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The Attractions of Imperfection

At a deeper level, signs of shared humanity.

Key points

  • The way we accept others often stems from the way we accept ourselves.
  • Positive feelings for a partner are impacted based on emotion and the perceived significance of their flaws.
  • Imperfection can be attractive through recognition of shared humanity.
Silviarita / Pixabay
Source: Silviarita / Pixabay

We all know people who seem to be good at everything. Sports, music, math—they seem to have the ability and aptitude to do it all. But before we make assumptions about how far their accomplishments can carry them, or how great their lives must be, consider how other people respond to them. There is a big difference between admiration and affection; between awe and acceptance. And there is nothing that assures us that someone’s talent makes them trustworthy. In fact, when it comes to interpersonal attraction, research indicates we might be more inclined to accept the imperfect.

The Attractiveness of Imperfection

Jia Wei Zhang et al. (2020) found that the way we accept others stems from the way we accept ourselves. Studying the link between self-compassion and acceptance, they found that an increasing acceptance of one’s own imperfections increases the acceptance of the imperfections of others, including romantic partners.[i]

Beyond acceptance, some people are actually drawn to others who are less than perfect. There is an element of relatability that we feel toward others who, like us, leave something to be desired in one or more categories. Physical or financial, graceful or gracious—no one is perfect. Someone might have two left feet on the dance floor, but always be willing to lend a helping hand. They might not have a silver tongue, but discerning taste. Good talkers are not always great listeners. Many people compensate for deficiencies by capitalizing on other traits that are encouraging and endearing.

When Talent Takes a Tumble

There is mixed opinion on the significance of social gaffes and blunders, sometimes referred to as the Pratfall Effect. Elliott Aronson et al. (1966) conducted research decades ago[ii] that demonstrated how the attractiveness of a “superior person” is increased by a clumsy blunder, while the same blunder tends to reduce the attractiveness of a person who is only deemed “mediocre.” They predicted these results by speculating that superior people may be viewed as superhuman and thus humanized by a blunder, which increases perceived attractiveness.

Almost 40 years later, Jeanne Weaver et al. (2002) sought to explore the reliability of the Pratfall Effect[iii] through an experiment investigating the impact of competence, gender, and a pratfall on interpersonal attractiveness, i.e. likability. Using a format in which participants listened to audiotaped conversations, they found that competent persons were perceived as more likable, and women more likable than men, but found no evidence of a pratfall effect—which they note that, in combination with a critical review of previous literature, generates significant questions about generality and robustness of the phenomenon.

Emotion and Imperfection

Some research indicates a potential relationship between emotion and imperfection. Anca M. Miron et al. (2009) studied the impact of partner flaws and qualities on romantic relationships.[iv] Consistent with Emotional Intensity Theory, they found, among other things, that positive affect toward a romantic partner was decreased by a minor significant flaw; maintained as intense by a flaw that was moderately important; and decreased by a very important flaw.

One thing we can learn from the research is that imperfection is not necessarily a turnoff; it can actually be something that attracts us through recognizing shared humanity. Tempering impressions through emotion both about ourselves and others will help us make educated, discerning decisions interpersonally about when and under what circumstances to embrace partner imperfection.

Facebook image: Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock

References

[i] Zhang, Jia Wei, Serena Chen, and Teodora K. Tomova Shakur. 2020. “From Me to You: Self-Compassion Predicts Acceptance of Own and Others’ Imperfections.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 46 (2): 228–42. doi:10.1177/0146167219853846.

[ii] Aronson, Elliot, Ben Willerman, and Joanne Floyd. 1966. “The Effect of a Pratfall on Increasing Interpersonal Attractiveness.” Psychonomic Science 4 (6): 227–28. doi:10.3758/BF03342263.

[iii] Weaver, Jeanne, Randy Fisher, and Karen Ehney. 2002. “In Search of the ‘Pratfall Effect’: How General and Reliable Is This Phenomenon?” Representative Research in Social Psychology 26: 34–43. https://search-ebscohost-com.libproxy.sdsu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&d….

[iv] Miron, Anca M., David Knepfel, and Sarah K. Parkinson. 2009. “The Surprising Effect of Partner Flaws and Qualities on Romantic Affect.” Motivation and Emotion 33 (3): 261–76. doi:10.1007/s11031-009-9138-0.

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