From the Lab: The Pratfall Effect

While it’s often our tendency to seek presentation perfection—as both presenters and presentation coaches—there’s research to suggest that perfection may not be essential, and in some cases, it may not even be most successful.

In a classic study by Elliot Aronson, participants listened to an audio tape in which game show contestants answered a variety of difficult questions. In one condition, a small blunder (or “pratfall”) was introduced in the form of the contestant spilling coffee on his suit. As might be expected, when the contestant was unsuccessful, answering only 30% of the questions correctly and admitting to low academic achievement, the pratfall decreased the contestant’s attractiveness in the eyes of the listeners. However, when the contestant was successful, answering 92% of the questions correctly and admitting to high academic achievement, the pratfall actually increased their attractiveness!

A later study revealed some important clarifications, namely, that this only holds true only works when the pratfall brings the contestant down to the level of the audience, not below it. When high-achieving listeners heard a high-achiever spill their coffee, they actually liked them less, while reacting indifferently to a low-achiever regardless of coffee-spilling. (In fact, in the eyes of a high-achiever, a high-achiever who spilled their coffee was viewed as less attractive than a low-achiever who did.) When low-achieving listeners heard a high-achiever spill their coffee, they liked them more, while they liked a coffee-spilling low-achiever less.

This means that if your audience has higher status than you, making a mistake won’t make much of a difference. If your audience has similar status to you, making a mistake, will, as expected, hurt you. But if you have high status compared to your audience, it may actually benefit you to make a mistake, as this will humanize you in the eyes of your audience.

This is reminiscent of several counterintuitive findings that I’ve previously reported: that admitting a weakness in your argument can actually strengthen it, that admitting ignorance can increase perceptions of your knowledge, and that breaking a dress code can increase your status. In each of these cases, however, the aforementioned caveats hold true, and these techniques should only be used if you have high relative status.


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