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The Preference for Potential

The Preference for Potential. A Guide to Tormala , Jia , & Norton (2012) by Clare Bucklin & Christine Tirabassi. Are we THAT scared of the unknown??.

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The Preference for Potential

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  1. The Preference for Potential A Guide to Tormala, Jia, & Norton (2012) by Clare Bucklin & Christine Tirabassi

  2. Are we THAT scared of the unknown?? • The authors’ experimental data (8 exps.) suggest support for the notion that “the potential for X is valued more than X itself,” where X can represent essentially any desirable construct when assessing people and/or products (businesses): • Actual achievement markers (based on resume, transcripts, customer satisfaction data, etc.) are overlooked in favor of predicted achievement (↑ uncertainty) • Results of one study (Experiment 3) indicate that the extremity effect is only partially correct (e.g. individuals with potential, but who have not yet achieved, tend to be perceived more positively overall, despite more uncertainty surrounding their abilities) • The 2 measures used for negativity were reliable (r > .7) – but validity? (reasons for negative assessment probably more complex than “likelihood of failure” or “disappointment”) • Perhaps counter-intuitively, the authors also ruled out ageism (pro-youth bias) in evaluating potential vs. achievement via comparison of Exp. 1 & 2 to Exp. 3

  3. Core Concepts • Hypothesis 1: “deeper processing” of stimuli linked to uncertain conditions, possibly in response to “cognitive dissonance” (Festinger, 1957) • “Processing,” in this context, is often described in terms of arousal (and $ spent) • Importantly, authors did not specify whether arousal measures were self-reported, physiological, etc. • Consistent/harmonious mental representations more challenging to construct when little info is available • Hypothesis 2: While uncertainty poses a detriment to decision-making ability, we nevertheless tend to find it appealing (or even protective) in that “ambiguity breeds [assumptions of] similarity” (Norton, Frost, & Ariely, 2007; cited in presently-discussed article): • Our initial judgments lean toward excessive optimism because they are based on less information than after we have gotten to know a person/product  “familiarity breeds contempt” based on level of emergent dissimilarity to one’s own self or preferences

  4. Main Ideas Cont’d. • Unlike the ambiguity-similarity hypothesis, the dissonance-response one does NOT emphasize positive future projection based on current info (optimism) • A-S also posits that we gravitate toward uncertainty due to egocentrism (wanting to see our environments as reflections of ourselves – similarity seeking) • D-R asserts that we enjoy ambiguity simply because it’s more interesting/exciting (novelty seeking) • Overall, data support a dissonance response mechanism more, although authors do acknowledge that A-S is relevant in mating/dating (evidenced by divorce rate/serial monogamy, casual sex, etc.)

  5. Ambiguity sells, indeed…. • While dissonance resolution predicts that we just get “bored” with people once we learn more about them (novelty decrease), ambiguity-similarity assumes that the more dissimilar we discover someone is to ourselves, the more we grow to dislike them (similarity decrease)!

  6. Deeper Processing  Deeper Pockets? • Competition-driven consumer activities (watching most live TV broadcasts, buying concert tickets, winning an auction, shopping when discounts or quantities are limited), and “teaser” ads both rely on uncertainty to pique interest and generate revenue

  7. Experiment 1 (Between-subjects design) • Although many organizations make efforts to promote their newest members, the authors argue that team managers in professional sports leagues (specifically, the NBA) tend to over-hype rookies (probably due to their status as “cheaper” investments), which constitutes a preference for potential that may have a “downstream” effect, especially to fans • This speculated cognitive “trickle-down,” combined with the fact that the sample for Experiment 1 was drawn only from individuals with pre-existing knowledge of the NBA, necessitated another study (Experiment 2) that: • Controlled for exogenously-derived competency by switching to a hiring decision context, in which quantitative (statistical) comparisons are less common and usually less desirable • Focus more on qualitative attributes in this scenario • Increased the relevance of experience (no “industry bias”)

  8. Experiment 2 (Between-subjects design) • Two hypothetical job candidate profiles created with identical (and not unimpressive) credentials, with one key exception: • Achievement condition = 2 years relevant experience; high score (92/100) on leadership achievement test • Potential condition = NO relevant experience, but earned same score (92) on a leadership potential test • Significantly, this study incorporated a measure for perceived talent by indirectly asking participants to rate whether/to what degree the high-potential candidate would “outpace” the high-achievement one • Projected performance at year 5 in career (potential) versus year 7 (achievement, which had a 2-yr head start)  RESULTS favored high-potential applicant

  9. Within-subjects design (Experiments 3 & 4) • To counterbalance Exps. 1 & 2, the authors switch to a simultaneous/joint evaluation paradigm, in which participants are directly asked to compare applicants • Also designed to control for “extremity effect” and “pro-youth” alternative hypotheses: • Assessed former by including “negatively-framed” measures (how likely to fail/disappoint) • Latter issue was addressed by making age info explicit as well as similar for both potential and achievement cond. • The two negative dimensions were so correlated (~.75 for both candidates) that aggregate reporting was used for this result; random assignment of age and other demographic info also failed to achieve significance  evidence AGAINST alternatives

