The preference for potential

Here is a piece by Tomala, Jia, and Norton:

When people seek to impress others, they often do so by highlighting individual achievements. Despite the intuitive appeal of this strategy, we demonstrate that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. Indeed, compared with references to achievement (e.g., “this person has won an award for his work”), references to potential (e.g., “this person could win an award for his work”) appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions.

Here are some ungated copies.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis, who sent me the link in response to my earlier post on age discrimination.


Citing a person's potential isn't complimentary, it's passively critical: potential is equivalent to promise, which is the " dirtiest of all dirty words", according to Paul Varjak.

Like the 'compliment' often cited for certain emerging nations: 'Brazil/India/Ghana/etc is the country of the future, and always will be...'

Disagree, hiring potential over accomplishment can be conceit (I am the person who will groom you), insecurity (he's not a threat), or just prefence for young all-in enthusiasm over tired, family-distracted clock-punchers. Hiring is complicated.

"This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing."

This isn't necessary irrational. Those with unrecognized potential are likely to be undervalued, whereas those with concrete achievements likely are not. If I have two potential candidates for a job, I'd probably go after the high-potential one. He's likely to work for less (at least initially), be more of a team player, and not be pursued by rival employers.

'Past performace is not a guarantee of future results'

Just based on the example, this seems pretty obvious. “this person has won an award for his work” implies someone else, whom you don't know and don't necessarily trust, has evaluated the work, while “this person could win an award for his work” implies that the speaker, personally, is recommending this person's work. The latter implies an endorsement by someone you know, while the former does not.

Is everyone pretty excited about the Cubs?

LOL, but this year it's the White Sox that look like they have some potential

They could win it all this year. Again.

Preference for potential differs by gender.

Per McKinsey: "women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential", here:

If we're being honest, women are often promoted for performance unrelated to the job. Knife cuts both ways.


This site is insane.

I serve on the search committee for departmental chairs for my hospital and I have been given to understand in no uncertain terms that a female or a minority candidate should have preference even if less qualified than a white male candidate.
So yes, in my field at least, 'often'

And then there is temporal anti-correlation of performance caused by how much we desire success and weigh it over what it takes to have it ("sleeping on laurels").

Anyone that follows sports closely knows this. It's all about the farm system/recruiting class/draft class.

High ceiling prospects are more exciting than the "Quad A" 5th starter/innings eater, though those guys actually have a lot of value.

Coaches too. Fans always prefer the high-potential newcomer to the re-tread.

GMs appear to fall for this too; you see trades of currently-productive NFL players for 4th-round picks all the time.

"Peter, just take the boat!" "But the mystery box could be anything! It could even be a boat!"

Not in China. In China the preference is for big name has beens.

Chinese companies pay big bucks to hire senior American and European engineers to supervise and tutor the young Chinese engineers.

So, that's how Obama got elected.

That darn 22nd amendment! That's what stopped him.

A person with "potential" is going to be cheaper than one with acheivements.
It's like betting on a stock you think is going to go up. Buy low.

Speaking of highly overrated potential: Amazon's profits. Weak arm, can't hit, slow, and prone to errors. Buy!

Their profits are enormous, they just choose to reinvest them

"the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing".

Based upon the reactions of my sexual partners throughout my life I doubt very much that this is true.

Perhaps those with potential are perceived as being highly motivated to achieve success while those who have already achieved success may be resting on past achievements.

I thought this was particularly interesting because I'm about to interview for a job in a new field. This post will actually change my strategy going into the interview.

And I just posted a related question on Quora (anonymously) if anyone cares:

1. if you are young, implicitly emphasize potential ie. say "I just did my first patch to the Linux kernel I'm really excited etc.

2. if you are older (ie. over 35) emphasize your competive advantage ie. what you can do for the employer that noone else can do, and rely on your achievements as proof of your capabilities. But don't be surprised if the employer still prefers someone docile who is willing to put in twice the number of hours as you to do the same amount of work.

You can't share the glory for your friend/spouse/employee/student's achievements before you met/hired them.

Yeah, I got plenty of potential, at a mere 65 years of age! :-)

Seen on a tombstone: Here lies a man who had great potential.

When I was a college newspaper rock critic in the late 1970s, it was more fun for me to write that the Clash, the Police, and Talking Heads are going to sell a lot of records rather than to write that Foreigner is selling a lot of records.

You also wrote that the Sinceros, Gary Myrick, and the Busboys were going to sell a lot of records. Was that fun too?

authors name is misspelled -- there's an R in Tormala

Could this be that potential achievements signal something about the future, while past achievements do not necessarily imply anything about future activities?

Those of us who follow football/soccer like to call it the "Freddy Adu" phenomenon :D

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