The Benjamin Franklin Effect and why you need to quit your job before it’s too late

There’s something you should know.

Your brain is reactive, and your moral values are pliable. Your actions influence your beliefs.

If you’re sticking it out in a job where you’re not happy, you had better hightail it out of there before your brain has time to rewire the way you think about it. Because it will, and then you’ll never leave…

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What Benjamin Franklin taught us

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Image credit

Benjamin Franklin was a smart guy. He was well-read, intelligent and had superb social skills. This story of his social prowess from Ben’s autobiography is how we come to have a psychological concept called the Benjamin Franklin Effect.

In 1737, Benjamin was about to be voted in as clerk of the General Assembly for the second time, when a curious thing happened. A new member made a long speech railing against Ben, in order to favor a different candidate. Ben won the vote anyway, but he was rattled.

He saw that this man was “a gentleman of fortune and education, with talents that were likely to give him, in time, great influence in the House.” And he was right—this legislator went on to a very successful political career.

But this is where the story gets interesting. Benjamin had learned an old maxim which he quoted as such:

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

With this in mind, he sent a note to this enemy, asking to borrow “a certain very scarce and curious book” that the man owned. The book was sent immediately, and Ben returned it a week later with another note expressing his gratitude for the favour.

And lo and behold, what happened next?

“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.”

No kidding. The guy became best pals with Ben, after doing him a favour. That’s the curious workings of the human brain for you.

The Benjamin Franklin Effect

So, here’s what we learned: if you do nice things for someone, you will end up liking them more. Likewise, if someone does something nice for you, they will like you more.

Why?

Because your brain doesn’t like it when your actions don’t match the beliefs you have about yourself. If you believe that you don’t like someone, but then you help them, your brain gets confused. To ease the confusion, it changes what you believe – you start to think you like them after all.

It works for other actions, too. If you spend every day working hard for a boss you hate, eventually your brain will get fed up with the inconsistency and start changing your beliefs. Soon, you’ll find you don’t think your boss is so bad after all.

Sound familiar?

Be careful with your brain

The Benjamin Franklin Effect is generally cited as being an example of cognitive dissonance, which is when your brain struggles to reconcile your beliefs with your actions.

So let’s say your beliefs about your job are that you deserve to be paid a higher rate, you deserve to be treated more respectfully by your employer and your skills are being wasted in your current role (pretty negative beliefs, I know, but let’s go with it).

For every day that you go to work in that same job, your brain has to deal with cognitive dissonance. Your brain is thinking, “you believe this, but you do that—the two don’t gel. What’s going on?”

Feel bad for your brain yet?

Your brain can’t handle the truth

Dissonance means literally “lack of harmony between musical notes.” In this case, it’s a lack of harmony inside your brain—the thing that controls everything you think and do! So you feel uncomfortable, or uneasy. You carry around a lot of tension. Your body doesn’t like this, and neither does your brain.

David McRaney describes it like this:

“When you experience this arousal it is as if two competing beliefs are struggling in a mental bar fight, knocking over chairs and smashing bottles over each other’s heads. It feels awful, and the feeling persists until one belief knocks the other out cold.”

To compensate, your brain does this nifty switcheroo where it changes your beliefs—after all, your actions can’t be undone. You’ve already gone to work. You’re sitting at your computer, banging your head on the desk. But your thoughts can change. Your beliefs about yourself can change. Because your brain is malleable.

So all of a sudden you find yourself rationalizing your behavior.

You start to think the job isn’t that bad. The company culture isn’t that awful. You do get a two-week holiday for each year of 60-hour weeks. That’s pretty great. You do get your own 3-year-old PC. Sure, it only runs IE6, but IE6 isn’t that bad.

Come on.

Get out before it’s too late

Now is the time to take action—before you get to the point of no return where you’re rationalizing IE6. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

  • MrMr

    This is an awesome post. I think i just went through this exact thing. I noticed it happening and i still didn’t beat it. For me, shock and rage became passivity became borderline respect. I went from very urgently wanting to get out to having almost no desire to get out. Such a waste of time. I wonder how common it actually is, you have to not act on the dissonance for this to happen. So either you can not or you do not. For me, low confidence, temporary coping mechanisms, and increasing compensation allowed this to happen. I regret so much not ending it sooner. When it’s over, you will feel awful at how much time has been wasted.

    • http://bellebethcooper.com Belle Beth Cooper

      Sadly, it can be hard to realize it’s even happening at the time. And like you said, even though you noticed it happening, you didn’t get out as quickly as you would have liked. I’m glad you’re out now, though!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=31113917 Micky Deming

    This is such a good post! The great CS Lewis also made this same point.
    He said: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

  • http://bellebethcooper.com Belle Beth Cooper

    Thanks for sharing, Micky! Clearly a few of our greatest thinkers knew how to make friends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3311108 Aaron Wheeler

    Fantastic post Belle! I particularly love the maxim you brought up. As for growing to accept one’s lot in life, I think everyone experiences some angst in working. Time and money are such vague concepts, yet we trade the one for the other every day, almost unconsciously. I feel like, in some ways, labor will always be tainted by this exchange.

    Anyways, great to think about.

    • http://bellebethcooper.com Belle Beth Cooper

      Thanks, Aaron. You’re right about the trade-off: it’s easy to forget that we’re doing that every day.