credits” to spend it feels more like a “helping economy.” Though I wish we humans didn’t need to keep score on whether it’s all fair, in this case, I think the addition of the credits seems to have made it easier to both ask and give. Definitely a topic I want to think more about. Thank you for the comment!

  17. I do find it difficult to ask for help. So much easier to come to the rescue when people need me or offering help before they even know they need it or perhaps when they knew they needed it but found it difficult to ask. I’ll be there. At their shoulder. Asking if I can help.

    1. And I’m sure the people you help have appreciated your efforts! I’ve been giving it a lot of thought since I began researching this post and there’s so much bound up in the idea of “help.” It really is a complex idea. You articulate it exactly: it’s so much easier to come to the rescue. I don’t know why that is, but I do want to know.

      1. Our egos can’t admit we need help because somehow that means we’ve failed. Even while we know that helping other people doesn’t mean that they’ve failed, only that they’ve needed help. But because we hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold others, then we are failures for needing help while other people are not.

        1. Interesting thought! I’ve read some bits and pieces, as I continue to research cognitive biases, that we definitely have a double standard when it comes to perceptions of others and ourselves. That’s probably worth a post in and of itself.

  18. I am 47 years old and still struggle with asking for help. I have always been the one to help others, or care for others. However, since giving away or selling everything thing we owned to move abroad I have learned the humbling lesson of learning to ask for help. It has made a huge difference in my life, very much freeing. I still have a long way to go, but I will ask for help along the way 🙂

    1. That’s awesome. Sometimes it kind of takes a HUGE thing to break the seal so to speak and just go there. For me it was my divorce. I just COULD NOT do it alone. And my friendships actually improved. I think it was a combination of an increase in gratitude and appreciation I felt for them, and an increase in a sense of care and responsibility that they felt for me. It all comes back around too. The terrible “life sucker” people that are always needy are one thing. But for most of us, I really believe asking for help improves relationships. Good job, you!

  19. I loved the article and I even had a little Aha-moment. As you stated it is the norm in the society not wanting to ask for help and I agree with that 100%. But looking beyond the aspect of ‘oweing’ someone a favor I never thought that this might be a good thing. Now I question if I’m socially awkward not coming to that conclusion myself. Anyways, thanks for opening my eyes and mind 🙂

    1. I am certain you are not socially awkward. 🙂 But I am glad you had an aha moment! I truly think when I started to trust others, and myself, that just asking for help didn’t mean I was “helpless” my relationships improved. I’d love to hear if you decide to try it out what you learn. Thanks for reading and sharing your thought.

      1. I will definitely be more vocal when feeling like I need support or help doing something. If the Aha moments translates to real life, I might write about it 🙂

  20. Asking for help can be difficult, especially when your biases lead you to believe no one actually wants to help. Or, if they do want to, then they lack the resources. Personally, I have reached out for help in the past and it only made the situation worse. The closest people to me, my friends and family, those I love and care for, are the ones who I have to hide from the most. These are the people who I can’t rely on. Their problems are greater than mine. Its easier to ask for help from a stranger. Someone who won’t be there forever to remember and judge. Someone with no preconceived notion of who you are supposed to be, nothing to reference, no tether. A stranger will see you as unlimited possibilities. Loved ones will narrow you into a category, and by then you’ve already disappointed them. This is why my problems remain secret. I don’t pout or complain at work. I smile and play the role of a normal person. Someone who is happy and has it all together. Someone who has never contemplated suicide. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I reached out, I was greeted with over-reaction, and hospitalized. Then my stress, depression, and all my problems in general were compounded upon. Not really helping me at all. These days I play my role in public, and I enjoy being the guy who helps other people. I’m handy, and I always have a super positive attitude (though no one realized how much effort goes into putting that face on). I’m quick with a “dad” joke to brighten someones day, and going out of my way to help anyone else keeps my mind busy. My best outlet is writing, and therapy. I really enjoyed reading your post. Thank you.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that things “under the surface” are tough and it’s hard to get the right support from friends and family. I’m certain they’re acting out of love and concern, but when the help isn’t the right kind, it seems like it might even be worse than none at all. I’m glad you have the courage to seek the help of strangers–or professionals–as the case may be. You write beautifully. And you’re not alone. Many of us write as a form of therapy. I know my first novel was basically an exorcism.
      Thank you for reading the post and for sharing your thoughts. I am sure others feel as you do, and may not have the courage to share it. You help them (and all of us) by speaking out.

  21. This is a really interesting read, thank you. It is really flattering when someone asks for help, because it shows they trust you not to reject or hurt them.
    Fine-tuning your instincts to avoid the overly-needy/lost causes is another matter altogether though. I have no idea how you do this!

    1. That’s a great question on how to set boundaries-probably worthy of a whole other blog post. You definitely get it–asking for help is a way to acknowledge the value of another person to our experience. I love how you put it. Thank you!

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.