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 WIRED, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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