We see characters in shows that develop a sense of affection when they look at a person accidentally tripping or being clumsy and wonder what’s so cool about being clumsy? Isn’t secondhand embarrassment a more likely outcome?
Research though, suggests that the contrary is true. In social psychology, a phenomenon proposed by Elliot Aronson known as the Pratfall effect discusses how interpersonal appeal increases or decreases after an individual makes a mistake. It has been found that this also depends on the individual’s general performance, i.e. a highly competent person making a mistake is likely to be perceived as endearing, while it would be looked down upon for someone perceived to rank low in competence.
Seen as mainly prevalent in the male population, Elliot Aronson’s experiment studied the phenomenon by playing records of confederates (actors that are aware of the research study and pose to be unaffiliated) answering quiz questions. One is given harder questions and makes lesser mistakes, while the other is seen as less competent and makes more mistakes.
When the confederate who is perceived as more competent and bright spills a cup of coffee in the interview following the quiz, she is seen as more likeable; while the converse is true for the confederate perceived as an average person, who is perceived as less likeable.
“Blunders tend to humanize people, especially those who seem otherwise superior. As long as you’re generally capable, a mistake here and there can help others feel more comfortable around you—and more likely to acknowledge their own mistakes.” Psychology Today
While this in itself might not provide conclusive evidence for generalization and its effects are extremely contextual, it does help to understand that our faults aren’t always perceived as pitfalls and may also make us more accessible to the people around us, coming off as endearing. Thus, we can take a deep breath and feel less anxious as we think of how small errors do not botch all that we have done and been successful at.
In fact, there are also companies that exploit this strategy to seem more relatable to their target audience. One such example is that of the beer company ‘Guinness’ whose marketing strategy made effective use of the Pratfall effect to flaunt their flaws in order to increase popularity and likeability.
A recently discussed example of the phenomenon operating has been in the case of celebrity actress Jennifer Lawrence who, apart from being well known for her looks and charm, has also been known for her blunders such as falling in red carpet events or for some remarks made in her interviews.
Despite that, she is widely seen as a likeable figure and is seen as ‘down-to-earth’. It is safe to assume that these blunders have helped increase her likeability among the audiences and that Pratfall effect is in play. So the next time you see a movie where the female lead stumbles and the male lead seems to be taking a greater liking to her after the incident, the pratfall effect could be at work!