Falling for the flaws: The Pratfall Effect

Imagine that you have a soft corner for someone or are in awe of somebody and they err in some way. Many of us would believe that it is the end of the story. But is it, really? On the contrary, the moment they take a step down from being in the starry world of perfection to the humble earthly imperfections, and you happen to witness that, psychology says that you would in fact feel happy because the story has just begun.

This story, like every other, has all the essential components to make it a best seller. It can be the story of a relationship, a brand, a leader or even a movie. The pratfall effect is the tendency for attractiveness to increase after an individual makes a mistake, when the individual was already previously perceived as attractive or competent. The Pratfall Effect simply implies that an individuals’ likability will increase if they are not perceived as perfect in a domain but they are seen as being competent in that domain or/and are perceived as attractive in some way. Why it is important to evaluate the Pratfall Effect in today’s world? This explains why most people are drawn to the flawed characters in movies and it also underscores why people give others a second chance when they come up short.

A simple yet telling study elucidated this phenomenon in 1966. Participants were show videos of actors answering a quiz, thereby increasing the actor’s ‘perceived superiority’. In one condition, the participants heard the actor knocking over a cup of coffee and reacting to it, while in the other condition the participants heard recordings with no manipulation of perceived superiority, i.e. the actor did not answer any quiz, but knocked over the cup. It was found that participants listening to the recordings rated the actor in the first condition as being more likeable.

Before committing a blunder, however it’s essential to keep certain facts in mind. The findings of the study support the hypothesis that a blunder on the part of a superior person (perceived as such in any domain) removes the onus of being "too good" on the person; it increases the person’s approachability and makes them seem less austere, more human.  A blunder, though, on the part of a mediocre person makes them seem that much more mediocre. The Pratfall Effect maybe sheds some light on why Jennifer Lawrence - a star Hollywood Actress, one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2013, and an Academy Award and Golden Globe’s winner- is perceived as down to earth, modest and relatable. She is famously known for making blunders such as slips of tongue in interviews and tripping on the red carpet multiple times. 

The Pratfall Effect has many implications in daily living. Right from our interpersonal relationships to the movies we enjoy, from our chances of gaining employment to our susceptibility to advertisements, the Pratfall Effect is shown to have a hand in all of these areas. In the area of employment, a study similar to the original one by Aronson was carried out in California. This time the researchers looked at the effect of admitting to past mistakes in a selection interview. The research team found that those individuals who were doing well in the selection process, for example those who had reached the second round of the interview, were likely to be considered more likeable if they admitted to their past mistakes in the initial interview stages than if they covered them up. Here the reasoning seems to be that when you take ownership for pratfalls, even if others contributed to them, you are regarded as more responsible and reliable in an employment setting.

The Pratfall Effect has been shown to attract more customers as well. In his book, The Science of Story Selling, Gideon F. For-mukwai says that if someone has to narrate a business or brand story, they need not be the hero; they have to make their customers the hero. The author states 3 reasons why the effect matters in advertising a brand. The effect humanizes the entrepreneur and the brand thereby making it more relatable to the masses. This keeps the entrepreneur and the brand grounded and relatable, and reflects the humility and sincerity of the brand. Both of these are powerful human qualities that are sorely lacking in our world today, which makes them all the more appealing. Closer home, remember the Tanishq advertisement on timeless jewellery on Mother’s Day featuring Deepika Padukone? It serves as a good example for the same. In a world full of jewellery advertisements that are all glamour and glitter, an act of humility, sincerity and love shown by a popular figure in their advertisement got the brand noticed and appreciated.

Thus, it’s seen that the Pratfall Effect has an impact on many domains of human life - relationships, job opportunities, brand choice, favourite movies, etc. The next time you see anyone literally falling, or notice someone figuratively falling for someone, or a person or brand flaunting their flaws way too much; do give it a thought as to whether the Pratfall Effect is at play.

Priya Baid