Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

When Potential Beats Actual Performance

Why might you prefer future potential to past performance?

We evaluate how people will act in the future all the time.  Hiring someone to do a job involves determining how well they will carry out that task.  Colleges make decisions about who they should admit based on their beliefs about how well the prospective student will perform in the future.  Couples who are dating decide whether to engage in a long-term partnership based on their beliefs about how they will interact in the distant future as a couple. 

What kind of information do we use to make the decision about future performance?

There are two sources of information you might use to judge the future.  One source of information is a person’s past performance.  Someone who has already demonstrated their ability to perform a task may be a good candidate to continue to perform well.  A second source of information is a person’s potential for the future.  That is, the person may not have achieved greatness yet, but may show signs of being on the cusp of greatness.

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Which of these factors plays a greater role in judgments about the future?  You might think that current performance would play a greater role than potential.  After all, if someone has already demonstrated her ability to do something, that should be a good indication of future performance as well. 

An interesting paper in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Zakary Tormala, Jayson Jia, and Michael Norton suggests that in many situations people may give more weight to information about potential performance in the future than to actual performance in the past.

In one study, the authors took out a Facebook ad to promote the fan page of a comedian.  They created different versions of the ad.  Some versions focused on actual performance (“Critics say he has become the next big thing.”)  Other ads focused on potential performance (“Critics say he could become the next big thing.”)  People were more likely to click on ads that focused on potential performance than on actual performance.  They were also more likely to become Facebook fans of the comedian when the ad focused on potential performance than on actual performance.

A variety of laboratory studies demonstrated a similar effect with judgments about job candidates, athletes, and artwork.

Why does this happen?  The researchers suggest that statements about potential performance create more feelings about uncertainty than statements about actual performance.  This uncertainty leads people to think more about the options, and that gets them more involved with the option.

One way that the authors demonstrate this increased involvement is through studies that manipulate whether the information decision makers get is about potential or actual performance and also whether the information strongly or weakly supports the performance of the person being evaluated. 

In one study, participants read a letter of recommendation for a prospective graduate student.  The student was described either as having great potential for success or having already had great success in their academic ventures.  After this statement about actual or potential success, the letter describes what the prospective student has done.  The description is either very impressive (completed several projects, published a paper in a major scientific journal) or not so impressive after all (completed a project, published a paper in a campus journal). 

When the described performance was truly excellent, then the student described as having great potential was rated as a somewhat better candidate than the student described as having achieved great things.  However, when the described performance was mediocre, then the student described as having achieved great things was rated as a better candidate than the student who was described as having great potential.

That is, when the student was described as having great potential, people paid more attention to the actual accomplishments than when the student was described as having achieved great things already. 

What can you do with this information?

When you have to evaluate someone in the future, recognize that information about potential will lead you to be more involved in the evaluation than information about actual performance.  Try to counteract this tendency by exploring what people have already done.  In many situations, a person’s past accomplishments are an excellent predictor of what they will do in the future. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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