Pratfall – how mistakes make you more attractive

Published by Lucy Gower on

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.

17mewzn7qc55zjpgThe 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.

mHow 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.


Lucy Gower

Lucy has been a fundraiser for over 10 years and is passionate about innovation and how it can transform organisational and individual performance. Lucy is an independent trainer and consultant specializing in innovation in fundraising. Lucy also blogs for fundraising website sofii.org and is a conference speaker both in the UK and overseas.


Clairese Yuhasz Austin · April 22, 2016 at 06:45

Lucy Gower, thank you for the great article. Our NPO has been accused of abuse and neglect of our horses – and were found blameless, but that was after the front page news and listings on two Orlando TV news station’s website, with comments. Our members, board and volunteers had all kinds of horrid ideas to get back at the disgruntled ex-volunteers that did this to us. I insisted at Founder & Executive Director that we have “clean hands” and we do not respond to anything in word or deed. It’s been 4 years and the court still mandates what we do. I don’t know how to ask for a release. The posse of haters still come after us. So many rescues have haters today, it is truly an awful problem. And our Animal Control is “enforcement” based instead of service oriented. The officers that came with a warrant to our ranch were both fired a few weeks later, but it was too late. The charity and my reputation were already ruined. Now still, no one wants a thing to do with us. I applied for a grant locally and was awarded the grant until the morning of our hotel presentation when the Agency called me to tell me they had rescinded the grant based upon our court issues. So instead of patting me on the back for admitting our shortcomings, following explicit court orders and four years later are still blameless means nothing. I wish I knew what more we could do to take this yoke off of us. We don’t want to quit. Or rebrand. We want the truth and our integrity to prevail. I of course shared this with my board. And I watched Seaworld behave the very same way in ignoring their protesters; until now when their bottom line is horribly affected and their reputation tarnished. I think this issue is so vital. It will happen to every business at some time, to have a black mark and in the Internet review areas, you can read just astonishingly mean comments left anonymous keyboard morons. Thanks for writing about black marks and being boycotted. I am happy to know we responded appropriately. Now to find a pro bono attorney to help us make this go away!

mapquest driving directions · February 27, 2023 at 11:08

If we are already well-regarded, a mistake or blunder can make us more attractive and likable, but if we are not, it can make us even less appealing. It is important to be aware of this bias and to try to mitigate its impact by working on building positive perceptions of ourselves and our abilities.

Henry Larry · February 28, 2024 at 10:03

Applying pratfall theory to fundraising underscores the power of vulnerability. By openly acknowledging and learning from mistakes charities can build trust ultimately enhancing their appeal to potential supporters.
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Could accidental blunders boost your business? > Lucidity · May 3, 2016 at 13:18

[…] A version of this blog was first published on 101fundraising. […]

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