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Screwing Up Can Make You More Likable If You’re Doing It Right

Want to make some new friends? Quick, spill a hot cup of coffee on yourself instead of drinking it. 

It might sound masochistic and messy, but it’s a phenomenon known as “the pratfall effect,” which psychologist Elliot Aronson established way back in 1966. In his research, Aronson had 48 male college students listen to audio tapes of trivia contestants auditioning for a game show. Participants listened to four scenarios: a superior contestant answering questions with 92 percent accuracy; a mediocre contestant answering questions with 30 percent accuracy; and then the same contestants again, but this time committing pratfalls. In particular, after they answered the questions, there would be a clattering sound before they exclaimed the very dated line: “Oh my goodness, I’ve spilled coffee all over my new suit!” 

“The attractiveness of a superior person is enhanced if he commits a clumsy blunder,” Aronson concluded at the time. On the flip side, he explained, “the same blunder tends to decrease the attractiveness of a mediocre person.” Aronson speculated that “a superior person may be viewed as superhuman and, therefore, distant; a blunder tends to humanize him and, consequently, increases his attractiveness.”

Interestingly, the pratfall effect applies to robots as well. One study, aptly titled “To Err Is Robot: How Humans Assess and Act Toward an Erroneous Social Robot,” found that robots who had quirky flaws when interacting with humans were more likable compared to robots who didn’t make any mistakes. 

That said, attempting to manufacture such relatability is likely to come across as phony, warns therapist Tim Stein. “Intentionally screwing up will feel intentional and will lose some of the benefits,” he tells me. Because the pratfall effect is based on a willingness to be human and imperfect, it has to be spontaneous in order to land. Otherwise, you’re simply a desperate dude covered in coffee. “This kind of intentional manipulation may work in the short term but creates plenty of other challenges and chaos down the line.” 

Fellow therapist Tracy Pryce agrees, although if you’re gonna force the issue, “think of the move like a fedora — it’s an accessory to be used sparingly and don’t always repeat it around the same group of people,” she jokes. 

The better way, of course, is getting more comfortable admitting your screwups to other people. “You don’t have to be totally fine and unruffled by the mistake, you just have to be able to laugh at yourself or be honest about how this would have gone in the dream scenario,” Pryce recommends. Ultimately, we all know we mess up from time to time, “so if you take the first hit, you won’t be judged as harshly. It takes the pressure off and makes time with you more enjoyable.” 

While you don’t have to compromise your morning coffee over it, get a good stain remover just in case.