You would imagine that when someone you don’t know well does a favor for you, at best, it’s not going to change the way they feel about you. It might even make them feel a little annoyed with you because you’ve taken up their time. And because you don’t like people to get annoyed with you, you are very careful about the favors you ask for.
The research shows the opposite. When someone does a favor for you, they actually have a more positive image of you. The bigger the favor, the more positively they will view you. This flies in the face of common sense.
The reason lies in the concept of cognitive dissonance — a fancy, psychological term for a simple fact: That human beings don’t like to have two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time. For example, if we think we are a smart person, but we know we just made a stupid investment that immediately dropped in value, we find that uncomfortable (above and beyond the financial pain of course). And we resolve it generally not by deciding we’re stupid, but by believing that the investment will come back soon, or that lots of other smart people were tricked into the same mistake.
When someone does you a favor, they experience a bit of cognitive dissonance: they know they went out of their way and put themselves to some effort. The bigger the effort, the more the inconvenience. Are they the kind of person that would inconvenience themselves for someone they didn’t like? Absolutely not — that would mean they’re a fool, easily taken advantage of. So they unconsciously shift their view of you to become more positive. The bigger the favor, the more the inconvenience, the more they’re going to think you’re a terrific person — otherwise, why would they have gone to all that trouble to help you?
Now, this may all sound Machiavellian, as if I’m trying to convince you to run around and ask everyone in sight to do you favors in order to con the world into loving you. The catch is this: if you get a reputation for asking for favors, or if the favors are too big, people will start saying no to you.
And cognitive dissonance works in this case too, only in the opposite direction. When someone turns you down for a favor, they have to justify this to themselves. They can choose to think that they are not generous, helpful people, or they can believe that you’re not worthy of help. Guess which way their opinion of you is going to shift.
So we’ve established that asking people for favors you’re pretty sure they will do is a good strategy for helping people to like you more. What about the reverse — should you be doing favors for other people?
The answer, unquestionably, is yes. Having other people like us is important to our psychological well being, but liking other people is equally important. If you push yourself a bit to offer to help other people, that’s going to positively impact how you feel about them — after all, you aren’t such a fool as to help people who aren’t decent, honorable, likable people who deserve your help, are you?
You might say “How can I possibly find time to help anyone else? I have little enough time for myself as it is.” The answer is in the Five-Minute Favor, a concept popularized in Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success”. He talks about doing small acts of kindness for each other, things that don’t take a huge amount of time and effort but can have disproportionate benefits for the recipient.
Perhaps some people will question the point of all of this. One might say “I have my set of friends and family, and I’ll do anything for them, and they’ll do anything for me — why should I care about being liked by others, or liking others?” Well, it turns out that while close relationships are very important to longevity and health, so are more distant relationships. (See this Ted Talk for details ) Staying connected to lots of other people is important for us. Liking lots of people around us, and having them like us is essential for that connection.
So when you ask favors from others, and do favors for others, you’re connecting to your extended social network — and positively affecting your health and longevity.
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