Article | Journal of Personality and Social Psychology | October 2012

The Preference for Potential

by Zakary L. Tormala, Jayson Jia and Michael I. 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.

Keywords: attitudes; preferences; persuasion; uncertainty; Risk and Uncertainty; Performance Expectations; Attitudes;


Tormala, Zakary L., Jayson Jia, and Michael I. Norton. "The Preference for Potential." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103, no. 4 (October 2012): 567–583.