If you want to persuade your superior to promote you over someone else, you could emphasize what you have accomplished, or perhaps something else might be more convincing.

It’s seems intuitive: By highlighting achievements, you assume you will reduce an audience’s doubt and increase confidence in your future success. That’s why resumes highlight achievements and why book covers mention the author’s other successful titles. Potential, on the other hand, carries uncertainty: a person might or might not achieve prominence.

But Zachary Tormala, a marketing professor at Stanford, was surprised at what he learned when he conducted several experiments in different decision-making scenarios to test whether people were more excited by potential or by proven achievement. Here are two of the seven experiments:

NBA franchise executive

In one experiment, Tormala asked participants to imagine that they were managing a pro basketball franchise and were considering offering a player a contract. Participants were divided into two groups, but all participants received the same list of statistics.

  • The achievement group was told that the player had achieved those numbers in his first five years in the NBA.
  • The potential group group was told that the player was a newcomer to the league and was projected (had the potential) to achieve the same numbers as the veteran player.

When asked about the player’s talent and value, participants favored potential. Because the rookie’s predicted achievements matched the veteran’s stats exactly, “the results are compatible with the notion that potential success is favored over actual success,” Tormala wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Leadership position

Participants in this experiment were given information about an applicant for a leadership position in a large bank.

  • In the achievement group, the applicant was described as having two years of relevant experience, and the person recently received a 92 on a test assessing leadership achievement.
  • In the potential condition, the candidate had no relevant banking experience but recently received a score of 92 on a test assessing leadership potential.

Participants were told that the leadership test had assessed the applicant’s “observed” (achieved) leadership performance, or “predicted” (potential”) leadership performance two years into his or her career.

“Even in a context in which the person with potential was objectively less qualified than the person with achievement, potential was favored,” Tormala wrote. That’s because for some people, “uncertainty is inherently interesting or even exciting precisely because unknowns have a kind of allure (think curiosity, mystery),” Tormala said in an email. But regardless whether a person is comfortable with the unknown or not, uncertainty can lead the person to think more deeply about the information in front of her, either to become more certain or to enjoy the sense of possibility. “It is this extra thinking, we argue, that allows the preference for potential to emerge in many instances,” Tormala said.

Ken O’Quinn conducts writing and managerial communication workshops for corporations. A former Associated Press writer, he is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business and is a contributing author of Focus on Them, about leadership.