Pratfall effect: how do errors influence attractiveness?

When we make a major mistake, the perception people who have witnessed it have of us changes. However, it’s not that we are less attractive on a personal level if we put our foot down, but that the mechanism by which our level of coziness and respectability changes is a little less intuitive than that.

In this article, we will describe the variables involved in the Pratfall effect, the phenomenon whereby attractive people who are wrong tend to like others more than before, whereas with unattractive people are even less attractive when they make a big mistake. Let’s see what exactly this psychological effect is.

    What is the Pratfall effect?

    The American psychologist Elliot Aronson, known for his research on the theory of cognitive dissonance, described in 1966 the Pratfall effect, a psychological phenomenon consisting of an increase or decrease in an individual’s interpersonal attractiveness after a person makes a mistake.

    The direction of the effect depends on the degree of skill that other people attribute to the person who was wrong. Thus, those who were perceived as very competent in general will tend to like others more after making a mistake, while if the skill level is average, the attractiveness will be reduced.

    As part of the Pratfall effect the concept of “attractiveness” is understood as a combination of pleasantness and respectability. So, a person can be attractive to others because he is unusually friendly, but also to occupy a place with a high level of prestige or to be very intelligent.

    The word “pratfall” is an English term which can be loosely translated as “error” although, in fact, the meaning is closer to the colloquial expression “to fall from the ass”: it refers to a certain seriousness of failure. which tends to be embarrassing to the person hiring him.

    The Pratfall effect is influenced by very different variables, among which stand out the observer’s level of self-esteem, gender and the severity of the failure committed. We will explain later how each of these factors contributes to the increase or decrease of interpersonal attractiveness.

      Elliot Aronson’s study

      Aronson himself conducted the experiment from which his hypothesis of the Pratfall effect was born. In this study, the experimental subjects, all male students, listened to one of two recorded interviews in which the same actor played two different characters.

      One of these men was a very intelligent man, had had a remarkable life both personally and professionally, and answered most of the interviewer’s questions correctly. The other character was wrong in most of the answers, was particularly unintelligent, and hadn’t accomplished much in his life.

      At the end of the talks, the two men made humiliating mistakes (“Pratfalls”). These had opposite effects depending on the character: if the experimental subjects valued the intelligent man more positively after the error, his opinion of the latter deteriorated even more.

      Subsequently, research similar to that of Aronson was carried out. Although the results were reproduced in general, it was also possible to clearly determine some important nuances involved in this phenomenon.


        Aronson’s research and later ones that followed the same line found some striking peculiarities regarding the Pratfall effect. These mainly concern psychosocial variables. It should be borne in mind, on the other hand, that this phenomenon falls within the field of social psychology.

        One of the most characteristic aspects of the Pratfall effect is that it is not certain that this occurs in women to the same degree as in men. These findings are associated with relatively old research, so the influence of the role of gender may be minor today in many places.

        These studies suggest that the personal attractiveness of someone who makes a serious mistake tends to decrease for women, whether they perceive them to be intelligent and / or pleasant or if they do not.

        The scale of the decision is also very important. Attractive people who make minor mistakes become less attractive, while if the pain is severe, they will like others more, but they will also lose a very small part of their respectability. On the contrary, those who are not attractive will be even less attractive after making a mistake no matter how serious.

        Another relevant variable is the self-esteem of the person observing the error: if it is high, they will prefer a competent person who does not make any mistakes over one who does. In this sense, the effect of social comparison is very significant; under certain assumptions, the Pratfall effect it would be due to the ability to empathize with the wrong person.

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