How would you act if the most stunningly attractive and physically perfect person suddenly sat down next to you?
If you were at home, you might tell them to get out of your house. But otherwise, we would likely be reduced to a stuttering mess. When someone so undoubtedly amazing suddenly becomes a point of comparison to us, we can’t help but feel inadequate. When we can’t seem to detect a flaw in someone, we grow tense and uptight, hiding our own shortcomings. Our insecurities instantly rise to the surface.
Perfect people scare and intimidate us.
We’re uncomfortable around them, and they make us self-conscious in ways we never thought possible. A person without flaws just seems superhuman, and it can generate a sense of shock and wonder as you think, “Are we even the same species?”
They seem unrelatable and like engaging with you would be below them. Okay, that might be a little hyperbolic, but the fact of the matter is that perfection and flawlessness are not wholly positive traits. We like these types of people that are high-status and high-value, but we’re not comfortable around them, at least not initially. That’s a hit to overall likability and relatability.
To illustrate this effect, consider that in recent years there has been an exponentially greater number of media and movies about Batman and Spider-Man over Superman. Let’s suppose we can use this as a proxy for how popular each superhero is. Why might Batman and Spider-Man be more popular than Superman?
I have my own theory. Superman is literally, well, a super man. He has no weaknesses beyond a rare type of rock. Most of his struggles, if we take a step back and think, can be solved with a single punch because he can lift a house effortlessly. He is rarely actually challenged, and it takes considerable work to make him vulnerable. There are only so many times Superman can be exposed to kryptonite before the audience groans and just begs him to get a radiation-proof spandex suit.
Batman and Spider-Man, on the other hand, are powerful yet deeply vulnerable characters. They’re not invulnerable, and they can be killed by a normal knife or gun. Most importantly, they are extremely flawed characters who are superheroes because of their own internal struggles. Batman’s parents were killed in front of him when he was a child (something that every movie inexplicably feels the need to recreate), and Spider-Man’s uncle was killed by a criminal he could have stopped. They are driven by guilt, purpose, anger, and frustration.
Coincidentally, these are extremely humanizing characteristics that make them far more relatable (and thus popular) to us than Superman. People are moved to feel for Spider-Man and Batman because they can also point to their own internal battles and how they’ve overcome them or not. They are compelling precisely because they aren’t perfect. It seems that we could inhabit the same world as them. This effect was also seen in 2018 in Bruk and Scholl’s “Beautiful Mess Effect: Self-Other Differences in Evaluation of Showing Vulnerability,” which found that people are seen in a better and more courageous light if they revealed something that made them feel vulnerable, such as confessing romantic feelings, admitting they made a mistake, asking someone for help, apologizing first, or revealing something about their body they didn’t like.
What does this have to do with the science of likability? Not being perfect is endearing to people. Vulnerability is attractive and relatable, and it ensures that you aren’t intimidating to others. Don’t pretend you’re perfect—you’re not, anyway—because it will probably backfire on you.
In fact, consciously display the opposite.
Oops, I Did It Again
Aronson, Willerman, and Floyd in 1966 in “The Effect of a Pratfall on Increasing Interpersonal Attractiveness” discovered an easy way to create likability, and it capitalized on displaying imperfection and letting people feel comfortable letting their guards down around you. This is how you put others at ease. The researchers ran a simple experiment where participants watched a video of a person knocking a cup of coffee over and a video of another person not knocking the cup of coffee over.
It was shown that participants highly preferred and in fact liked the person more who had knocked the cup of coffee over. In essence, it was found that flaws, hiccups, and imperfections that showed people to be vulnerable made people likable. This was called the pratfall effect, presumably named after someone named Prat who had a tendency to fall frequently. (In actuality, it’s an antiquated name for the act of someone falling onto their buttocks or making a mistake.)
When we display imperfection, we appear more approachable and relatable—overall more human. The more important, unspoken element of showing flaws is that you are making others comfortable and easing their fear of judgment. That’s one of the reasons we are really uncomfortable around perfection—because we feel we will be judged and inevitably come up short. If we’re around someone amazingly charismatic and loud, we might walk on eggshells and not say anything out of fear that it pales in comparison to them.
