Image is Everything: LeBron James and the Pratfall Effect

This article below takes a look at some of the possible psychology behind LeBron James recent actions and introduces the Pratfall Effect.

Recently, LeBron James was dunked on at his basketball camp by a college sophomore named Jordan Crawford. This caused quite the stir, not necessarily because a 20-year-old dunked on James, but because of the reaction by James and corporate giant, Nike. James and Nike representatives confiscated two videotapes of Crawford's dunk on James. Why did this happen and what does it reveal to us about James' mindset?

…James' reputation, to this point, has been stellar. He is a team player, conducts himself well in interviews, and has not been involved in any stories that call his character into question. His teammates appear to enjoy playing with him, and he with them (contrast that with stories about both Bryant and Jordan who were reported to berate teammates from time to time to the point where teammates feared them mightily). James is one of those pro athletes who parents are happy for their kids to follow as a role model. He deserves all of his accolades and has handled his success with grace and poise.

…However, as much as I am a fan of James, three recent incidents make me wonder whether his image as “King James” hasn't taken his reputation to a point where he can't live up to it. As a result, I worry James may be in a cycle where he can't live up to the perfection people expect, and that he is beginning to succumb to the pressure of these expectations.

Exhibit A: After sweeping their first two series with record-breaking ease (the Cavs set a record for most consecutive playoff wins by double digit margins), media and fans alike were ready to anoint King James as NBA Champ. However, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando, favored Cleveland lost 107-106, in spite of a heroic 49 point effort by James. Immediately after the game, James crumpled to the floor, plagued by what appeared to be leg cramps. Now, as anyone who has had leg cramps can attest, they can be downright excruciating.

As James stayed on the floor, medical personnel rushed to his side. For nearly 10 minutes, Cavs fans waited, worried about their hero. Something struck me as odd – James had just played an unbelievable game, I wondered if he stayed on the floor to allow the fans a chance to watch their fallen hero. Was he using the cramps as an excuse? We'll never know, but in social psychology, we use the term self-handicapping to describe the use of an external factor to justify a failure. James' appeared to have cramps throughout the fourth quarter, but I remember calling a friend that night, wondering why James didn't hobble to the locker room (after all, he had the strength to play nearly the entire game) and get treated there. Was he trying to draw attention to his injury as a way to explain the unexpected loss? This was a minor event, and received virtually no attention in the media, but it was the first time James had done something that struck me as potentially “me-oriented”.

Exhibit B: Fast forward five games, after the Cavaliers had been beaten by the Magic four games to two. After the series, James broke tradition when he did not shake hands with the victorious Magic. James' actions were roundly criticized. After the fact, James said, “It's hard for me to congratulate someone after you lose to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. But somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them on beating you up. That doesn't make sense.” To many, this came as less of an apology and more of a justification for his decision not to shake hands. Social psychologist Leon Festinger formulated cognitive dissonance theory to describe the process we go through when our behavior is inconsistent with our attitudes. Frequently, the result is that we justify our actions by changing our attitudes. Here, James appeared to justify his not shaking hands with the Magic. The danger of that logic is that if everyone followed James, shaking hands, along with other behaviors associated with good sportsmanship, would become obsolete.

Exhibit C: Let's return to LeBron James getting dunked on by Jordan Crawford. Keep in mind, this was not a pimply-faced high school kid. Crawford averaged 10 points per game as a freshman at Indiana University before transferring to Xavier due to a coaching change at Indiana. By all accounts, Crawford is a very talented player. Furthermore, anyone who has played basketball at a relatively high level has been dunked on at one time or another. It is simply part of the game.

James' (and Nike's) decision to confiscate the tape appears to be another attempt at maintaining a perfect image. While it is unclear what role James had and what role Nike had in the confiscation of the tape, what is ironic is that James has received far more negative attention for having the tape destroyed than if he had simply allowed the tape to be shared.

In fact, psychologists who have studied the “pratfall effect” find that when a person is generally competent, making a blunder can actually increase others' liking of that individual. In a classic study, Aronson and colleagues (1966) had participants rate a fellow student who was taking part in a quiz show. In one condition, the student spilled coffee on himself, but as long as he had otherwise behaved in a competent manner, participants actually liked him more than if he had behaved competently but not spilled coffee on himself.

The reason for this pratfall effect? Making mistakes humanizes people who otherwise may seem superhuman and too good for us. Thus, in James' case, allowing people to view Crawford's dunk might not damage his reputation; in fact, it may actually enhance it. (my cynical side thinks that Nike already knows about the pratfall effect, and that they already have a commercial in the works that will coincide with the release of LeBron's next pair of shoes).

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