Most people in our lives fall into the vast gray area between friend and enemy.
That’s because most of the people we know are actually neutral acquaintances. You wouldn’t invite them to your wedding, and you wouldn’t cry if they got fired from their job. You might miss them occasionally if you were to move or change occupations, but you don’t try to make plans with them on the weekend. In many cases, you could take them or leave them. They’re friends of convenience—pretty much the people who inhabit your high school reunions. It’s nice to see them, but if they’re not in front of you, you might not remember that they exist. It’s unrealistic to have a high degree of investment in so many people.
The enemies, however, we never seem to be rid of. Some people’s faces just annoy us or send us into fits of rage—and your face likely does the same for a select few. Maybe you unknowingly cut someone off in traffic and made a new enemy there. No one is everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. Like oil and water, some temperaments or personalities are fated to never mix and match.
We have benign enemies, which you might call frenemies, who masquerade as a friend but secretly harbor distaste for you. We also have true enemies who mean to do you harm. Even if they do arguably positive things for you, their real underlying motivation is to harm you in some way. They might actually do a good thing for you and help you out, but at the end of the day, they actually want you to slip up. They’re not looking out for your best interests, especially if those interests conflict with theirs.
Should we be resigned to this fate? What if one of our enemies happens to be a coworker with whom we are forced to work closely or even a relative? You never know when you might need their goodwill, after all. The science of likability can help you win people over just as well as it can help you make a great first impression.
It is actually simpler (though perhaps not so easy) to turn an enemy into a friend than you realize, and they may not even realize that it’s happening. They’ll just notice they have fewer and fewer negative feelings toward you and less of a compulsion to curse your name. Sometimes that’s as good as we can hope for.
This was a phenomenon first observed by Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, who went so far as to say, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
This was investigated and confirmed by Jecker and Landy in 1969 in their paper called “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour.” The latter pair was investigating what has come to be known as the Benjamin Franklin effect: that you could easily turn an enemy into a friend with one simple act—asking them for a favor.
That’s right—asking that person for a favor instead of performing a favor for that person. This seems counterintuitive and confusing because, first of all, why would someone want to do anything for someone they dislike? Second of all, wouldn’t this make the other person resent you for daring to ask a favor when you are not liked by them?
Usually, you would only do a favor for somebody if you already liked them and wanted them to like you. You would want to impress them and make your value known. You’d be willing to make the effort because you care about them, and in return, they would feel gratefulness and affection toward you.
So conventional knowledge would state that people would balk at doing something for someone they hate. However, the researchers confirmed that participants liked a researcher who’d asked them for a small favor far more than they liked the researcher who hadn’t asked for one. They split the participants into three groups:
• The first group was asked to return the reward for participating in the study because the researcher had run low on funds.
• The second group was asked to return the money because the research department had run low on funds.
• The third group was not asked anything and was allowed to keep the money.
Which group favored its researcher most? The first group, followed by the third group, liked its researcher the most. A direct favor that actually took money out of their pockets made participants like their researcher more than the group who got to keep its money. As odd as this seems, it confirms the fact that making someone act for you, at their detriment, can make them like you more.
There’s a clear lesson here in going against your gut and following the scientific evidence. Humbly ask your enemy for a small favor, act grateful, and see what changes occur. We can accept this.
But why does the Benjamin Franklin effect work? It works because of the concept of cognitive dissonance, which Leon Festinger developed in the 1960s in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the name for the psychological tension when we hold two conflicting thoughts—the brain seeks to alleviate this tension by changing one of the thoughts or justifying this odd condition.
For instance, we may see Justin as a generous person, and then we see him tip 0% at a restaurant out of spite at the waiter. These are two conflicting thoughts, and the psychological confusion we feel is alleviated if we can come up with something like, “Oh, Justin just had a bad day and he is generous to everyone except waiters.” You’ll recognize the resolution of cognitive dissonance frequently as defense mechanisms, excuses, and justifications for behavior and thoughts.
And thus with the Benjamin Franklin effect, you place people into a state of cognitive dissonance. They don’t like you, but they perform an act for you—two conflicting positions: “I hate them” and “I did a favor for them.” When you ask someone to do you a favor, you create a state of discomfort that is alleviated by a clever series of thoughts to make the two stances reconcilable: “Wait, I just did this for Johnson. Why would I do something like that? What does this say about me and how I feel about him? Maybe he’s alright.”
The explanation is that deep down inside, they feel some type of affection, respect, or interest in you because you actually like them and want to help them. At the very least, you feel ambiguously about them, and not so overtly negative.
Asking someone to perform a favor for you is also a subtle form of flattery. Imagine you are asking your nemesis at the office to help you with a report. The implication isn’t that you’re lazy or stupid. Rather, the implication is a greater recognition of their prowess as a whole. In other words, you recognize they are so skilled at what they do that you are willing to risk embarrassment to ask them for their help. You are submitting, showing your belly, and admitting to them you would like their help.
Finally, asking someone for a favor is just more interaction between you two, whereas there was previously zero. You likely avoid people you don’t like or brush them off. You start to develop stereotypes about them, and the more psychological distance, the more villainization grows. When you ask for a favor, you are probably doing it in a kind way and humanizing yourself to others. The more information they have about you, the less they are likely to hate the version of you they’ve constructed in their heads.
Asking people to do you a small favor will make you more likable, regardless of if they like you or hate you. It can’t be too big, otherwise you will burden them and give the impression that you are lazy or entitled. It can’t be too small, otherwise people will think you are lazy or entitled. If you can’t think of an appropriate favor to ask of your enemies or frenemies, a helpful guideline is the three-minute rule. Ask them for something that will take no longer or shorter than three minutes. Don’t burden them unnecessarily, but don’t make it seem like you are hopeless and helpless.
Beyond the Benjamin Franklin effect, you can also perform small, subtle favors for your enemies and frenemies. Now this is something intuitive and easily understood. Actively performing favors for others builds goodwill and indicates a willingness to be friendly and open. You are making the first move of raising the white flag of peace and sending the signal that you don’t harbor any ill will. Often, they will want to return the favor. This is known as the principle of reciprocity.
In 1974, Philipz Kunz, in “Bah Humbug: Unexpected Christmas Cards and the Reciprocity Norm,” mailed 600 handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of him and his family to complete strangers. Shockingly, he received almost 200 replies from these strangers. That is the power of reciprocity, as it creates a sense of duty, obligation, and debt.
At the very least, if you perform small favors, your enemies won’t classify you as completely useless but as someone with some value. At best, doing favors will neutralize whatever initial animosity they may have had for you. And on your side, as the Benjamin Franklin effect dictates, you will feel more positively about the people you perform favors for. It works on yourself as well.
When you throw your enemies a curveball by being kind to them, you blur the lines and they can’t help but come up with a different way of viewing you. There’s a reason that “kill them with kindness” is often parroted!
Don’t expect any payback or reciprocation—this will help reduce their concern over manipulation or ulterior motives. Focus instead on the fact that you are acting to change how somebody feels about you. People can be quite vicious, but they’re also easily disarmed.
The next time you ask that same favor, you may be surprised at how positive the reaction is. And you get a favor performed for you? Win-win. Your enemies may not be aware of what’s happening, and that’s the best part. In the end, you can find friendship where it seemed previously impossible.
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