Likeability: The Pratfall Effect
The Pratfall Effect is a psychological phenomenon that says that competent people appear more likeable and attractive when they make a mistake than when they are perfect. It is named after the American expression for "falling on your behind".
The phenomenon was widely suggested as an effective persuasion technique by Dr Richard Wiseman in his book, "59 Seconds - Think a Little, Change a Lot". The basis of the effect was a study at the University of California led by Elliot Aronson where a researcher was invited to answer a series of quiz questions. The contestant answered competently and scored 90%. A team of scientists then created two tapes: one that was unchanged and one in which the contestant could be heard spilling a fictitious cup of coffee over himself at the end. These two tapes were then played to a series of panels who were asked to rate the likeability of the contestants. In all of the studies, the panels rated the person spilling the cup of coffee in the second tape higher than the person in the first tape.
Wiseman concludes that people find it hard to associate with others who are highly competent, perhaps more so than themselves but warm to others who are flawed and just like themselves.
The Pratfall Effect: Making Mistakes
A similar study to the California study was carried out by a team at Swansea University in Wales led by Jo Sylvester. This time the researchers looked at the effect of admitting to past mistakes in a selection interview. The team found that those who were doing well in the selection process, for example, those in a second interview, were likely to be considered more likeable if they admitted to past mistakes 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.
The Pratfall Effect and its Applications
If these studies are correct, there is a value for us in the impression we make on others if we show ourselves to being less than perfect by admitting to past mistakes or making clumsy errors. However, the studies carry 3 warnings:
a. the area that you are slightly clumsy in should not be significant, but relatively unimportant. Being seen as incompetent in key issues will rarely get you the job or promotion.
b. don't appear incompetent as a way of getting others to have pity on you. They'll see you as playing the "child" and them as having to play the "nurturing parent".
c. make sure you have already established your credentials as competent. If you are already perceived as incompetent, then a further gaffe is likely to confirm what people believed about you and so lessen your attractiveness.