Potential or Reality! When it Comes to Influencing Others, What’s More Persuasive?

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By:  Steve Martin, CMCT

Whether you are looking to position your company as the obvious choice for that lucrative new contract or to position yourself as the obvious choice for that new promotion an important part of your influence strategy will be to highlight your previous experiences and past accomplishments. The skills you have developed and the successes you have achieved can serve as important pointers serving to persuade future customers and employers alike to choose your organization or you.

But when it comes to convincing others, doesn’t prospect beat precedent? And as a result won’t people be more persuaded by your potential to deliver for them in the future rather than the success you have had delivering for others in the past.

When it comes to the business of influencing others, where should you focus most of your attention – describing the realities of your past, or communicating your potential to deliver in the future? 

In a quick (and admittedly very unscientific) survey that I conducted with some folks in the office, a clear answer to this question emerged. Focus on your past success and achievements. At first glance this intuitively seems to make sense. Actual achievements are surely more compelling than the potential to achieve in the future for one very good reason. They have already been achieved. They are concrete. They leave no room for doubt.

Therefore, all other things being equal, it is more likely that the award winning company with many years experience will be more likely to secure that lucrative new contract compared to the less experienced company that merely has the potential to win future awards. Similarly, it is likely that the candidate who has already achieved notable success will be more attractive to a prospective employer than one who only has the potential to succeed.

Of course this isn’t always the case. Examples abound of budding sports stars that negotiate eye-watering sums of money on the basis of their future potential. Former American Football Quarterback JaMarcus Russell was The Oakland Raiders’ first pick in the 2007 NFL draft, landing a contract worth an astounding $61million. Clearly, the Raiders saw such potential in Russell that they were persuaded to pay top dollar for his services despite that potential, never translating into reality. 

The persuasive pull of potential isn’t just limited to the domain of sports – it happens in business too. Many of us will recall examples where the inexperienced but promising candidate landed that promotion over a more experienced one. And pretty much everybody who has worked in a business development or sales role will, at some time, have lost a deal to a supplier that, at least on paper, didn’t match your level of experience and past achievements.

In a new set of studies soon to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Stanford University Professor Zak Tormala and his colleagues sought to find out why, when making decisions, people often find potential more compelling than reality.

In one of their studies, participants were asked to evaluate two applicants who had applied for a senior position in the banking division of a large company. Each of the candidates’ backgrounds and qualifications were identical with one key exception. The first applicant, let’s call him Candidate A, had gained 2 years’ relevant industry experience and also scored highly on a Leadership Assessment test. The second applicant (Candidate B) had gained little experience but did score highly on a Leadership Potential test. The results of the study showed that those shown information about the Candidate B’s potential rated that applicant as more successful and a better leader than those shown information about what Candidate A had achieved.

In an attempt to test this preference for potential in a more consumer based environment, another study was conducted with users of a social media website. In the study Facebook users were shown a series of quotes about a comedian. Half were shown quotes highlighting the comedian’s potential. They read comments such as “This guy could become the next big thing” or “Next year everyone could be talking about this comedian.” The other half were shown quotes that focused attention on the comedian’s actual achievements. “Critics say he has become the next big thing” or “Everyone is talking about this guy.”

 

As was the case with the recruitment study, Facebook users registered much greater interest (measured by click-rates) and liking (measured by fan-rates) in the comedian when quotes about his potential were advertised demonstrating general preference for information about potential compared to information about reality. 

Summing up their findings Tormala and his team came to the conclusion that whilst potential achievements will undoubtedly be more uncertain than actual achievements, uncertainty does have a tendency to arouse more interest.

Does this mean that when it comes to decision making, people actually believe potential to be a more reliable decision trigger than reality? Certainly not. But given that potential is considered more arousing it could lead to people paying greater attention to it which may result in it having a bigger impact. In fact the study authors go on to make this exact point suggesting that if supporting information is provided immediately after attention is focused on potential (e.g. a testimonial from a trusted source, a high leadership score or some other type of persuasive message), people’s likelihood to develop a more favorable attitude or impression to what is being offered is increased. 

So if you are applying for that promotion (or providing an endorsement for someone who is) then the science is suggesting that you would be more effective by first highlighting the future potential you (or the person you are endorsing) will bring to the role rather than immediately leading with prior experience. Doing so could increase the chances that you will capture a recruiters’ interest meaning that the subsequent information you convey about actual achievements and experience will more likely be attended to.is considered more arousing it could lead to people paying greater attention to it which may result in it having a bigger impact. In fact the study authors go on to make this exact point suggesting that if supporting information is provided immediately after attention is focused on potential (e.g. a testimonial from a trusted source, a high leadership score or some other type of persuasive message), people’s likelihood to develop a more favorable attitude or impression to what is being offered is increased.

Similarly if you want to increase the chances that your products and services appear more attractive to future clients and consumers it would be wise to consider how to position messages in a way that first focuses a client’s or consumer’s attention on the potential future benefits that your proposal offers to them as opposed to what has been previously achieved.

Questions for discussion:

What examples do you have where potential has swayed a decision over reality?

What other areas could this preference for potential ‘potentially’ be employed?

 

Source:

Tormala, Z. L., Jia, J. S., & Norton, M. I. (2012). The Preference for Potential. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1037/a0029227

 

  • Amy

    Great article!! Are you testing to see how closely we are reading? Because there’s an unfinished thought at the end of the 3rd to last paragraph. I’m curious about what I’ve missed!

    • Bobette

      Hi Amy – Are you referring to this paragraph? “When it comes to the business of influencing others, where should you focus most of your attention – describing the realities of your past, or communicating your potential to deliver in the future?”

    • Bobette

      Hi Amy- I think we have it all fixed now. Tank you for your attention to detail and for letting us know about it.

  • http://twitter.com/salesitv SalesITV

    Great reading Steve and definitely more evidence that opening a presentation with lots of information about your company and how great you are is a mistake!

  • Wow Service Mentor

    I noticed the dangling sentence too – was that meant to show the persuasive pull of potential? A thought-provoking article, as it seems that if no persuasive effort is applied, then experience does win out.

  • Robin

    In the situation of a winning pitch or job interview, the interviewer or potential client is interested in what you can do for their future. So the Potential of the people they are interviewing is the foremost thing on their mind. If they are engaged by your potential then your previous acheivements (Reality) show the validations/benchmarks that you have delivered before.
    In an interview setting – Reality acheivements are the expected criteria around the role. But potential is the sparkle that makes one person stand out above the rest!

  • Todd

    Simple. We’re fonder of the rising sun, more than the setting.

  • Stork

    Looks like an interaction between scarcity and loss aversion?

    Maybe we value the ‘potential’ more because it feels like we’re privy to information which is not yet ‘out there’. Once the achievements have been made, then everyone knows. It’s a bit like the excitement you might feel at ‘discovering’ a new musical artist before they make the big time, or buying shares in a relatively unknown company before their value skyrockets.

    And once we feel that we’re ‘in the know’, and therefore that we have a valuable opportunity at our fingertips, we’re scared of losing it.

  • Paul

    I think this is inate human nature. People consider the future more optimistically than evidence would suggest in all areas of life. Health is a good example. The actual chances of contracting some form of cancer in the future averages about 30% but generally people will set this as a far lower risk when considering their lives.

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