The Irrational Allure of the Next Big Thing

Why we value potential over achievement.

Filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham.

Lena Dunham has yet to complete her first book. Why did she get such a large advance?

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker.

Earlier this week, Random House shelled out more than $3.5 million for Lena Dunham’s first book, Not That Kind of Girl. She has an amazing résumé for anyone, let alone a 26-year-old, having directed two feature films and scored four Emmy nominations for her TV show, HBO’s Girls. But what makes the book advance so surprising is that Dunham doesn’t have a track record of selling a lot of books.

Mania for up-and-comers isn’t new. Before he even started playing in the NBA, Christian Laettner was selected for the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. In 2001, Jonathan Safran Foer received a $500,000 advance for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. In 2003, LeBron James was drafted to the NBA right out of high school, earning more than $4 million a year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two years ago, Sam Bradford signed with the St. Louis Rams for $78 million over six years, the largest contract ever for an NFL rookie. These gambles don’t always pay off. Five years ago, JaMarcus Russell, the first overall draft pick in the NFL, signed a six-year contract with the Oakland Raiders for $31.5 million; after underperforming, he was released from his contract three years later.*

Logically, it doesn’t make sense to part with so much cash without knowing how many of Dunham’s fans are book buyers, or if LeBron James would actually hold up in the NBA. And yet, we pay extra for potential all the time.

A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology helps explain our long-standing fascination with the Next Big Thing. In one experiment, subjects were asked how much money they’d offer basketball players in the sixth year of their NBA careers. Player A was a five-year veteran, brandishing a list of impressive stats. Player B was a rookie, so in lieu of examining his five-year stats, subjects were shown projections of his numbers. Participants were willing to fork over $4.26 million for year six of Player A’s contract, but offered Player B, who had yet to step foot inside a pro arena, $5.25 million.

Potential won out over actual accomplishment in other domains as well, such as the art world, where subjectivity and hype make people particularly prone to falling for Next Best Thing-ism. When forced to state a preference between an artist who “many critics felt had the potential to win a major award in the art community” and an artist who had just won that very award, participants viewed the up-and-comer more favorably. Even when researchers made subjects choose between someone who might win the award and someone who had actually won four times, subjects preferred the artist who hadn’t actually won anything 57 percent of the time. Even more amazing is that subjects preferred the newcomer while acknowledging that they felt more uncertain about the artist with potential, and that the award-winner objectively had a more impressive résumé.

Our collective willingness to jump on the beginner’s bandwagon seems at odds with one of psychology’s most robust findings: We are averse to uncertainty. But as it turns out, our reaction to incomplete information depends on our interpretation of the scant data we do have. Uncertainty is a sort of amplifier, intensifying our response whether it’s positive or negative. If we see a monster in our closet, we’re scared; if all we can see is the tail, we’re downright terrified.

As long as we react positively to the little information shown, we’re actually attracted to uncertainty. In one study, female college students were asked to rate how much they liked the Facebook profiles of attractive male students. All women were told that the (fictitious) guys they were judging had already seen and rated their own profiles, and in some cases the women were shown those ratings. Participants were much more attracted to the fake profiles when they didn’t know what the guys supposedly thought of them. Not only did the women like these men the most, but they reported thinking about their profiles the most.

The fact that subjects reported thinking more about the profiles in the uncertainty condition is key. It’s curiosity rather than knowledge that leads to increased cognitive engagement. The only way to adapt to uncertainty is to get closure. Because we can’t actually find out what’s going to happen with someone’s career, or whether or not the mystery man likes us, our mind closes the loop itself. If the only information at hand is positive, your mind is going to fill in the gaps with other positive details. Say you have two lottery tickets: One of them has already been scratched off and won $100. On the second ticket only one number has been scratched off—a match, making it worth $5 so far—and people are telling you that they have a good feeling about its chances. Which one would you prefer?

A whiff of positive information is all we need to set our minds aflutter. Just take the statement released by Susan Kamil, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Random House. “We’re thrilled to welcome Lena to Random House. Her skill on the page as a writer is remarkable—fresh, wise, so assured. She is that rare literary talent that will only grow from strength to strength and we look forward to helping her build a long career as an author.” Kamil isn’t just excited about the manuscript for Not That Kind of Girl, but about Dunham’s “long career” as an author.

Dunham’s book might fare as well as Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which has sold a respectable 100,000 copies, according to BookScan. But Dunham’s book would need to sell at least 500,000 copies to break even. There’s a smaller chance that Not That Kind of Girl will sell more than a million, like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and that the $3.5 million-plus will seem like a bargain. If you’re a publishing executive who likes what you’ve already seen, you don’t want to pass up the chance, even though it’s statistically minuscule, of winning the jackpot version of Dunham’s future: that she’ll be a joy to work with, meet deadlines, stay with Random House forever, and be a prolific, best-selling author for the next five decades. The manuscript was as tempting as that second lottery ticket with only one number scratched off; the final winnings are a percentage of Dunham’s sales. Not only is her career skyrocketing right now—the first number is a match!—but this is the only ticket of its kind available.

The way we view uncertainty and accomplishment explains many judgments we make. In the case of the presidential election, most people are making an uneven comparison, sizing up Obama’s first term—what he has or hasn’t done over the past four years—with Romney’s potential over the next four years. Because we don’t know what a Romney administration would look like, we fill in the unknowns with what little information we have, coloring it in with our current reaction to his proposed policies. Being partial to potential also explains why Obama’s supporters were more jazzed in 2008, when they freely imagined that he really could solve the country’s problems overnight. Today, we’re forced to respond to his actual accomplishments, none of which hold a candle to our raging, hopeful imaginations.

Correction, Oct. 12, 2012: This article originally misidentified the home city of the Oakland Raiders. (Return.)