Pratfall – how mistakes make you more attractive

Pratfall is a term coined by psychologist Elliot Aronson to describe the bias of how your attractiveness to someone or something increases or decreases after making a blunder or a mistake (or a pratfall).

The impact of pratfall depends on how you are already perceived. If you are well regarded, a pratfall can make you more appealing. For example, in an experiment Aronson recorded two actors answering a series of quiz questions. One actor competently answered 92% of the questions right and afterwards talked about his stellar high school career. The other actor answered 30% of the questions right and then described his average high school career. When the quiz finished each actor deliberately ‘accidently’ spilt a cup of coffee.

The recording was played to a large sample of students as a split test. Some students saw recordings with the ‘accidental’ spill and some without. The students found the high performing actor, with the 92% score and stellar high school career more likeable and attractive when he was clumsy.  The lower performing actor with the 30% score and average high school career less likable and attractive when he was clumsy.


What could pratfall mean for organisations and brands?

According to psychologists, admitting weaknesses can makes brands appear more human and honest. In a time when so many services are automated, human error and an imperfect touch can actually be appealing!

But there are other factors too. If a brand can demonstrate its weakness and lack of investment in some areas, it can give customers confidence. This theory may explain some of the success of budget airlines. They openly admitted that their customer service was rubbish, how else would they be able to achieve the low costs without compromising on safety? Although it sounds counter intuitive, bad customer service made sense as a trade-off for a low price rather than compromising safety. Pratfall somehow gave customers confidence.

What might pratfall mean for your fundraising?

I’m not suggesting you spill your coffee at your next major donor meeting, or purposefully forget your lines at your next corporate pitch, or rejoice if the tabloid press run an undercover story on your charity, but the consequences of making accidental blunders, mistakes or pratfalls may not be as negative as you think.

How to make pratfall work for you

For pratfall to enhance your likability and attractiveness of your brand, you have to be liked and respected in the first place.

  • As an individual, build your personal social trust and respect capital; deliver on time, add value to others where you can, prove yourself to be reliable and provide excellent customer service to internal and external stakeholders. When a pratfall occurs, remember it may have a positive impact. Own it, assess the impact and share so others can learn from it too.
  • If you manage a team, support them to build a solid reputation both as a team and as individuals. When a pratfall occurs remember it may have a positive impact. Own it together, assess the impact it had, share and learn from it.
  • Whatever your position, you are an ambassador for your organisation. Work hard, in whatever way you can to make your charity liked and respected. When a pratfall occurs, remember it may have a positive impact. Your whole organisation must own it, assess the impact it had, share and learn from it.

Health warning: beware of ‘doing a Ratner’. Don’t dabble with making deliberate pratfalls. Do your homework. Manage risk. If your pratfall is pure stupidity, illegal or immoral, and especially if you have not already proved your respectability, a pratfall will have a detrimental effect. As an individual, team or organisation you will be less attractive and likable. And none of us aspire to that.

I’d love to know your thoughts on how you might use pratfall theory to improve your fundraising. Please comment below.


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