Potential Can Trump Proven Value, Researchers Find

Researchers at Stanford and Harvard have found that when weighing someone with great achievement versus someone with great potential, we often tilt toward the potential.

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Researchers at Stanford and Harvard have found that when weighing someone with great achievement versus someone with great potential, we often tilt toward the potential.

Image courtesy of Flickr user m0les.

Who would you rather hire for your team? A proven winner? Or someone with solid potential?

You’re more likely to choose the unproven prospect, according to a forthcoming report led by Zakary Tormala, associate professor of marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

“The potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing,” Tormala notes in a summary of the research.

The Preference for Potential” will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is co-authored by Tormala, Jayson Jia (Stanford GSB PhD candidate) and Michael I. Norton (now at Harvard Business School, formerly a fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management).

A promotion [PDF] for a colloquia about the paper details the research findings this way: “compared to references to achievement (e.g., “this person has become a leader in the field”), references to potential (e.g., “this person could become a leader in the field”) appear to stimulate greater interest and excitement, which translates into more favorable reactions.”

The researchers found that uncertainty about a decision gets people to weigh evidence in strange ways. “By thinking more about the high-potential target, participants focused even more on that person’s strengths and weaknesses,” says a Business Wire story about the report. “So when the evidence is compelling, statements about high potential can outperform claims about high achievement. When the evidence is not compelling, this effect goes away. The upshot, in the case of compelling reasons to support claims of high potential, is that people can reach an illogical conclusion; after all, there’s no good reason to favor someone with uncertain abilities over someone with proven abilities.”

The study has interesting implications for how we market everything from our products to ourselves. Should our pitch be how great we expect to be this thing (or ourselves) to be down the line?

Tormala thinks so, at least in some situations.

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