Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Undeniable Allure of Potential

There’s a chance I’m about to write the most useful article you’ve read this year. Intrigued? If so, your reaction is consistent with a thought-provoking new study that shows we’re fascinated and impressed by claims about what a person might achieve. In other words, we’re seduced by potential.

The results have obvious implications for promotion. What most of us do to stand out above the competition is showcase our achievements. We highlight our academic credentials, our experience, any awards or plaudits we’ve earned. We’re saying to the world, “Look what I’ve done!” Yet new research shows this strategy could be wrong. We should consider boasting not only about what we did in the past, but also about what we might be capable of tomorrow and after.

In a wide-ranging paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia at Stanford and Michael Norton at Harvard Business School, tested their idea across eight experiments involving hundreds of volunteers.

They found that people playing the role of basketball coach preferred a rookie player with great potential over an established player with a great record. They were also willing to pay more for the promising rookie, and they thought his sixth season would out-shine the experienced player’s sixth season.

Other participants playing the role of recruiting manager preferred a candidate with a high score on a leadership potential test, and thought he/she would perform better in the future, as compared with an equally qualified candidate (both had MBAs from NYU) with a high score on a leadership achievement test. These effects weren’t due to a bias for youth – the pattern held in a similar experiment that took into account the perceived age of the candidates.

People playing the role of basketball coach preferred a rookie player with great potential over an established player with a great record.

The preference for potential also shone through in a real-life field experiment. Tormala and his team tested the effectiveness of ads placed on Facebook for 8 days for a real US comedian called Kevin Shea. Advertisements that played up Shea’s potential (“he could be the next big thing”) led to more click-throughs and “likes” than ads that highlighted his achievements (“he is the next big thing”).

The allure of potential isn’t just about people’s optimism for the future. In another experiment, participants chose between pairs of paintings (judged as similarly appealing in pilot research) after reading profiles of the two artists who created the works. People tended to prefer the painting attributed to an artist who was described as having the potential to win a major art prize, as compared with the painting by an artist who was already a major prize winner.

The researchers think that hearing about a person with potential is more intriguing and compelling than hearing about a person who has already achieved because it prompts deeper reflection about them. They tested this idea by having participants appraise candidates for a PhD program based on letters of recommendation written for them by college professors. As usual, participants preferred and had higher hopes for a candidate who was described as having great potential, over a similar candidate described as having a great track record.

Hearing about a person with potential is more intriguing and compelling than hearing about a person who has already achieved because it prompts deeper reflection about them.

But here’s a crucial detail – the strength of the evidence in the letter supporting the high achieving candidate didn’t make much difference to how he or she was perceived. By contrast, weak evidence led to more negative assessments of the candidate with potential. Tormala and co think this is because, being intrigued, the participants reflected more deeply on the candidate with potential and so noticed the lack of evidence.

This leads us onto to a major caveat in the lessons we can take from this research. Claims about great potential won’t fly unless they’re backed up with credible evidence. A final experiment showed this in the context of a restaurant review. Participants were more seduced by a review that talked up the awesome potential of the eatery and its chef (compared with a high achieving competitor), but only if there was evidence in the review to back up this talk of potential – in terms of detail about the menu, ambience, and the attentive servers.

Another caveat is the power of potential has its limits. In the art experiment, participants preferred the work of an artist who’d already won four prestigious awards compared with the work of an artist who was described as having the potential to win a single award. Tormala and his team speculated that there will also be some honors – like an Olympic gold – that have such a wow factor they will always be more impressive than claims of potential.

Claims about great potential won’t fly unless they’re backed up with credible evidence.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the researchers are cautious about the implications of their findings for self-promotion. In all their experiments, the artists, chefs, and job candidates were being promoted by third parties rather than promoting themselves. If a person pushes their own potential there’s the risk this will come over as egotism or over-confidence – a consideration that likely depends on the specific cultural context.

Taken altogether the new research provides powerful evidence of the allure that potential holds. People are more intrigued and impressed by the prospect of what another person could do, as compared with what they’d done already. If we’re to exploit this effect for our own benefit, in our résumés and website bios, we need to ensure that our claims are realistic, backed up with evidence, and phrased with subtlety. Another way to avoid coming over as defensive or big-headed is to seek favorable claims of potential from third-parties – perhaps our clients or former employers.

There’s also a deeper lesson here for how we see ourselves. It’s tempting sometimes to get hung up on what we’ve done already, to frame ourselves in terms of who we are, rather than who we could become. Liberate yourself by forgetting momentarily what you did well yesterday; reflect instead on what you could achieve tomorrow.

What’s Your Take?

Whether it’s marketing yourself or a product, have you found success with emphasizing potential?

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
load comments (22)
  • Jonathan Patterson

    So good. One thing you have to be careful of when framing things as “having potential” is that sometimes it can also come across as underachieving. As the article stated, you need to substantiate the claim in some way for it to be effective.

    I also agree, having someone else say something about you is better received than you saying the same thing about yourself. I have clients tell me in their own words what they think of me and the work I create. I then take that info and promote myself with it, specifically, on my site.

  • Rishabh Roy Chowdhury

    Before I had gone through this article i had my job interview, I promoted myself about what i could do in future for the company . And I got hired !

  • Danny

    I would say looking at one’s past achievements and experiences is a better gauge on someone’s potential versus subjective opinion or self-acclaimed on what one could accomplish. Someone may have potential but it doesn’t guarantee the person will live up to his or her potential.

  • Justin Lang

    Interesting. I don’t agree that the reason we do this is about people’s optimism of the future, I think it leads back to the original statement; that we like to showcase our achievements.

