The Surprisingly Accurate Science of the Romantic Comedy

Traditional rom-coms are a dying genre, but perhaps hard science fiction fans should mourn their loss. These films' characters and plots are more grounded in psychological realism than most science fiction films ever made.

The Pratfall Effect

One of the great staples of the romantic comedy is the pratfall. Sometimes it's literal. Romantic heroines have a tendency to awkwardly fall down the stairs or slip on their way to a big meeting. Sometimes it's less obvious - a spilled cup of coffee, getting caught in a white lie - but the main character is always screwing up in a minor way. It's hard to have comedy without flaws, but these screw-ups serve the story in more than one way. Even the least sophisticated viewer knows that having a character fall in a puddle of water in front of her ex-boyfriend is a way of getting the audience's sympathy. We're supposed to like her.

The Surprisingly Accurate Science of the Romantic Comedy

Psychologists do recognize something called the "Pratfall Effect." There are times when a minor mistake or flaw only increases our good feelings toward a person. We like people who make relatively small mistakes, and we like objects that have minor flaws. It's not just sympathy for a person in trouble or difficulty. We actually like them more than we would if they were paragons. The only trick is figuring out the right circumstances under which we like these things.

The Heroine and the Hero

The effect doesn't work all the time. There's a reason why it's called the "Pratfall Effect," and not the "Perpetual Screw-Up Effect." It works as a humanizing detail on a highly-polished picture. Almost every test of the effect runs a similar way. Experimental participants are brought in to judge someone's "interview tape," or "audition tape." The person on tape being interviewed will rattle off a list of accomplishments, or take a test. Sometimes the person on the tape will be highly competent, sometimes mediocre, and sometimes bad. At the end of interview or the test, the person will sometimes commit a blunder, sometimes not. The experimental participants will then give their opinions, both through a scoring system and in free form, about the person on the tape.

The Surprisingly Accurate Science of the Romantic Comedy

Details vary - and we'll get into that in the audience section - but overall, the experimental participants gave the highest scores and the most praise to the person who was highly competent, but also made a little mistake. In one tape, people who spilled their drinks were considered more likable than people who didn't, but only if they scored very high on a verbal test they were given. The mediocre scorers found themselves condemned for spilling coffee. Romantic comedy heroes and heroines are presented as everyday people, but that's in the idealized romantic-comedy world. For the most part, people in a romantic comedy have plenty of money, great jobs, beautiful wardrobes, and movie-star good looks. Making them fall down a flight of stairs now and then is the best way to make them human, not perfect.

The Plot (or Lack Thereof)

The main complaint people have of romantic comedies is the plot. We know the movie is just an excuse to see two pretty people go on dates and slip in mud and then kiss in the rain. Most rom-com plots hinge on a minor problem that both characters can, and do, decide to ignore in the end. Why bother?

The Surprisingly Accurate Science of the Romantic Comedy

Here again we see an example of the Pratfall Effect - although it's more likely to be called the Blemishing Effect in this instance. When people are considering a desirable object and find a minor problem that has little real impact on their choice, they tend to want the object even more than they would if there were no problem with it. In one study, people considering a choice of restaurant tended to be more desirous of a night out at the restaurant if they found out that it didn't have much parking around it - provided they didn't have to park there. The minor flaw in romantic comedies isn't just a pretext for the plot. Audiences want to see a minor problem either resolved or cast aside. That only makes the romantic pairing better.

The Audience

Who is watching all of these movies? Not too many people, anymore, but I doubt romantic comedies are down and out forever. Still, it's interesting that this is the part of the Pratfall Effect that's most uncertain. Different tests have shown the effect to work, but on different groups of people each time. In one case, researchers found that the Pratfall Effect increased men's appreciation of both highly-competent men and women, but did nothing to increase women's appreciation of either.

The Surprisingly Accurate Science of the Romantic Comedy

Another test showed that the Pratfall Effect worked for both men and women, but tended to work differently for each. Each preferred pratfallers of their own sex, but men liked pratfallers of high competence levels, but women liked them at slightly lower competence levels. Yet another test, this time testing the experimental participants self-esteem, showed that people with high self-esteem had a low susceptibility to the Pratfall Effect, while those with low self-esteem really liked their heroes to take a fall or two.

An on-and-off effect isn't good news for the scientific community. It could be that the Pratfall Effect is less a reliable effect than a confluence of circumstances. It could also be a matter of changing culture. Tests for the effect span the last fifty years, and there's nothing like half a century to make people shift their values. Perhaps romantic comedies are, currently, down and out, because they haven't found the right way to match the right circumstances of the effect with the right audience. When they do match them up - who knows? We might get a whole new generation of romantic comedies.

[Via The Surprising Effect of Partner Flaws on Romantic Affect, The Effect of a Pratfall on Increasing Interpersonal Attractiveness, Testing Competence and Acceptance Explanations of Self-Esteem, To Err is Humanizing.]