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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Potential Bias

New insights about our biases toward rookie potential over established success are here just in time, as we assess the DC interviews and manage the mix of entry-level and lateral candidates [I couldn't make it to DC because I was committed to speaking at the L&E conference at Wash U, but I know the other
members of the USD committee represented us well, and now comes the difficult task of making choices].

A study just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirms our tendency to get more excited over someone's potential to become a star than one's actual achievements, awards, and proof of productivity and talent. Here is the abstract of the study, which is entitled The Preference for Potential:

When people seek to impress others, they often do so by highlighting individual achievements. Despite the intuitive appeal of this strategy, we demonstrate that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. Indeed, 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. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at
something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions.

Slate has an interesting take on the study and its implications in the context of screenwriters, Hollywood, and sports. But for us in the legal academia, I am sure we can all think about how the potential bias impacts the market.

Posted by Orly Lobel on October 15, 2012 at 01:44 PM | Permalink


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Very interesting, Orly, and consistent with my impressions.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 15, 2012 2:14:08 PM

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