Laws of Attraction: The Honey Effect

Posted by on 03.19.08 | No Comments
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At three, the kid already understands the miraculous potential of honey.

“Mommy,” he says, “I have a splendid idea. Let’s get a cookie.” His eyes are impossibly bright. He tucks his chin and he turns his hands upward, a caricature of a salesman posing an irresistible idea.

I resist. He sees it in my face. He begins to twist his upper lip into a scowl, then stops himself and looks at me with doe-eyed openness. “We can shaaaare it,” he suggests.

I’m hooked. He knows I value sharing.

Truth is, I want the cookie, too, but I am willing to walk away from it. If he’d whined, I would have declined, demurring with something like, “This is so sad. You could have had the cookie if you’d asked nicely.” In fact, those are the words on the tip of my tongue. Instead, I walk up to the counter and say, “One sugar cookie, please.” Give the kid a reward.

As I purchase the prize in green frosting, I marvel at how my son is already learning how to get what he wants. “Tart words make no friends,” said Benjamin Franklin. “A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.”

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy construes the popular phrase this way: “You can win people to your side more easily by gentle persuasion and flattery than by hostile confrontation.”

The idea is sound, but old Ben wasn’t the first to say such a thing. In the 17th century, Thomas Fuller had an earlier version: “More flies are taken with a drop of honey than with a tun of vinegar.”

Supposedly, the saying hails back to a practice that predates fly paper. According to, “To avoid the annoying task of chasing flies in enclosed areas, an alternative was used to lure flies to traps with little effort. To capture a fly, pour honey on something and set it out in the open. When a fly lands on the honey, it becomes stuck.”

Whether or not anyone ever really did try to trap flies this way, I can promise that many metaphorical flies have been caught through such a method. Exhibit A: sugar cookie.

There is another law of attraction at work here for me. I am sure you have also noticed that once something enters your consciousness—a new word, a new phrase, or simply an old idea such as this one, we begin to bump into it all around us. And so it has been for me lately with this phrase. The “how to catch best catch flies” philosophy came up two weeks ago in a class I was teaching, and then again in an email this week from San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May. And of course the implications go far beyond a toddler getting a snack. The golden honeyed approach can be an important tool in conflict resolution.

Joan had been working with the Sage Grouse protection group to write a letter to the folks at an agency non-supportive of their cause. As she wrote to me, “The first draft was kind of nasty and accusative, which got nixed (but felt good to get it into words!) and the next was nicer, inviting them to meet with us. One of the DOW guys said, ‘I agree with using honey to attract more flies, but for the life of me I can’t imagine who’d want to attract more flies.’ ”


And really, if the goal is to attract more flies, there are things besides honey that might do the trick better and less expensively. Excrement comes to mind.

Joan, seeing his point, suggested they try a new idiom on for size: Let’s extend an olive branch.

“But then,” as she writes, “who wants an olive branch, either?” That’s another column.

When it comes to saying difficult things, we often become so focused on getting the message across that we forget the potential effect of our words—how they can be like thorns underneath the fingernails of others when said the wrong way. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King said, “It is unfortunate that we still cannot disagree about violence, without being violently disagreeable.”

When shouted at, the best bet is not to shout back. That only ends up in two sore throats and two bent egos. Play it straight. Keep the voice and rate low, maintain a neutral to positive tone, and offer informative, and solution-focused words.

And if you can muster it, make it sweet. Not sugar coated, by the way. What fly is attracted to a pile of white refined stuff? It must be genuine. Integral. Wholesome, even. And if the message is really tough, why not deliver it with a big box of homemade cookies? Sweetened with honey, of course.



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