The preference for potential

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012 Oct;103(4):567-83. doi: 10.1037/a0029227. Epub 2012 Jul 9.


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.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Achievement*
  • Adult
  • Attitude*
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Psychological Tests
  • Social Perception*
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult