Have we got it backwards yet again? I used to think that I did favors for people because I liked them. The liking comes first; the favor comes second. The liking causes the favor.
But wait. Like so many other things, I may have got it backwards. Perhaps cause-and-effect flows the other way. Perhaps the fact that I do you a favor causes me to like you. Perhaps you can induce me to like you by asking me for a favor.
In the world of persuasion, this is known as the Benjamin Franklin effect. Old Ben may not have been the first to notice the effect, but he wrote a pithy quote to popularize it: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he who you yourself have obliged.”
Franklin tells the story of an unnamed political opponent – rich and well connected – who attacked Franklin mercilessly in an election. Franklin won the election and wanted to win his opponent over. So he asked to borrow a book from his competitor’s library. Franklin kept it for a week and then returned it with a thoughtful and appreciative note. Thus began a long-lasting friendship. (David McRaney tells the story in full here.)
The Ben Franklin effect is not so different from the concept of the plastic brain. Through our actions, we create our brain rather than vice-versa. (See Norman Doidge’s writings here and here). What we do creates the brain rather than the brain creating what we do. This may well be the reason that buying experiences makes us happier than buying things. (The hedonic treadmill probably plays a role as well).
The Franklin effect also seems similar to embodied cognition. Our bodies shape our brains (perhaps) even more than our brains shape our bodies. I use a simple form of embodied cognition to improve my mood. Each time I look at my smart phone (which is all too often), I remind myself to smile for ten seconds. Making my face smile frequently (even though it’s artificial and arbitrary) elevates my mood for much longer than ten seconds.
The Franklin effect also relates to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT suggests that we can challenge cognitive distortions by changing our behavior. CBT also posits that what we believe to be true is indeed true for us. If we believe we will always fail, no matter what we do, …well, we’ll probably fail. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
All too often, we predict what we’re going to do and then live up to our prediction. Such predictions can produce vicious (or virtuous) circles. CBT addresses these automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), by asking us to change the meaning we assign to our thoughts and to change our behaviors. In essence, it’s asking us to challenge our thoughts, change our behaviors, and use our bodies to reshape our plastic brains.
I doubt that Ben Franklin understood all these connections when he asked to borrow a book from a political opponent. But he did have an important insight: the action shapes the attitude, not the other way round. Think about your actions and attitudes. And, if you want someone to like you, just borrow a book.
The concept of cause-and-effect is very slippery. We think that A causes B only to find that C really causes both A and B. Or, perhaps it’s really B that causes A. More subtly, A might influence B which turns right around and influences A.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’ve been looking at a lot of things from the wrong end of the telescope. Some examples:
Our brain creates us – what creates our personality and the essence of who we are? Why our brains, of course. My brain is the cause; my personality is the effect. Further, the brain is what it is; there’s not much we can do about it. Well…not so fast. Maybe we got it backwards. It turns out that the brain is plastic; we can change it through our habits, actions, and thoughts. In many ways, we create our brains rather than the other way round. Norman Doidge is a leading writer on brain plasticity. You can find his books here and here.
Mutate first; adapt later – our general model of evolution suggests that random mutations happen in our DNA. Mutations that provide a competitive edge are then preserved and passed on. Mutations that aren’t so helpful just fade away. But, according to a recent article in New Scientist, we may have it backwards. Again, plasticity is a key concept. “A growing number of biologists think … plasticity may also play a key role in evolution. Instead of mutating first and adapting later, they argue, animals often adapt first and mutate later.”
I am the master of my fate – I used to believe that I was in control. Now I realize that my System 1 often makes decisions without any input from “me”. Indeed, I don’t even know the decisions are being made. But it’s not just my “primitive brain” that molds my behavior. It’s also how fast my heart beats and how healthy my vagus nerve is. But it’s not even just my body that steers me. It’s also the microbes in my gut. When the microbes team up, they can make me do bizarre things – like eating chocolate. They may even contribute to schizophrenia.
OCD starts with thoughts – we’ve always assumed that irrational thoughts create obsessive compulsive disorder. Irrational thoughts begin in the brain and radiate outward to produce irrational behavior. But, as Clare Gillan points out, we may have it backwards. When she induced new habits in volunteers, she found that people with OCD change their beliefs to explain the new habit. In other words, behavior is the cause and belief is the effect.
The gardener manages the garden – Suellen loves to garden and will spend hours at hard labor under a hot sun. When I see how hard she works, I wonder if she’s managing the flowers or if they’re managing her. It’s not a new thought. The Botany of Desire makes the same point.
What else have we gotten backwards? It’s hard to know. But, as the Heath brothers point out in Decisive, if you believe A causes B, you owe it to yourself to consider the opposite.