The researchers, Zakary Tormala, Jayson Jia and Michael Norton, noted that although uncertainty can be aversive, ambiguity does serve to create mystery, posing questions that the questing mind wants to resolve. This encourages deeper processing of information, and when that information is positive, this could lead to greater overall investment than would otherwise occur.
Across 8 experiments, the authors demonstrate this effect in a variety of domains. For instance, experiment two used an occupational setting, in which 84 participants considered a hypothetical job candidate. In one condition, the candidate had two years of experience and a high rating on a test of 'leadership achievement', the other was just beginning work with a similarly high rating in 'leadership potential'. Both were matched on qualifications. Participants were asked to anticipate how well each would perform five years into this position, and favoured the high-potential over the high-achieving individual. Note this means the participants felt a high-potential will do better five years into a career than their counterpart reaches seven years in.
Experiment three replicated the finding, this time asking participants to weigh two candidates against each other, one high-potential, one high-achiever, again based on presented test scores. Candidates were explicitly framed to be of the same age, to avoid confounds from a bias against older applicants. This study used multiple measures: how favourably they rated the candidate, and concerns about how risky it would be to hire this individual. This was to explore the possibility that the ambiguity inherent in the high-potentials leads to more extreme assessments per se, not necessarily just good ones; enigmatic wild cards who could do the impossible - or the unspeakable. Participants rated the high-potentials as a more favourable hire, and neither candidate was seen to be a risky prospect. All participants provided ratings that showed they accepted that the high-achiever was objectively stronger on paper; nevertheless, they tended to prefer the high-potential for the role.
Other experiments ranged as widely as evaluations of restaurants and stand-up comics, where the up-and-comers were judged more favorably than those who had already delivered. The researchers used these not just to extend the generalisability of the finding but to test the central hypothesis that framing around potential leads to deeper processing. A particularly nice example was an experiment that leveraged the well-established finding that deeper processing helps distinguish strong arguments from weaker ones: accordingly, participants given a letter advocating for a student's acceptance to graduate school were better able to differentiate a strong argument when that student was positioned as high-potential, rather than a high-achiever.
The authors emphasise that they doubt that high potential would compensate for an actively horrible track record; the research focused on examples that were positive rather than containing mixed messages. They also suggest that truly outstanding achievements - like an Olympic medal - would outshine potential, not least because their exceptional nature would encourage deeper processing. Nevertheless, their research 'suggests that potential framing can be an effective means of persuasion', whether seeking employment or winning business for your company.
Tormala ZL, Jia JS, & Norton MI (2012). The Preference for Potential. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 22775472