Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

I helped you – I must like you

February 7th, 2011

So, you work with someone who doesn’t think much of you. There’s no dramatic history, just an established distaste for you and whatever you stand for.

Some people try to fix this by doing favours for the person who dislikes them. Don’t bother. Instead, ask the person who dislikes you to do a favour for you.

It’s a surprising idea, but it works. Jon Jecker and David Landy demonstrated this in an unusual study done in 1969. They first trained an “experimenter” to behave coolly and brusquely toward his “subjects”. Then they had him give study participants a test for which the participants were paid per correct answer. In fact, the task was rigged: all participants were told they had answered 12 questions correctly, then paid by the experimenter.

Here comes the interesting part. Before they left the research lab, a randomly chosen third of the participants were stopped by the experimenter, who said, “I was wondering if you would do me a favour. The funds for this experiment have run out and I am using my own money to finish it. As a favour to me, would you mind returning the money you won?” If the participant hesitated, the experimenter said, “I can’t make you return the money, but I wish you would as a favour to me.” (Most of the participants agreed.)

Another third of the participants were asked something similar by the department secretary after leaving the research lab: “The money [the experimenter] is using comes from the psychology department’s research fund, which is running extremely low. The department would appreciate you doing it a favour by returning the money to the fund.” Almost all the participants agreed. The remaining third of the participants were not asked to give up their winnings.

The final step for the study participants was filling out a questionnaire about the study, including how much they liked the “experimenter” on a scale of 1 (hated) to 12 (adored).  Those participants not asked to give up their money scored him at 5.8 – mild dislike. Those who had been asked to give their winnings back to the psychology department disliked him even more (scoring him at 4.4). However, those whom the experimenter had personally asked for help actually liked him, giving him a score of 7.2.

Strange, isn’t it? According to psychologists, this is yet another result of self-justification or resolving cognitive dissonance: once we’ve done something, we need a satisfactory reason for having done it. I wouldn’t do a favour for a jerk; therefore, you’re not a jerk.

Benjamin Franklin figured this out in 1737. His autobiography recounts how he dealt with an influential politician who had spoken against Franklin in a public assembly:

Benjamin Franklin“Having heard that he had in his Library a certain very scarce & curious Book, I wrote a Note to him expressing my Desire of perusing that Book, and requesting he would do me the Favor of lending it to me for a few Days. He sent it immediately; and I return’d it in about a Week, with another Note expressing strongly my Sense of the Favor. When we next met in the House he spoke to me, (which he had never done before) and with great Civility. And he ever afterwards manifested a Readiness to serve me on all Occasions, so that we became great Friends, & our Friendship continu’d to his Death.”

Pretty clever there, Ben.

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