We usually think that the best way to impress someone is to rattle off a list of accomplishments: won this award, made this project a success, took a team from here to there.
But a Stanford-Harvard study recently cited on Marginal Revolution suggests that accomplishments aren't what capture people's attention — rather, it's a person's perceived potential.
"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," write authors Zakary Tormala, Jayson Jia, and Michael Norton.
They came to these conclusions after conducting eight experiments.
In one, participants predicted the salary, scoring average, and likelihood of making the all-star team for a fictional NBA player — in one case he was fresh out of college, in another he was a five-year veteran. And guess what? The rookie got higher ratings across the board than the vet.
In another, the experimenters ran two eight-day advertisements on Facebook for the comedian Kevin Shea. Clicking on the ad directed users to a fan page for Shea, where the user could become a fan.
In both advertisements, highlighting Shea's potential ("By this time next year, everyone could be talking about Kevin Shea") was significantly more effective than noting his achievements ("Everyone is talking about Kevin Shea"). The potential frame yielded not only more clicks, but more people signed up as fans.
What's going on here?
According to Tormala, Jia, and Norton, potential implies uncertainty. When given the right framing, many people find uncertainty appealing.
"This uncertainty appears to be more cognitively engaging than reflecting on what is already known to be true," the authors write.
Since you think about it more, you like it more.
"The uncertainty surrounding potential stimulates interest and processing, which attunes people to the information available and gives it more impact," they write. "When that information is compelling ... the result is a more favorable attitude or impression."
The applications for this finding are practical:
• When pitching yourself to an employer, talk about what you could bring to the company — after all, your resume already lists your accomplishments.
• When making a recommendation, emphasize what could be, since it's more likely to engage the interest of recruiters, employers, and university administrators.
Add that to the quirks that make people more impressive.
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