How Making a Mistake in the Interview Could Land You the Job

by Isabel Sperry | October 17, 2017

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Man in interview thinking hard

We all fear making a mistake in an interview that could cost us the job. But what if that misstep actually made you more attractive as a job candidate and increased your chances of landing the job? In fact, spilling coffee on yourself or falling down in public can actually make you more appealing as an applicant, under certain circumstances. Don’t believe us? Here’s why.

A phenomenon exists in social psychology called the Pratfall Effect, which is somewhat counterintuitive. It essentially says that when a competent person makes an everyday blunder, a “pratfall,” if you will, he or she becomes more likeable.

In 1966, social psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted an experiment to test his hypothesis that making mistakes increased likability in individuals. In his study, a panel of 48 students from the University of Minnesota listened to tape recordings of contestants (in reality just one actor) trying out for a College Quiz Bowl team. In one of the tapes, the contestant accidentally spilled a cup of coffee on himself, and in the other he didn’t. The panel of students perceived this individual as more likeable when he spilled the cup of coffee on himself than when he didn’t. However, this truth only held when the students perceived the contestant as highly competent. In this instance, the contestant had answered 92 percent of difficult quiz questions correctly. Yet in tapes showcasing an “average” contestant, who answered only 30 percent of quiz questions correctly, spilling coffee made that contestant appear less likeable to the panel.

These findings make sense, as we typically find it hard to identify with highly competent individuals. Yet when those individuals make everyday mistakes, it humanizes them and makes them more “real,” which makes us like them more. Yet when individuals we view as incompetent make mistakes, it only reinforces our poor impression of them.

The same effect appeared in another study, conducted by psychologist Jo Sylvester at the University of Wales, this time in a job interview setting. The study revealed that candidates who were doing well in an interview process, such as those on a second interview, were considered more likeable if they openly admitted to past mistakes. This finding suggests that taking ownership of previous mistakes not only demonstrates a sense of responsibility, but it makes you more relatable to your interviewer.

It’s important to note that the Pratfall Effect comes with a few stipulations:

1. In order to benefit from the Pratfall Effect, you have to be perceived as competent first. This condition is crucial. If you appear average or incompetent, the effect will work in the opposite way—if you commit a blunder, it will confirm the interviewer’s negative judgment of you.

2. For the effect to work in your favor, the mistake you make should be relatively insignificant, such as stubbing your toe or spilling something. If you make a mistake regarding an issue that is central to the job at hand—say, you calculate the revenue growth rate wrong when answering a case interview question—this will work against you.

The Pratfall Effect has implications not only in an interview setting but also in the workplace and business in general. For example, if you’re a competent manager and want to become better liked among your employees, you might reveal some of your past failures or mistakes, to make you seem more relatable. In this way, your imperfections can actually become an asset as opposed to a weakness of yours in the workplace.

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Filed Under: Interviewing | Job Search | Workplace Issues

Tags: management | social psychology

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