Why we prefer people who aren’t perfect, warts and all.
According to a classic study by psychologist Elliot Aronson, making mistakes can make us more likable. In fact, people who never make mistakes are perceived as less appealing than those who stumble once in a while. This is known as the Pratfall Effect.
In the famous experiment, participants were asked to listen to recordings of people answering challenging questions. Select recordings included the sound of the person being quizzed spilling a cup of coffee. When participants were asked to rate the likability of capable test takers, the spillers were deemed to be more appealing than those who had similar success but didn’t knock over their coffee. The researchers theorize that perfect people are unrelatable. The perception of flawlessness creates distance and breeds resentment whereas an occasional misstep draws people in. As Aronson and his colleagues observed:
“A blunder on the part of a superior person removes the onus of being “too good;” it increases his approachability and makes him seem less austere, more human…”
It is worth noting that for the Pratfall to operate, the person must be perceived as competent to begin with. A mistake made by an error-prone individual will not increase likability but the occasional misstep by a person already held in high regard is appealing.
The appreciation of imperfection applies to art as well. Ellen Langer, professor of Psychology at Harvard, explains:
With writing and art, mistakes tend to make the product more interesting. The major difference between a machine-made rug and a handmade one is that the regularity of the machine-made rug makes it uninteresting. Errors give the viewer something to hold onto.
When you make a mistake in a painting, if—instead of trying to correct the mistake—you incorporate it into what you are doing and go forward, you are working mindfully. When we ask viewers to choose between this kind of art and ‘flawless’ works, people say they prefer the mindfully created pieces.
There is elegance in imperfection. Beauty is in the cracks, the smudge, and the imperfect line. In an age of machine-made products, human touch is more valuable than ever. As with people, minor flaws can make objects more appealing.
Despite the undeniable appeal of imperfection, perfectionism is on the rise. Young people are more burdened than ever by the pressure to be perfect at school, in their social lives, and in appearance. Perfectionism is defined as a mix of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations and can be an on-ramp for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm.
When perfectionism is directed toward the self, the individual holds unrealistic expectations of themselves and is extremely self-critical. A self-oriented perfectionist agrees with statements such as “one of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do” and “When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect.”
Other oriented perfectionism is perfectionism turned outward. They set unrealistic expectations for others and evaluate them critically. Other-oriented perfectionists agree with statements such as “If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly” and “I cannot stand to see people close to me make mistakes.”
Socially prescribed perfectionism is the perception that other people and society require perfection at all times. Socially-prescribed perfectionists agree with statements such as “Anything that I do that is less than excellent will be seen as poor work by those around me” and “People expect nothing less than perfection from me.”
You can take the Perfectionism scale here.
The three types of perfectionism overlap and can exacerbate the effects of each other in negative ways. Thomas Curran, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science posits that parents can help their children avoid the perfectionism gauntlet by teaching them that failure and imperfection are normal and natural. “Focusing on learning and development, not test scores or social media, helps children develop healthy self-esteem, which doesn’t depend on others’ validation or external metrics.”
I used to wear my pursuit of perfection on my sleeve. I thought of it as something to strive for. If ever confronted with the question “What is your greatest weakness?” in an interview I remember being told to respond with a classic my-weakness-is-actually-a-strength answer. Not surprisingly, “My greatest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist” was reliably met with approval. A willingness to relentlessly strive for more is an appealing characteristic in a world that values success above all else. After all, who wouldn’t want to hire a perfectionist? Everyone knows that perfectionism is something to strive for, right?
Clinical psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef called perfectionism “self-abuse of the highest order.” Let’s strive for self-kindness instead.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman