What Is Love & The Benjamin Franklin Effect

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What do you know about love? When love is mentioned, what thoughts enter your mind? What do you picture love to be?

If you trust Hollywood, love is an emotion, a serendipitous internal phenomenon over which you have little or no control, but you’ll know when it happens to you. Somehow. If you’ve read the Bible, patience, kindness, and selflessness might come to mind. Whatever comes to mind, it’s a good bet you weren’t short of possible answers, however unsure you were of which might be most accurate. Love is something all of us consider at regular intervals throughout life. We aren’t often called upon to define it, but we think about it. Recently I was called to define it, by my own child.

The Hard Question

My son recently asked me “So, what exactly is love?” I was simultaneously thrilled and intimidated by the question. It’s a privilege to be trusted with a question like that, but it’s challenging to simplify an ancient concept, debated and philosophized throughout history, into a quick response that doesn’t trivialize it. It’s a lot like answering the question “What is God?” I understood his question as asking about the nature of what it means to show love, which reminded me of Benjamin Franklin, oddly, and a story which seems to have little to do with love.

I Learned This From Ben

Franklin wrote about a political rival who disliked him and refused to speak to him. This rival had a rare book, and Franklin was a notorious book lover, so Franklin sent the man a letter, requesting to borrow this valuable book with a promise to return it. His rival knew he would care for the book, and it would be impolite to refuse, so he lent Franklin the book. Franklin eventually returned the book with a letter expressing his appreciation, after which he reported that his rival approached him and spoke to him in public and eventually befriended him. It’s a classic example of cognitive dissonance. You can’t believe someone is a scoundrel while simultaneously being willing to trust them with something you value. Those two ways of thinking are in conflict, and when your beliefs and your actions conflict, your beliefs usually shift to align with your actions. The hypothesis that people treat you more favorably after they’ve done you a favor or rendered you a service voluntarily is referred to as the “Benjamin Franklin Effect”. 

We mistakenly think we have a strong set of beliefs which guide our actions, when we actually have a flexible set of beliefs which adapt to suit our actions. It isn’t as hard as you might think to go from disliking someone to feeling affectionate, depending on how you choose to act. Hmmmm. 

Action Vs. Emotion

I told my son that although most people think love is a feeling, I believe love is choice–an action which results in a feeling. Rather than a nebulous emotion you experience after winning some cosmic lottery, love can be chosen, and you can choose it for anyone anywhere under any condition.

If you want to be a loving person, act loving. If you want to change how you feel, change how you act.

Psychologist Noam Shpancer wrote an article, which you can read here, about action and emotion. In it, he says:

“Many people assume that the link between emotion and behavior is one-way: Emotions shape behavior. You love him, therefore you kiss him. You hate him, therefore you hit him. This view is incorrect. In fact, the relationship is reciprocal. Much of the time, behavior actually shapes emotion.”

So, what is love? It’s an action you choose to take which produces an emotion you can feel. You can, at any time, love someone–anyone. You can choose to love. You are not helplessly waiting for stars to align or fates to bestow a blissful experience upon you. Like Benjamin Franklin demonstrated so cleverly, you can alter a person’s emotions, your own included, by altering their actions. Struggling to feel love toward your spouse? Wondering why there isn’t much love between you and your sibling? Maybe you aren’t feeling it because you aren’t acting it out. Maybe you’re treating love as a noun when it should be a verb. Maybe you’re treating love like a privilege when it should be more of an obligation.

According to my beliefs, love is not a privilege, it is a responsibility; one which must be performed if you wish to experience love. Maybe it sounds harsh to call it a responsibility, but I find it liberating. I’m not desperately searching for a mystic emotion over which I have little control, I am intentionally engaging daily in a life of love. I can choose love any time, and when I do love is more often reciprocated. Nevertheless, I’m not responsible for anyone else’s choice but mine. What are you choosing?



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