Paradox of Potential vs Achievement in Job Search

Zachary Tormala

Zachary Tormala

When hiring or promoting, the person’s potential can trump actual accomplishments, according to Stanford’s Zakary Tormala, with Jayson Jia of University of Hong Kong and Harvard’s Michael Norton.

Jayson Shi Jia

Jayson Shi Jia

The paradox of potential occurs because possibility seems to engender greater interest and cognitive effort due to its uncertain outcome, in examples ranging across:

  • Basketball player evaluations,
  • Hiring decisions,
  • Salary offers,
  • Graduate school admissions recommendations,
  • Judgments of artistic talent,
  • Intentions to visit an untried restaurant.
Michael Norton

Michael Norton

Tormala and team demonstrated this effect by presenting identical statistics for a hypothetical NBA basketball player, then describing the data “predictions” or as “actual performance.”
Participants were more likely to judge that the player would become an All-Star player when they viewed “predicted” statistics rather than “actual” performance records.

Volunteers also evaluated a job applicant more favorably when the person performed well on an “Assessment of Leadership Potential rather than on an “Assessment of Leadership Achievement.”

Tormala’s group extended the investigation to evaluate impact of an upcoming comedian’s ”accomplishment” compared with “potential” when they posted different Facebook advertisements:

  • “Critics say he has become the next big thing”
  • “Critics say he could become the next big thing.”

The “potential” ads produced more than three times more click-throughs and five times more fan ratings.

In other studies, Tormala and team compared descriptions of an achievement and potential:

  • “This person has won an award for his work”
  • “This person could win an award for his work.”

“Potential” stimulated greater interest and cognitive information processing, resulting in more favorable reactions to the target person.

Derek Rucker

Derek Rucker

With Stanford colleague Daniella Kupor and Derek D. Rucker of Northwestern University, Tormala and Norton found that the preference for potential disappeared for people who don’t like uncertainty, and in situations that require higher degrees of certainty.

They noted that when people thoughtfully consider challenging decisions, such as in a Blackjack game, bystanders form positive impressions of others and become more willing to be influenced by them.
However, observers form negative opinions of people who “overthink” simple choices (demonstrate lack “thought calibration”), and are less willing to be influenced by them.

The appeal of potential applies to abstract enjoyable experiences, according to Southern Methodist University’s T. Andrew Poehlman and George Newman of Yale.

T Andrew Poehlman

T Andrew Poehlman

They found that the lure of “potential” makes people more likely to “consume inferior performances” in the present, but may not enjoy them.

Poehlman and Newman argued that “potential” is less influential when experienced in the past, and is less attractive when potential is associated with utilitarian dimensions.

George Newman

George Newman

These findings point to the value of:

  • Positioning one’s own “potential” as well as others’ “potential” to increase persuasiveness of support and advocacy,
  • Considering whether candidates with “potential” seem more appealing than those with greater experience – and whether potential is the appropriate selection criterion.

-*How frequently do you see people hired, promoted, and rewarded for “potential” instead of actual achievement?

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