As a society, we broadly seem to value the young and virile — every year that you add is an opportunity for jokes about adding said years, and we take care (well, often) of the very old as if they were children again. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that there’s a high value placed sometimes on potential, rather than actual achievement to date. One of the reasons for this in a business context is simple, even if people will mostly sugarcoat it: taking professional sports out of the equation, it’s easier to pay a 23/24-year old a smaller salary than it is to pay a 37 year-old a smaller salary. Potential is also tied to the notion — which you can debate the veracity of for days — that America is still a “bootstrap nation,” meaning if you give a young buck a chance (without a lot of money), they can turn that chance into something (and more money).
There’s some new research from Zakary Tormala (Stanford), Jayson Jia (Stanford/Hong Kong), and Michael Norton (Harvard) on this topic:
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.
This is also fairly logical: unknown things with a chance for something to happen excite people more than known commodities. You see this with the valuation of companies too.
In this study, they also found that really small word changes made a difference — so if you tell an employer that a candidate scored high on a Leadership Potential Index, they get very excited; if you tell them the candidate scored high on a Leadership Achievement Index, they get a little bit less excited. Clearly there’s a functional usage here: if you’re recommending your friends for something or trying to bump them up, talk about their potential as opposed to their achievement (the funny thing here is that I would bet, if you polled 100 hiring managers, most would claim on a survey to want already-established achievement, but then if you waited two weeks and brought in the potential vs. achievement candidates, I bet the potentials would get hired at a 5x clip if not more).