  10. Experiment 4: Content domain shift • Breaking off from previous contexts, participants in this study made forced-choice responses to a pair of paintings AND the artists behind them: • One artist selected as “high achievement,” having won either 1 or 4 awards, other as high potential (to win only 1 award) • Only asked to assess based on current opinions (as opposed to “outcome expectations” in 1, 2, and 3) • Adding assessment of “static objects” (paintings) provided a test for potential-based product preferences mentioned earlier (not in advertising context, though) • Also examined interaction between amount of (actual) achievement and level of uncertainty: • 1:1 potential-to-actual ratio (in terms of awards) versus 1:4; “the potential to be good is unlikely to be evaluated more favorably than actually being great”  boundaries of effect

  11. Results of Experiment 4 N = 46 Despite explicitly rating the high achievement artist (4 awards) as having a more “objectively impressive” resume, the predicted attenuation of the potential preference in the 4:1 condition (higher certainty-to-lower certainty, in contrast to lower certainty-to-”even lower” certainty of 1:1) was modest even for the sample size (7 percent = only 4 individuals changed their preference from potential in response to more evidence of actual achievement). The attenuation effect’s apparent lack of robustness, in turn, indicates that Experiment 4’s design provided stronger evidence than 1-3 for the main hypothesis (preference for potential based on the greater processing triggered by uncertainty), simply because it measured multiple achievement levels (1 vs. 4 awards)against a potential-only (no actual achievement) condition.

  12. Before moving on to Exps. 5-8…. • Interestingly, the authors give the impression that they view the “hyper-optimism” account (e.g. that lack of information, or ambiguity, leads to egocentric assumptions of similarity/favorability until disproven) and the “deeper processing” one (same lacking info creates need for “dissonance” resolution plus ↑ excitement) as mutually-exclusive • The latter hypothesis is clearly more neutral; plus, the fact that Experiment 3’s results produced evidence against the extremity effect suggests that, while increased processing may be universal in response to uncertain conditions, what that processing leads to may be mediated by individual willingness to make future projections based on current (and limited) info • This was a confound in Experiment 1, because the NBA followers selected for the NBA-based study would be more likely to feel comfortable making predictions

  13. Exp. 5 : Real World Preference for Potential • Aim: Conduct a field study to provide further evidence for the greater interest and preference for potential versus achievement • Method: Ran ad campaign for a new comedian (e.g. Kevin Shea) on Facebook for 8 days. Ads were framed in potential or achievement & with source credibility or social proof persuasion strategies • Source Credibility (e.g. critics say…) and Social Proof (e.g. everyone is talking about…) are standard tools for persuasion • 1,037,091 total ad impression; unable to control # of times the ads were shown or if participants saw more than one ad • Participants were Facebook users from CA, 18 years of age • Dependent Variable was the click-rates (e.g. clicking on the ad that directs to homepage) and fan-rates (e.g. clicking on the link to “become a fan”); Day was controlled for • Hypothesis: “Ads framed in potential terms would generate more clicks and fan than ads framed in achievement” (regardless of persuasion strategy)

  14. 2(appeal type) x2 (frame) design Source Credibility/ Achievement: “Critics say he has become the next big thing” (322,424) Source Credibility/ Potential: Critics say he could become the next big thing” (275,601) Social Proof/ Achievement: Everyone is talking about Kevin Shea” (8,425) Social Proof/ Potential: “By this time next year, everyone could be talking about Kevin Shea” (430,631)

  15. Results • Potential had higher click-rates than achievement (F(1, 7.22)=59.18, p< .0001) • Source credibility has higher click rates than social appeals (F=(1, 9.55)=384.66, p< .0001) • No interaction- potential out performs achievement for both type of appeals • Potential framing produced higher fan-rates than achievement for both appeals types (F(1, 7.29)=11.27, p<.02) • No effects for appeal type for fan rates • “Potential frames produced 3.27 times the click-rate and 5.33 times the fan-rate of achievement frames”

  16. Discussion • Preference for potential influences real world behavior • Persuasion tools are more effective when framed with potential versus achievement • Potential induces greater interest • Alternative Explanation: Believability • If participants were not familiar with Kevin Shea they may not have found the achievement ads to be believable and the observed preference for potential may be due to this difference in the ads • Experiment 6 addresses this notion

  17. Experiment 6 • Participants were presented with the 4 ads and rated their believability, credibility, interest, and evaluations of the comedian • Hypothesis: The ads will not differ in believability/credibility and the persuasion framed ads will have higher ratings of interest and better evaluations • 160 participants from a nationwide database were presented with one of the ads and then responded to follow-up questions • How believable is this ad? • How credible would you guess the above statement is? • If you were to see this ad on a website, how interested would you be on clicking on it? • How likely do you think it is that Kevin Shea is a good comedian?

