Interesting Psychological Phenomena: The Pratfall Effect

Image of a man falling.

Is spilling coffee on yourself ever beneficial? What about stubbing your toe? Falling down in public? According to social psychology, clumsy mistakes like these can give individuals an advantage more often than you might think. It’s called the Pratfall Effect and remains a highly intriguing theory in the field of social science.

What Is the Pratfall Effect?

The Pratfall Effect states that people who are considered highly competent are found to be more likeable when they perform an everyday blunder than those who don’t. The effect was first studied by social psychologist Elliot Aronson in 1966. Aronson speculated that people considered “superior” by others could become more attractive upon committing a small pratfall.

Because these superior people were viewed by others as “superhuman,” a small mistake would allow others to better humanize them, and thus, like them more.

We can observe the truth of the Pratfall Effect with the famous film actress Jennifer Lawrence. Widely touted for her talent and beauty, she is also known for her gaffes, such as falling down at red carpet events and speaking brashly in interviews. Yet Lawrence is commonly considered a “down-to-earth” celebrity and regularly celebrated for her likeability.

To test his theory, Aronson conducted what is now one of the most famous experiments in his field.

Aronson’s Original Experiment

For his experiment, Aronson enlisted 48 male subjects of college age, whom he then divided into four groups. Each group was instructed to listen to a tape recording of someone answering trivia questions, supposedly as an audition for a television quiz show. The subjects listened to one of four scenarios:

  • A superior person answering questions
  • An average person answering questions
  • A superior person answering questions and committing a pratfall
  • An average person answering questions and committing a pratfall

While the superior person answered 92 percent of his answers correctly, the average person only answered 30 percent correctly. Aronson reinforced these “superior” and “average” concepts by having the respondents reveal personal information about themselves. The superior person stated that he was an honor student in high school, the yearbook editor and a member of the track team. In contrast, the average person said that he made average grades, was a proofreader of the yearbook and had tried out for the track team but hadn’t made it. On the tapes that contained pratfalls, the end of the recording played the sounds of clattering, accompanied by the voice stating “Oh my goodness, I’ve spilled coffee all over my new suit.

After hearing the tapes, the test subjects then answered a series of questions about their impressions of the person they had heard. The results were as Aronson had supposed: those people considered superior were found to be more likeable if they had committed a blunder (in this case, spilling coffee on themselves). However, Aronson also discovered that the likeability of average people decreased upon committing the same gaffe.

Key Takeaways

The Pratfall Effect experiment revealed three major social truths:

  1. It’s OK to be fallible.

    If a person is generally considered smart and capable, committing a small mistake will generally make them more socially attractive.

  2. The ultimate effects of pratfalls are contextual.

    There is no single right interpretation of how committing a mistake might affect how someone is perceived in public. In fact, subsequent studies have discovered that pratfalls are perceived differently based on other factors, including gender.

  3. If individuals are considered average or mediocre, they are more likely to be negatively impacted by their mistake.

The Pratfall Effect is a fascinating example of social psychology in action. By providing insight into how our actions are perceived by others, it helps us better understand our relations with those around us.

Sources: The Effect of a Pratfall on Increasing Interpersonal Attractiveness, Dr. Peter Salovey

A Student of Psychology

For those seeking to know more about the exciting world of the mind, the online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Brescia University can set them on the path toward success. The program trains students to understand critical theories and applications in the field, and prepares them for a broad array of professional opportunities beyond graduation. Brescia’s online psychology degree was named one of the best in the 2016-2017 year, and Brescia was named one of the best overall online colleges in 2017.