If we’re around someone amazingly beautiful, we might hide our faces or intentionally dress sloppily so as not to be compared to them. If we’re around someone shockingly intelligent, we might not want to voice our opinions for fear of being found wrong and humiliated. You haven’t done anything wrong by displaying your talents or strengths, but people’s insecurities can easily get the best of them.
When you commit a silly error, show a chink in your armor, or overall destroy any mystique people might have about you, that all changes. You become human and more likable. People know you’re not a living statue or encyclopedia, and they will feel they don’t have to walk on eggshells around you anymore because you’re just like them. Any self-consciousness will evaporate if the supposed genius has a tendency to spill coffee on her pants or the piano prodigy chipped his tooth while drinking coffee too aggressively. People won’t be so concerned with how they appear, and they will relax.
Imagine how we feel when we had a substitute teacher earlier in our scholastic careers. You knew how to handle your normal teacher, and you knew what your boundaries were. What about this new teacher? Will they come in with a propensity for yelling and scaring children? The fear in the substitute teacher, as with people who appear too put-together and without flaws, is the uncertainty.
With a simple pratfall, you will become the substitute teacher who swears in front of their students in the first five minutes of class—the class will relax because they previously felt like they had to be on their best behavior, and now they know their substitute teacher is actually going to be lenient and relaxed. Just make sure that you don’t fall apart and plunge into anxiety from making a mistake or showing a vulnerability—then suddenly people perceive you as truly hurt instead of someone that they can laugh and connect with.
Slightly obscured in all of this is the fact that without the feeling of comfort and nonjudgment, we don’t really like people. We may admire them from afar or respect them highly, but we don’t connect with them. It’s not easy to connect with people we feel are so high (or below) us. After all, we wouldn’t conduct ourselves in a normal matter if we were stuck in an elevator with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This chapter is a long way of saying I’d feel a lot more comfortable around Heidi Klum if she tripped and fell on her face to break her facade of being a beautiful Amazonian. Just a hint of normalcy can take people off of their pedestals. How can you use this knowledge in your daily life to be more likable?
There is any number of ways to make your appearance slightly less polished, more relatable, and more vulnerable, which we know makes us a bit more endearing to others.
For example, you can stumble a bit when you use stairs, exaggerate a yawn, wrinkle and rub your nose, drop something you’re carrying, snort while you laugh, walk into the corner of a table or door, drive onto a curb while parallel parking, stub your toe, get hit by a tree branch while walking, etc. The list is endless.
You can also make self-deprecating jokes and be the first to call out your mistakes if you notice them. You can make sure to freely bring up or admit embarrassing things about yourself, such as your past love affair with ice cream or that you broke your leg chasing an ice cream truck.
To take full advantage of the pratfall effect, simply ask if divulging personal information or performing certain actions would make people laugh at you (not with you). Typically, these are acts or thoughts we seek to hide as quickly as possible so people don’t judge us in a negative manner. This turns out to be true—people won’t judge us for our flaws, but they will judge us as people that they cannot open up to or relate to.
One more common instance where this lack of vulnerability colors the entire interaction is a job interview. Our default mental approach is like sitting on an uncomfortable chair that forces you to sit in perfect, spine-bending posture. We have to present ourselves in a professional, conservative (some might say uptight) manner.
But imagine that the interviewer is casual with you to the point of spilling some coffee on his pants and then laughing about it. You can imagine that the tone would be different—more like a worn leather couch that you can slouch into and kick your feet up on. The tension would be out of the air, like a popped balloon. Of course, there may never have been any tension on the interviewer’s side, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist for you.
Another trait that will make you more endearing is the ability to deliver bad news in a good way. No one likes to hear bad news, and often we take it out on the messenger. What if you are forced to be that messenger?
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Understand what makes people tick, and strategically give it to them. There are seminal studies from (in)famous researchers such as Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov, Stanley Schachter, and Daniel Goleman, but also the most up-to-date discoveries from 2019 – all insightful, analytical, sometimes surprising, but most importantly effective and actionable. Pair that with the insight and human intelligence factor of bestselling author and social skills coach Patrick King, and you have a guide that can be read equally for education as for helpful, real advice.
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