On August 2, Justin Bieber, at the zenith of his career and on top of the Billboard charts, made a stream of consciousness announcement on Instagram explaining to his millions of followers why he needed to take a break from performing and abruptly cancel the remaining dates of his world tour. In a refreshingly candid Instagram message, Bieber admitted that his grammar isn't perfect, and neither is he:
“I want my career to be sustainable, but I also want my mind, heart, and soul to be sustainable...This message is just an opportunity for you to know my heart, I'm not expecting anyone to understand. but I do want people to have an opportunity to know where I am coming from! THIS MESSAGE IS VERY GRAMMATICALLY INCORRECT BUT ITS FROM THE HEART. I THINK THERES SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT IMPERFECTIONS!! [sic]”
Bieber is right, because letting your guard down and showing your imperfections actually increases attractiveness. Social psychologists call this phenomenon the “Pratfall Effect,” which posits that when highly-competent individuals commit a blunder or goof, onlookers perceive the individual to be more attractive and relatable.
Any of Bieber’s fans who appreciate the concept of wabi-sabi are probably applauding him for publicly declaring that imperfections can be a good thing. In Japanese culture, wabi-sabi represents an aesthetic and mindset that admires and promotes subtle imperfections in a person or piece of art.
The words "wabi" and "sabi" are difficult to translate directly into English. Wabi is generally described as quirks, glitches, and anomalies that add uniqueness to something or someone. Sabi could be seen as the beauty of an individual or object that is embellished with a unique patina that comes from life experience and ripens with age like a fine wine.
The roots of wabi-sabi can be traced to ancient Buddhist teachings. As a fundamental aspect of being "Zen," imperfection is viewed as a pivotal first step towards satori, or enlightenment. The concept of satori refers to the enlightening experience of kenshō, which implies "seeing clearly into one's true nature or essence." Wabi-sabi transcends cultural barriers and serves as a timeless reminder that nonconformity and irregularity resonate more deeply on a human level than cookie-cutter perfection.
Beyond counting the millions of “likes” and shares of Bieber’s posting, it’s difficult to prove how humans respond to imperfection in a clinical setting. But the latest robotics research offers some counterintuitive clues about human nature and our innate attraction to imperfection.
A recent study by a team of Austrian robotics researchers found that less-than-perfect robots, programmed to have quirky "wabi-sabi" flaws when interacting with humans, are more likable than their flawless counterparts. The study, “To Err Is Robot: How Humans Assess and Act Toward an Erroneous Social Robot,” appears in the May 2017 issue of Frontiers in Robotics and AI.
Most studies on robotics are based on the assumption that people always want robots to be flawless. Most of the time, this is true. But when it comes to social robots, people seem to like imperfections. I know that my 9-year-old daughter gets a real kick out of grabbing my iPhone and asking “Siri” ridiculous questions. ("Will you marry me, Siri?") Her silly inquiries are designed to unearth a glitch in the cyborg's soulless software. If Siri offers a tongue-in-cheek response or displays a sense of humor, my daughter erupts with laughter and gleeful delight that seems to make her like Siri more. Clearly, the programmers at Apple have realized that having Siri exhibit some playful imperfections makes "him/her" more likable, which is kind of scary, in an Ex Machina kind of way.
To examine human-computer dynamics in a lab, the Austrian researchers purposefully programmed faulty behavior into one of their human-like robots. Then they measured how humans responded to the various robots in terms of likability and perceived intelligence while participants spent time "socializing" with the androids in the lab setting.
After analyzing swaths of data, the researchers were surprised to find that erroneous robots were not perceived as less intelligent when compared to flawless robots. Additionally, even though study participants recognized the erroneous social robot's mistakes, they rated the imperfect robot as more likable than its "perfect" counterpart. (I'm sure any Star Wars fan will agree that the comic relief of R2-D2 and C-3PO corroborates the empirical evidence of this study.)
