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Zakary Tormala: Mere Potential Can Be More Important Than Achievement

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Zakary Tormala: Mere Potential Can Be More Important Than Achievement

It's not always what you’ve done that matters, but what you just might do.
A student looks over his resume as he waits for an interview in Los Angeles (Reuters photo by Patrick T. Fallon)

If you are promoting someone, advocating for them, or hiring them, you ought to choose someone with a track record, right? How then to explain the rookie phenomenon in sports? A college player gets a huge contract to turn professional, while a top-performing veteran gets a merely large one. The veteran is the better bet; experience is a better predictor of success than potential. Yet sports team owners often favor incoming rookies, sometimes to the owners' profound regret. One example is the case of LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, signed by the Raiders to a $60 million-plus deal, only to be released three years later.

The explanation lies in the power of potential, the allure of uncertainty, suggests research by Stanford Professor Zakary Tormala, done along with Jayson Jia and Michael Norton. People often are more intrigued by unknown outcomes, or mysteries, says Tormala, who discusses the findings here:

Tell us what your research says.

In a series of experiments set in different contexts, we found that high potential can be more appealing than equally high achievement. Our studies uncovered this in situations ranging from basketball player evaluations to hiring decisions, to salary offers, to grad school admissions recommendations. We also saw it in perceptions of artistic talent and in people's intentions to try a restaurant. In general, potential seems to engender greater interest than achievement.

Why? This seems counterintuitive. Isn't it less of a risk to hire or reward someone with a track record?

It was counterintuitive to us too at first. It seems objectively more impressive to actually achieve something great than to have mere potential to do so. But there is a fairly robust finding in the psychological literature that uncertain events and outcomes can stimulate greater interest and information processing — more thought — than more certain ones. So when potential is being compared with achievement, the uncertainty surrounding potential can make it more engaging, or maybe even pleasurable, to think about. It's as if people engage more as they try to work through the uncertainty and figure out what the truth will be.

The basic idea is that when all the available information about a person is positive and compelling, imbuing that information with some uncertainty by describing it in terms of potential — "This person could become great!" rather than "This person has become great!" — can get people to attend to the information more and ultimately be more persuaded by it.

In most of our studies we tried to equate the level of potential and achievement. For example, in one study we showed the exact same (impressive) stats for a hypothetical NBA basketball player and merely described those stats as predictions or as actual performance records. We found that participants thought the player was more likely to end up an All-Star one day when they'd seen predicted rather than actual stats.

What are the practical implications?

If you're recommending someone for a job, a promotion, or admission to graduate school, it would be wise to highlight that person's potential. Our take is that framing your support for a person, a restaurant, a cause — and many other things — in terms of potential as opposed to achievement could make your case more persuasive.

If you're recommending someone for a job, a promotion, or admission to graduate school, it would be wise to highlight that person's potential.
Zakary Tormala, associate professor of marketing

We found that even seemingly minor word choices made a difference. Participants in one study evaluated a job applicant more favorably when he had performed well on a test called the "Assessment of Leadership Potential" rather than one called the "Assessment of Leadership Achievement." So someone who scores well on a Scholastic Aptitude Test might be perceived as a stronger candidate than someone who scores well on a Scholastic Achievement Test. A subtle shift in word choice can have a big impact on interest and engagement.

But of course there are limits. For example, when the evidence for something is weak — say, you can only muster a modest case for why a restaurant is good — the preference for potential seems to disappear. Again, getting people to tune in and engage more with your message is good as long as your message is compelling. In follow-up research with Daniella Kupor, a doctoral student at Stanford, we also found that the preference goes away in people and situations in which tolerance for uncertainty is particularly low — for instance, among people who say that they don't like surprises or uncertainty. When that's the case, we have even seen a slight preference for achievement.

Is it possible for people to be aware of this bias in themselves and counter it?

In the sports world, like we've already discussed, people signing contracts could be aware that they might be overweighting potential. So, practically speaking, hiring managers could ask themselves if they're leaning toward a candidate with a lot of potential over one with experience, and why.

But it's not clear that the draw of potential always leads to mistakes. Judgments against accomplishments could be mistakes, but there are situations in which you can imagine that investing in potential makes perfect sense — for instance, where doing so is less expensive, or where a person's expected trajectory is steep. Perhaps someone's perceived upside is so great that the possible rewards outweigh the risk. An individual with a rare talent in sports, art, or music might fit this category.

Is it possible this is just a pro-youth bias at work?

We examined that possibility by having people consider an applicant with high potential and an applicant with high achievement who were the same age. The person with high potential still won out. But we think it's possible people might confer greater future potential to someone who can perform at a young age. Recent research by Andy Poehlman at Southern Methodist University and George Newman at Yale has shown this type of effect.

What was your most interesting experiment?

We designed several ads in Facebook promoting a comedian who was growing in popularity at the time of our study. One ad said, "Critics say he has become the next big thing," and another said, "Critics say he could become the next big thing." The "potential" ads produced more than three times the click-through rate and five times the fan rate.

These findings run counter to some of your earlier research showing that people tend to prefer certainty. What's different here?

Yes, in research I've done with some of my other collaborators, we found certainty is a catalyst that transforms attitudes into action. For example, people are more likely to vote for a politician when they feel certain about their preference for him or her, and are more likely to buy a product they feel certain about liking it. Here, with the work on potential, it seems that uncertainty can get people excited and thinking more. But taking meaningful action (e.g., hiring a person) might tend to require some level of subsequent certainty that results from that more extensive thought process. This is a question we are exploring.

What we can say for now is that in at least some cases, there's something that outweighs the comfort of certainty. That something is the excitement people feel about potential.

Zakary Tormala is an associate professor of marketing at Stanford GSB.

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