Commentary: Benjamin Franklin’s Work as a Psychologist

by John J. Rooney


Benjamin Franklin was one of the most fascinating men ever to walk this earth. Born into a working-class family, he had practically no formal education, yet became one of the most wealthy, influential, loved, and respected men of all time. Europeans dubbed him “the best president America never had.” His excess energy made him an indefatigable worker, but it was his enthusiasm for life and his insatiable intellectual curiosity that most distinguished him. Throughout his long and distinguished career, he was always observing, reading, discussing, testing, questioning. In particular, he studied people, including himself.
Franklin has been honored as a scientist, diplomat, businessman, entrepreneur, patriot, and administrator, but his contributions to psychology are so striking that he also deserves to be recognized as one of the founders of this field. He counseled us, “Learn to know people, thyself, especially.” His life and work reflect this advice and provide a font of psychological wisdom invaluable to anyone desiring to understand that complicated creature the human person and to enjoy a more successful, more fulfilling life.
Many of his most significant contributions to psychology were indirect. His observations and reflections on population shifts and on finding fossils from sea-going creatures far inland contributed to the theory of evolution, a theory with a major impact on our understanding human behavior.
But many of his psychological discoveries anticipated contemporary psychological research in both its direction and its results. I have discussed them in a book that I have recently published. For one, he was interested in a positive psychology that contributed to a positive approach to our lives and improved our society. For another, he outlined a systematic procedure for self-improvement that is much like what is used in cognitive-behavioral therapy today. He compared it with building a garden in which you select one section to improve, and once you have made reasonable progress, move on to work on the next.
‘If you want to feel good, do good’
And the “Ben Franklin effect” illustrates that how you behave towards someone affects how you think and how you feel toward him. Thus, when he wanted to befriend a critic, he hit on the idea of asking him for a favor. Would he loan him a valuable book he owned? Being asked was flattering, but the fact that he shared the book contributed more to his conversion from a rival to a friend.  It is also the basis of Franklin’s adage, “If you want to feel good, do good.” For we like to think of ourselves as consistent creatures with our beliefs, our behavior and our feelings being in harmony with one another.
Those are but two of many examples of psychological findings of his that are highly relevant today. He made the study of people a systematic part of his research, maintaining that empirical research on human behavior would enhance our understanding just as it had in other realms of knowledge. That is still a useful brief definition of psychology: “The empirical study of human behavior.” In sum, Franklin’s life-long study of psychology contributed to his success and anticipated today’s psychology.

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“Poor Richard’s Rich Life: Positive Psychology and Ben Franklin.” You can e-mail him at [email protected].




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