Name one thing in life that wouldn’t be easier if people liked you more. From keeping projects on schedule through improved work relationships to finally turning that acquaintance into a real friend … to just feeling a little more warmth in our day-to-day interactions, it feels good to like someone, and it feels good to be liked.
It’s an evolution thing — people who didn’t care about being liked didn’t build strong relationships and communities, and then died before passing on their antisocial genes.
Luckily, research has identified one easy (and surprisingly self-serving) way to make people like you more: Ask them for a favor.
It’s weirdly counterintuitive. Most people think that doing favors will make others like them more. Psychology calls this the Ben Franklin effect, named because of an old Benjamin Franklin quote: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
The effect was verified by Jecker and Landy and seems to be true for a couple of reasons.
In our society, it’s very hard for people to say no. This is especially true for women (due, at least partly, to the fact that people don’t respect when a woman says no), but it’s true for men, too. Just as people generally overestimate the cost of asking, they overestimate the cost of saying no. Meaning that if you ask someone for a favor, they will probably say yes.
But there’s a very powerful and well-documented effect in psychology known as cognitive dissonance. Basically, humans want their attitudes and behaviors to match. And we feel super-uncomfortable when they don’t.
There are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance: 1) You can change your attitude to match your behavior, 2) You can change your behavior to match your attitude, or 3) You can add some justification for the dissonance (e.g., “I know smoking isn’t good for me, but I smoke anyway. But it’s OK because if I didn’t smoke, I’d eat more and obesity is more unhealthy than smoking.”)
Because people overestimate the cost of saying no, they’ll probably say yes when you ask for your favor. This causes cognitive dissonance — “I don’t know Eva that well, but I’m doing her a favor.”
Because adjusting their behavior to match their attitude isn’t an option (they’ve already said yes), they’ll probably end up adjusting their attitude to match their behavior (“I don’t know Eva that well, but I’m doing her a favor because I like her.”).
I mean, it’s possible that they might try to justify it somehow (“I’m doing Eva a favor because she’s my boss.”), but if that’s the case, so what? No harm done, right?
This is similar to the foot-in-the-door technique described by Robert Cialdini in his earth-shatteringly amazing book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. If you haven’t read it, you probably should ASAP. After all, Michelle Obama has read it.
And then there’s the fact that: we like people who like us.
When you do an unsolicited favor for someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean you like them. You could just be sucking up to them, trying to win their approval for entirely selfish reasons. It could just be the kind of person you are. But when you ask someone to do you a favor, it tells them something about how close you feel to them.
If you feel close enough to me to ask me for a favor, even though people generally overestimate the cost of asking for something, it means you must like me. It means you must feel like we’ve crossed over from a zone of negative politeness (actions that show respect for boundaries and individuality) to one of positive politeness (actions that show closeness, liking, trust and affection).
People want to be liked, so we like people who like us. And in a weird way, asking me to go out of my way to do something for you shows that you like me.
The point is, making friends in adulthood is hard. A lot harder than making friends in school. And to a large degree, friendship is a numbers game. You’re not going to hit it off with everyone you meet, no matter how charismatic you are.
But if you’re willing to walk up to a perfect stranger and ask him or her for a favor — whether it’s a glass of water or directions to the library — you’re drastically increasing your chances of meeting someone who could enrich your life in one of the most meaningful ways.
Think about it.