In a statement, Nicole Mirnig of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Salzburg, a co-author of the study, said, "Our results showed that the participants liked the faulty robot significantly more than the flawless one. This finding confirms the Pratfall Effect, which states that people's attractiveness increases when they make a mistake. Studying the sources of imperfect robot behavior will lead to more believable robot characters and more natural interaction.”
"My imperfections make me unique, that's my belief." —Madonna
From a pop culture perspective, Madonna and Diana Ross are among countless celebrities who have publicly admitted the unexpected benefits of displaying one's imperfections later in their careers. The wisdom of these icons — who have spent decades in the spotlight — reaffirms Bieber's revelation that "there's something special about imperfections!!"
In 1991, Arsenio Hall interviewed Ross, who became a superstar with the Supremes in the 1960s and is still performing sold-out concerts as a solo artist. Hall said, "Everything about you is so perfect, Diana. You're always so perfect. Has anything awkward or imperfect ever happened to you?" Ross responded, "Of course! People know that. Anyone who has seen me perform live knows that. Imperfection makes us human. I think people really like it when they know that you are real. Imperfect things happen to me all the time. And that's the way it is for everybody."
Madonna’s 2015 song "Beautiful Scars" is a midlife anthem to the beauty of imperfection. Madonna sings, "Just take me with all my stupid flaws. I'll never be as perfect as you want me to be ... Take me with all of my beautiful scars. I won't apologize for being myself. I come to you with all my flaws. Don't judge me. Accept me, although I'm incomplete. My imperfections make me unique, that's my belief." Among other things, the song sums up the core tenets of wabi-sabi.
As an athlete, I spent most of my early career constantly setting unrealistic expectations of robotic flawlessness and mercilessly beating myself up anytime my performance was less than perfect. I was my harshest critic and worst enemy. I was also very low on the Pratfall Effect scale. Luckily, in my mid-30s, I had a colossal physical meltdown while being followed by TV cameras during the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley (later broadcast on 60 Minutes). It was humiliating. The good news is that being publicly shamed on national television forced me to acknowledge my imperfections. This ended up being the ultimate blessing in disguise and led to a turning point in my life. As Leonard Cohen once said, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
Because of my epiphany, I keep my antennae up for other anecdotal and empirical evidence that illustrates wabi-sabi in a modern context — such as Bieber's Instagram post and the robotics research. Michael Phelps' open acknowledgment of his personal struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse has also illuminated the redemptive power of wabi-sabi.
Another recent example comes from the political arena. During the 2016 presidential campaign, observing Hillary Clinton struggle with certain obstacles during her candidacy prompted me to write in the post, “Showing the World Her Wabi-Sabi Humanizes Hillary Clinton," “I believe that having the courage to publicly admit your imperfections and that you are sometimes weak is the key to letting the world see your true human nature....I've found that whenever I expose the chinks in my armor and make myself vulnerable to the outside world, instead of being shunned, I am made to feel more worthy of love and belonging.”
When I wrote those words, it seemed that Clinton was viewed as "unlikable" and unrelatable by many voters. Now that the campaign is over, it seems that she is at a point where she can show us her imperfections and wabi-sabi. In a July 2017 statement announcing her upcoming book, What Happened, Hillary Clinton said, ”In the past, for reasons I try to explain, I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net. Now I’m letting my guard down.”
Hopefully, observing people in the public eye letting their guard down and embracing imperfection will inspire you to proclaim your wabi-sabi without an ounce of shame—and allow you to experience the Pratfall Effect's benefits, too.
Facebook image: digitalskillet/Shutterstock
Mirnig, Nicole, Gerald Stollnberger, Markus Miksch, Susanne Stadler, Manuel Giuliani, and Manfred Tscheligi. "To err is robot: How humans assess and act toward an erroneous social robot." Frontiers in Robotics and AI 4 (2017): 21. DOI: 10.3389/frobt.2017.00021