Charming people who like you, and whom you like, is easy enough. You smile, make eye contact, remember names, make yourself useful. And if you had any initial rapport at all, you'll probably end up professional allies if not true friends. 

But what do you do with the haters? Those with whom, for whatever reason of circumstance or disposition, you just seem to naturally clash?

Being able to win over the hostile is the mark of the exceptionally likable, but it's also super hard. Your first instinct is probably to avoid those who dislike you, or to dislike them right back. That's natural but gets you no closer to winning them over.

There is a better way, but it demands you go against your natural impulses. If you can stomach it though, both modern psychology and founding father Ben Franklin say it really will allow you to win over just about anyone. 

The weirdest way to become super likable is also the most effective. 

The clever, counterintuitive trick was discussed more than 200 hundred years ago by Franklin, which is why today it's generally known as the Ben Franklin effect. In his autobiography, Franklin writes how, as a young politician, he needed to win over a rival who had denounced him. 

His first reaction, naturally enough, was to be ticked off at the guy. But Franklin was too clever to let his anger show. Instead, of all things, he asked to borrow a rare book. His antagonist, Franklin explains, was known to be a keen collector who took great pride in his book collection. Flattered by Franklin's interest, he sent the book over straight away. Franklin graciously returned it with a thank you note shortly thereafter. 

What does a favor like this have to do with the larger relationship between two rivals? A lot, Franklin noticed. As soon as the man had done Franklin the favor, his attitude toward Franklin warmed considerably. It is hard for someone to simultaneously be kind to you and dislike you, Franklin surmised, and therefore, subconsciously, his adversary's feelings shifted to being more favorable to his young rival. 

Franklin wrote that this was an example of the truth of an old maxim: "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged." Or in modern parlance, getting someone to do you a favor is a way more effective way to make them like you then doing them a favor yourself. 

It's crazy counterintuitive, but it's not just 18th-century polymaths who insist this trick works. Modern science backs up Franklin. Repeated studies have found that because the human mind hates cognitive dissonance (holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time), it will try to resolve the conflict between kind actions and unkind opinions by shifting its opinions to be more favorable. 

In essence, if you do something nice for someone, your mind concludes you must at least kind of like them, and you proceed accordingly going forward. 

Two takeaways

That's fascinating because it's yet another example of the deep weirdness of the human brain and shows just how much of our decision making goes on subconsciously. But according to Barry Davret on Medium, it's also useful if your goal is to be so incredibly likable you can persuade even those inclined to dislike you. 

The key, he insists, isn't asking for any old favor, which is likely to just be annoying. Instead, ask for something that flatters a person's sense of themselves. Take a foodie frenemy as an example, Davret offers. Clearly this person takes pride in his gastronomic discernment, so if you're looking to win him over, ask him to recommend a place to eat for a special meal. Express plenty of gratitude after and you'll have made yourself a new ally. 

But there's another way to utilize your knowledge of the Ben Franklin effect, Maria Popova notes on her blog Brain Pickings. Writing about the book You Are Now Less Dumb by David McRaney, she points out you can also use the knowledge of the effect defensively to avoid being manipulated. Franklin understood that when we do things contrary to our stated beliefs, we often rationalize these actions after the fact by changing our beliefs. That's true of relationships, but it's also true in other areas of life. And it can lead us to do things we never intended to do. 

"Pay attention to when the cart is getting before the horse. Notice when a painful initiation leads to irrational devotion, or when unsatisfying jobs start to seem worthwhile. Remind yourself pledges and promises have power, as do uniforms and parades. Remember in the absence of extrinsic rewards you will seek out or create intrinsic ones. Take into account [that] the higher the price you pay for your decisions the more you value them," McRaney advises. "Realize that lukewarm feelings become stronger once you commit to a group, club, or product. Be wary of the roles you play and the acts you put on, because you tend to fulfill the labels you accept." 

In short, the Ben Franklin effect is a powerful tool to win over adversaries and become super likable. Use it to advance your interests. But don't forget that no matter how clever you are, you're susceptible to it too. So make sure you really like what you say you do, and your current opinions aren't just covering up for your past decisions. 

Correction: A previous version of this column mistakenly stated that Ben Franklin was the first person to discuss the concept behind the Ben Franklin effect, and that he coined the maxim it's based on.

Published on: Jan 13, 2020
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