    I believe people are curious and when prompted with a statement which could also be a question, we want to question it ourselves. We want to know why and we don’t care how.
    Biologically, we don’t buy what you do, we buy why you do it. So we don’t care when you say “Look at me, I’ve done X” It’s retrospective and already proven. We care about why you think you’re so good.
    Talking about potential lets us question it and compare it to ourselves to see if we agree or not. Leading us back to the original statement; “Look at me!”

  • Robbie Williford

    I think that this makes a whole lot of sense to me. Throughout reading this piece, I reflected back to instances where I myself have gone through that same idea; where I’ve taken someone or something with potential over someone or something that has experience. It’s weird to think that I’ve done that, but at the same time, potential is huge to people in today’s world.

  • Casey Hrynkow

    Any idea how I can get my hands on the entire paper? About to launch into a Masters and this would be helpful!

  • Gabx Solís

    Sometimes it is better to have an empty glass than a glass full to the top

  • Joseph Doughty

    When we put a line through goal on our accomplishment list, it is on to the next one. This research seems to point to a deeper human desire to look ahead on that list. I would much rather hear about current and future projects with friends, not so much about what they have finished. Perhaps there is more emotion surounding these future events and i would think we access different parts of the brain. Perhaps there is an evolutionary and biological reason behind this research.

  • Adam Hunter Peck

    I think that part of this allure is simply that it creates a question in the audience’s mind: will this person live up to this potential? Questions/mysteries are incredibly compelling, as JJ Abrams describes in his TED Talk ( ); they leave a gaping hole in our knowledge, an itch to be scratched, an unconcluded story. Like any serial drama, we want to keep watching to find out what happens next; it’s the unknown that keeps us enraptured.

  • guest

    that has everything to do with marketing in today’s world and your age — you have been trained to think this way without knowing it.

  • guest

    This is all about marketing and perception – we’ve been so inundated with fast paced marketing in an oversaturated world that we no longer CAN look at what’s been done/what someone has completed, and only can see what’s in process or work that is literally in action or “moving” because we’ve been trained to think that way now. If you are over 35 you will still remember when we weren’t inundated and were allowed to make our own thoughts but younger generations are not, they will be affected the most by this adaptation of thinking and perception. The economy and media spawn it on. I can say from experience every young person who has come to a company based purely on the perception that they will be younger-faster-better–and often cheaper — its wool over the eyes. They can never keep up and do not have the experience and know how, only the lower salary and sure, interest. They also don’t understand the concept of office politics and they often push push and push and step on everyone’s toes trying to keep up with the perception that got them the job. They never succeed and they piss everyone off in the process. I can’t fall for this perceived method of seeing the world because I know what it’s based on, absolutely nothing but pressure from marketing and media in the world. We’ve created it and its awful.

  • Jackie

    Fascinating, a problem that follows me with a successful 40 year career…I am now preparing to discuss my future potential! It actually sounds more exciting than my achievements….thanks so much for this new perspective!
    Jackie R

  • Kiran Umapathy

    On the flip side, I think we also have to be careful about basking in our own potential. Sometimes we celebrate what we’re capable of doing rather than going out and making it happen.

  • chris goossens

    Interesting indeed! Can’t we say the same thing for companies? Isn’t a young promising company with high potential not sexier than an established one?
    Chris Goossens

  • Daniel

    Great article. I think the true answer lies somewhere in between the two sides. On one side you have to acknowledge your experience because it makes you who you are as a potential job candidate. On the other hand, you have to be humble enough to admit that you haven’t learned everything and that there is still “potential” growth. Focusing solely on one side or the other makes you come off as cocky or so inexperienced that you are going to require months or years or training to get to an acceptable level.

  • Charlotte De Mey

    I Hope so

  • isacris

    That´s true, I think that, today, I am better than yesterday but not less than tomorrow. Never give up and try and try is the actitude to get new goals and discover our potential

  • Robert Varnam

    Thanks for a great article about some fascinating research. I wonder whether some of the allure of potential derives the hope that we might participate in some way in the achievement of the it? People are often very attracted by that proposition, hoping to learn or acquire something of what has contributed to another’s success. Or simply to experience some of the journey.

  • jron

    When I played basketball, I was always seen as full of potential that I never
    realized, and as such have been wary of selling myself in this way ever since.

    Very funny to me that basketball was the first example, as it unfortunately made it hard for me to accept the article’s premise. Still, very good points. I think in many cases that much of this boils down to wanting to be with someone at the beginning of their rise, or to be in the know.

  • Steve Menard

    My takeaway from this thought-provoking article is that it may be a wise strategy to place more emphasis in a resumé on one’s ability to adapt, and one’s willingness to learn and work collaboratively. With these qualities brought to the forefront—backed up by past work that has merit—potential employers are encouraged to focus more on the candidate’s potential for success.

  • Matt Stevens

    Insightful article, I have first hand experience with this – having left school at 15, I’ve had a few brilliant employers who took risks with me because they believed in my future, every one of them was excited to have me. Also, a *very* important factor in this is the “third parties”… when I first went into secondary (high) school I quickly figured out how effective it was having “proxies” relay information about me to other people… tricky to get the hang of pulling off, but it adds serious weight to what ever you’re trying to get across. (this is something the “popular crowd” seem to have sussed from birth)

  • Cayla Buettner

    Find someone with potential, give them the right connections, and then you are the responsible catalyst for their career. There is more risk dealing in potential, but a higher chance for reward. The risk can be outweighed with credible achievements. This article is fascinating because it applies an old business concept towards people’s actual career and marketing.

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