Law 13: When Asking For Help Appeal To Peoples Self-Interest, Never To Their Mercy Or Gratitude

The 48 Laws Of Power Summary Series


Aesop Fable

The following depicts a 6th century Aesop Fable that pertains well to this law:

The Peasant & The Apple Tree

A peasant had in his garden an Apple-Tree which bore no fruit but only served as a harbor for the sparrows and grasshoppers. He resolved to cut it down, and taking his axe in his hand, made a bold stroke at its roots.

The grasshoppers and sparrows entreated him not to cut down the tree that sheltered them, but to spare it, and they would sing to him and lighten his labors.

He paid no attention to their request, but gave the tree a second and a third blow with his axe. When he reached the hollow of the tree, he found a hive full of honey.

Having tasted the honeycomb, he threw down his axe, and looking on the tree as sacred, took great care of it.

Self-interest alone moves some men.

This man cared not for the safety and well being of these animals, but once he found something of unique value to him within the tree — the honey, he treasured the tree and consequently it’s inhabitants. You see he did not care for these animals, he cared for himself. As a result, the animals vicariously benefited. No, everyone does not behave like this, BUT it would be remiss not to believe everyone had the potential to act only with their self-interest in mind.

Observance Of The Law

In 433BC, just before the Peloponnesian War, the island of Corcyra (later called Corfu) and the Greek city state of Corinth stood at the brink of conflict.

Both cities were trying to win over the Athenians to their side. Whoever could convince Athens to their side were likely to win the war. The stakes were very high. Ambassadors were sent from both parties to negotiate with Athens.

When the ambassador for Corcyra spoke, he spoke with great honesty and bluntness. He admitted the island never helped Athens before, and in fact even allied itself with Athens enemies. There were no ties of friendship or gratitude between Corcyra and Athens. The ambassador admitted he had come to Athens out of fear and concern for Corcyra’s safety. The only thing he could offer was an alliance of shared mutual interest. Corcyra had a navy only surpassed in size and strength by Athens own. Thus an alliance between the two states would create a formidable force that could intimidate the rival state of Sparta. That was all Corcyra had to offer.

The ambassador for Corinth now spoke. He spoke in a manner that was much more lively and passionate — a sharp contrast to the dry colorless approach of the Corcyran. Corinth and Athens had a strong relationship in the past, he had talked about all Corinth had done for Athens in the past. He asked how it would look to Athens other allies if the city put an agreement with a former enemy over one with a present friend, one that had served Athens interest loyally. He referred to the ‘Hellenic law’, and the need to repay Corinth for all it’s good deeds. He finally continued to list the many services Corinth had performed for Athens and the importance of showing gratitude to one’s friends. In essence the Corinth ambassador was attempting to guilt Athens.

The Athenian’s debated and voted on the issue. They voted overwhelmingly to ally with the first city, Corcyra over Corinth.

So why would they choose a former enemy that had not done anything previously for Athens over an ally state that had?


Corcyra’s ambassador understood the type of people they were talking to. They essentially reverse engineered the individual's character values and philosophies in order to speak ‘Athens language’ — in terms of what’s valuable to them.

They understood the Athenian’s were realists. All the rhetoric and emotional appeals in the world (Corinth) could not match a good pragmatic argument, especially one that added to their power. What the Corinthian ambassador didn’t realise was that his references to Corinth’s previous generosity only irritated the Athenian’s. Subtly asking them to feel guilty and putting them under obligation — people don’t want to feel like their being pressured and controlled by guilt. Additionally, the Athenian's couldn’t care less about past favors and friendly favors. The lesson is, there’s going to be many who don’t care about what you did for them yesterday. They’re going to ask, what are you going to do for them today?

Most action and behaviour can be linked in some form to our own self interest. There may not be any any completely selfless action that one can take. It’s easy to get confused by the superficiality of a selfless act often forgetting the pleasure and benefit it brings our psyche.

While volunteering or donating to a charity may be really positive acts that bring value to many people’s lives. There are many who act under the moral guise of being completely selfless in order to feel superior to those who do not act similarly to them in an effort to trick themselves into thinking their not acting in their own self-interest. The irony is that feeling of superiority they gain from appearing to act selfless is placating their psyche, in turn feeding their own self-interest.

Keys To Power

So often we confuse our own need’s lazily assuming the person in front of us has those same needs. The key is being perceptive enough to understand the psychology of the person you are talking to. Understanding who they are, how they think, their motives, values etc. By being a keen observer and analyst you can quickly determine these essential area’s and subsequently put yourself in a much more advantageous position to influence and learn.

“Most people never succeed at this, because they are completely trapped in their own wants and desires. They start from the assumption that the people they are appealing to have a selfless interest in helping them. They talk as if their needs mattered to these people — who probably couldn’t care less.”

“What they do not realise is that even the most powerful person is locked inside needs of his own, and that if you make no appeal to his self-interest, he merely see’s you as desperate or, at best, a waste of time.”

Everyday people are trying contact successful businessman, entrepreneurs investors, thought leaders, athletes etc. Whether that be guys like Tim Ferriss, or even people like Warren Buffett or Elon Musk. We all have seen the stories of some managing to get into contact with many of these influences. Thousands try everyday, yet a very small selection actually are able to get through to these people. How is this so? One of the reasons they get through is by uniquely appealing to this person’s self interest. By reverse engineering who the person is and they determine the most effective value they can give.

A key step in the process is to understand the other persons psychology.

Is he vein?

Is he concerned about reputation or social standing?

Does he have enemies you could help him vanquish?

Is he simply motivated by money?

Figure the person out before you make a move.

When the Mongols invaded China in the 12th Century Genghis Khan saw nothing in China, deciding to destroy the place leveling all it’s cities, for “it would be better to exterminate the Chinese and let the grass grow”.

It was not a solider, a general, or a king who saved the Chinese from devastation, but a man named Yelu Chu’u-Ts’ai. Ch’u-Ts’ai had managed to make himself a trusted adviser to Genghis Khan, and persuaded him that he would reap riches out of the place if, instead of destroying it, he simply taxed everyone who lived there. Khan saw the wisdom in this and did as Ch’u-Ts’ai advised.

When Khan took the city of Kaifeng, after a long siege he decided to massacre its inhabitants as he had the other cities that resisted him. Ch’u-Ts’ai told him that the finest craftsmen and engineers in China had fled to Kaifeng, and it would be better to put them to use. Kaifeng was spared. Never before had Genghis Khan shown such mercy.

But it wasn’t mercy that saved Kaifeng. Ch’u-Ts’ai knew Khan well. He was a barbaric peasant who cared nothing for culture, or indeed anything other than warfare and practical results.

Ch’u-Ts’ai chose to appeal to the only emotion that would work on such a man: greed.


“The shortest and best way to make your fortune is to let people see clearly that it is in their interests to promote yours.” — Jean de La Bruyere


The reality is there are a small subset who will see past your guise if not careful.

“Some people will see an appeal to their self-interest as ugly and ignoble.They actually prefer to be able to exercise charity, mercy and justice, which are their ways of feeling superior to you: When you beg them for help, you emphasize their power and position. They are strong enough to need nothing from you except the chance to feel superior. This is the wine that intoxicates them.”

“Not everyone then, can be approached through cynical self-interest. Some people will be put off by it, because they don’t want to seem to be motivated by such things. They need opportunities to display their good heart.”

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Originally Posted

Self reflective writings & book summaries on philosophy, psychology and human behaviour.

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