Would you help someone you didn’t like? In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography he tells of a particularly ornery legislator that he had to bring to a compromise. This individual was not a fan of Franklin or his policies, and had thwarted several of his projects. So what did Franklin do? He asked to borrow a rare book from this rival’s library. After this, Franklin notes, the two politicians became close allies. 

So what gives? The Ben Franklin effect, as it is called, is largely driven by cognitive dissonance, in particular, our effects to extinguish it. In Franklin’s rival’s case, this individual had to reconcile feelings of animosity towards Franklin with the feelings that go along with being asked for a personally relevant and important favor. Because we tend to do favors for individuals we like, the flipside of this is that doing a favor for someone can lead us to like them more. There are numerous examples of the influence of cognitive dissonance in our lives, an influence that can have what seems to be counterintuitive effects. 

Angela Duckworth and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania recently published a large-scale study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that demonstrates that powerful effects of a number of cognitive mechanisms, including cognitive dissonance. In this study, around 2000 high-school students were placed into one of two conditions. In the experimental condition, the students were asked to advise younger students by providing responses to a series of short answer questions around studying and motivation, as well as to complete a battery of behavioral tests. The portion of time dedicated to “advising” averaged 8 minutes in total time. In the control condition, the students only completed the battery of behavioral tests. 

Student’s grades in two courses were looked at as dependent variables. One class was chosen by the student as the one they most wanted to improve in (e.g. the “target” class). The other class chosen to examine was math, as this is a particularly anxiety-provoking subject that has shown to be impacted by similar interventions in previous studies. The authors found that the students who gave advice received higher grades over the next quarter in both the target classes and math class, compared to those students in the control condition. That is, after spending less than 10 minutes writing some suggestions for studying, students grades were improved in relevant classes for several months

Why did this occur? The authors begin with our friend cognitive dissonance: giving advice or advocated around something causes one to appreciate that thing more, as a way of ameliorating feelings of dissonance. You can really talk something into existence, including new feelings. Next, the act of advising, however brief, require some cognitive restructuring and planning. This restructuring benefits the advisor as they go back to the topic. Finally, research shows that giving advice builds confidence, and confidence leads to higher performance. 

The takeaways from this work are many, but for Thrive we look at the leveraging of cognitive mechanisms – dissonance, motivation, confidence – as key to efficacious, cost-effective cognitive-behavioral change programs. We view teams as having most of the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed, and we use these internal resources (namely, people) to hyper-charge your organization through clarified insights and directionally-accurate planning. Check out our product page for some examples of what we have done for our clients. 

 

Thanks for reading, 

 JZ

 

References and Further Reading

Eskreis-Winkler, L., Milkman, K. L., Gromet, D. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2019). A large-scale field experiment shows giving advice improves academic outcomes for the advisor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(30), 14808-14810.

Eskreis-Winkler, L., Fishbach, A., & Duckworth, A. L. (2018). Dear Abby: Should I Give Advice or Receive It?. Psychological science, 29(11), 1797-1806.

Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure?. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 130(4), 701-725.

Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2005). When high-powered people fail: Working memory and “choking under pressure” in math. Psychological science, 16(2), 101-105.

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