  18. Results • Ad believability tended to be higher in source credibility and more favorable impressions of K.S. in social proof versus source credibility (F(1,156)=3.22, p<.08) • “There were no effects of potential versus achievement framing and no interaction between appeal type and frame” • Greater interest and more favorable impressions in potential frame than achievement frame (F (1, 156)=5.33, p<.03; F(1,156)=16.63, p<.001).) Discussion: No differences in ad believability for achievement/potential conditions Replicated effect of potential versus achievement Eliminated believability alternative

  19. Experiment 7 • The prior experiments demonstrate potential is associated with greater uncertainty and can induce greater interest. Experiment 7 addresses the next part of the authors claim about potential being preferred because of greater interest and information processing. • Aim: Demonstrate preference for potential is due to differences in processing. Examine boundaries for the preferences of potential • Background: When interest and information processing is high individuals are better at discriminating between strong and weak arguments. Therefore can infer when better discrimination occurs it is due to greater interest and information processing. • Hypotheses: 1. Greater differentiation occurs in potential rather than achievement framing (e.g. due to greater attention and processing) 2. Preference for potential should not occur for weak arguments, rather be limited to strong arguments (e.g. boundaries). Potential statements should cause individuals to engage in more processing so when arguments are weak they should recognize this and no longer prefer potential.

  20. Method • 70 participants read a letter of recommendation for a business PhD applicant • 2 (message frame) x 2 (message strength) ANOVA • Potential versus achievement words • Strong versus weak argument-facts about individual prior experience • Dependent Variable was a general index of performance expectations • How promising is the applicant? • How likely would you be to admit him? • How successful would he be in graduate school?

  21. Results • Main effect for message strength (F(1,66)=18.89, p<.001) • Interaction: message strength influenced performance expectations in the potential condition, not the achievement (F(1,66)=20.66, p<.001; F(1,66)=2.56, p<.-12) • Preference for potential emerged in the strong message condition but not the weak condition (F(1,66)=3.83, p=.055; F<1). Discussion: Potential promotes greater processing, which influences greater persuasion when the message is strong but no advantage to achievement when the message is weak Demonstrates a boundary effect: preference for potential is less likely when evidence is less compelling

  22. Experiment 8 • Replicate Experiment 7 in a different context • 84 participants read a review of a Chef at a new restaurant with potential and achievement words, and strength of argument manipulated. Next, they completed measure of restaurant perceptions, chef perceptions, and excitement regarding the restaurant and chef.

  23. Results • Message strength had significant effect on restaurant, perception, chef perception, and excitement in the potential condition, but not in the achievement condition (F(1,80)=12.55, p<.0001; F<1; F(1,80)=6.32 p<.02;F<1; F(1,80)=23.69, p<.001; F(1,80)=6.86, p<.02) • Boundary of Effects: There were increased message strength effects under potential, rather than achievement conditions; emerges under strong arguments • Pooled data from experiments 7 and 8 demonstrated interaction, preference for potential under strong arguments and reversed for weak arguments (F(1,146)=6.38, p<.02; F(1, 146)=3.66, p<.06) • With strong evidence, potential is more impactful than achievement because it increases processing of information; when weak evidence is available potential might backfire

  24. General Discussion • 8 studies demonstrated preference for potential using lab and field studies and diverse settings • It is preferred because uncertainty is cognitively engaging, raises interest, and increases processing. This makes information have more of a impact. When the information is compelling the attitude is more favorable. • Moderators: level of achievement is superior or evidence for high claim is poor • Ruled out pro-youth bias, extremity effect, and believability; Potential is not limited to future prediction, upper bound potential, and optimism

  25. Alternative Explanations • Sweet spot • All experiments were confined to moderately successful to very successful; effects of change as level of performance shifts • Negative potential (e.g. applicant looks good but has potential to fail) • Preference for potential may disappear • Temporal focus • Focus on future versus past may produce differences in preference for potential versus achievement (prefer in future not in past) • Self versus Other • Self-servicing bias and cognitive bias may increase preference for potential • When people talk about their own potential others may discount it • Individual Differences • Individuals high in need for closure may not prefer potential • Individuals that view change as malleable versus fixed may have different preferences

  26. Implications • Highlighting potential is important for promotions, jobs, graduate school, and advertisements • The names used for the SAT’s could impact admission officers: Scholastic Aptitude test, Scholastic Assessment Test, and SAT I: Reasoning tests • Clinical Implications: focusing on the client’s potential versus evidence of past achievement

  27. Reference Tormala, Z.L., Jia, J.S., & Norton, M.I. (2012). The preference for potential. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 567-583.

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