Which character do we tend to side with in books, TV shows, or movies: the flawless, utterly competent “golden child” archetype who never makes a mistake, or the downright decent, down-to-earth striver who gets it wrong some of the time but sticks to his or her goal and gets the job done in the end?
The answer, of course, is the latter – we tend to have a negative reaction to people we perceive as never making mistakes and always achieving things with competence. This is because such people make us feel vaguely threatened, perhaps a touch envious, or even less secure about ourselves. And it’s why someone else’s mistakes can make us feel more at ease, more sympathetic, and more self-assured.
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This is called the Pratfall Effect: it is a phenomenon in social psychology wherein witnessing someone else’s minor (and generally harmless) error actually improves the way we feel about that individual. Simply put, when we see someone spill a glass of water, miss a step and stumble, use the wrong word in a sentence, or commit some other pedestrian error – the exact kind we can and do make ourselves – we like that person more.
And the Pratfall Effect is most effective when the person making that minor mistake is someone we might otherwise have estimated as threateningly competent.
The Origins of the Pratfall Effect
While of course in practical terms the effects of this social phenomenon have existed for as long as humans have lived in societies, the specific identification of the Pratfall Effect can be dated to the year 1966 and attributed to a social psychologist named Elliot Aronson.
In seeking to prove a theory he had, Aronson created two audio recordings of a quiz-style game show (staged for the experiment, though participants were unaware of this). In the first version of the show, a poised and clever-sounding host led participants through the competition and the proceedings went off without a hitch.
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In the second version of the show, the only difference was that the host was heard to knock over a cup of coffee and respond to his accident with casual humor.
As Aronson had expected, study participants in the group that listened to the recording with the spilled coffee incident found the host of the show much more likeable and relatable. The only difference? He had made a small mistake.
Examples of the Pratfall Effect
If you think back, you will probably realize you have experienced the Pratfall Effect myriad times in your life: perhaps your boss knocked over a cup of coffee during a meeting and laughed it off, suddenly seeming less powerful and unapproachable and instead amiable and relatable. Perhaps you have seen a Hollywood star slip on a red carpet or a runway model miss a step and found them suddenly relatable.
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Even a president who makes the occasional gaffe during a speech or press conference can seem more down-to-earth and likeable than a cool, collected politician who always has the perfect diction. And in your everyday life, you have surely seen a stranger stumble on a street corner or drop a bag in an airport and immediately sympathized with and even been charmed by the person. (Ironic, isn’t it, how embarrassed we can be when we make these harmless little mistakes ourselves even though we know how we would feel when seeing someone else do the same!)
Those who have a clear understanding of the Pratfall Effect can use it as a powerful tool in politics, marketing, sales, and other arenas – mind you, they should only do so with good intentions, of course. By intentionally making yourself seem more relatable and likeable, you can help relate more closely to a constituency of potential voters; you see politicians doing this all the time when they adopt the mannerisms and speech patterns of a local population, even using improper grammar or colloquialisms that make them seem more approachable.
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In sales or marketing setting, if the pitch person (be they a speaker at a conference, a TV presenter, or the car salesman or saleswoman sitting across the desk from you) seems perfectly polished, you are less likely to respond to them as a human and thus less likely to end up buying what they are selling. If, on the other hand, the person makes a few little mistakes, is a bit self-effacing, and seems a bit imperfect, you are more likely to connect with them on a human level and also to be more likely to be comfortable becoming a customer.
When the Pratfall Effect Backfires
When a person who seems highly competent makes a minor mistake, in most cases, our perceived attraction of them will go up and we will find them more likeable, more relatable, and more trustworthy, and that, to reiterate, is the essential nature of the Pratfall Effect. On the other hand, when someone who does not seem all that competent or capable makes a mistake, it has the opposite effect: we see that person as even less competent, as less likable, and as less attractive.
The Pratfall Effect is also ineffective or works against a person when they make a major mistake. While we may laugh at and appreciate a famous neurosurgeon flubbing a word or dropping a stack of notes during a lecture, there is no good that could come of a doctor making a mistake during an operation, for example – not in the eyes of others or for the patient on the table. Major mistakes – or transgressions or judgment errors – just don’t make someone likeable.
So too can someone who makes too many mistakes go from initially more likeable to less so. If you want to put the Pratfall Effect to work in your factor, take care not to try too hard to appear likeable through error lest you may accidentally lower others’ estimation of you. A safer bet is to just be your genuine self and not to worry so much if and when you do make a mistake, because chances are good an honest mistake will actually work in your favor.
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