Decision-making: what motivates your action

Yinghui Liang
9 min readSep 29, 2023
Photo by Peter Fogden on Unsplash

This is the second story in a series on decision-making, from psychological, economic and organisational perspectives. You may also be interested in my previous story on cognitive process on decision-making.

Summary: in this story, I discuss the motivational factors that drive us to act the way we do. Based on these, I share my thoughts on personal brand building in this digital age, surrounding how much we could trust someone’s social media posts and how much our social media posts say about us. I also ponder about affiliation when digital censorship (e.g. cancel culture) is on the rise.

Here is, again, my plan for the whole series on how we make decisions. This second story will cover motivational process in psychological influences on individual decision-making.

Image by Author

Psychological influences come in two directions: internal and external. Internally, we are subject to our own cognitive process (read here) and motivational process. Externally, we are often swayed by other individuals, our own groups and other groups.

Overview of Psychological Influences on Individual Decision-making

Motivational Influences

Structure of Motivational Influences

While cognitive process governs our moment-to-moment thought process, motivational factors guide our decisions towards certain goals. These goals originate from our very own psychological needs. We have three common goals: impression management, need for affiliation and need for consistency.

Impression management is, in short, how we want others to think of us, so as to influence their decisions.

Our impressions of others are shaped by implicit personality theories. Implicit personality theories are our beliefs that certain traits (think personalities) and behaviours tend to happen together.

You are told that John is quiet and a bit quirky. Would you picture him reading in a library or playing American football in the field?

Our impressions are often formed along two dimensions — social (warmth) and intellectual (competence). Gender is heavily in play here.

It is conventional for us to think of women as warm, caring and compassionate while men as more competent, direct and indifferent. Thus, women are traditionally hired for customer service roles, e.g. sales, receptionists and assistants; and men tend to occupy professional roles, e.g. engineers, lawyers and doctors. Nowadays, we can see there are a ton of counter examples in the society.

Researchers debate about why we tend to link some traits with a certain gender but not the other. Some argue that we are born to see gender this way; others argue that we are socialised into seeing gender this way. My take is more on the latter and I have explored this area in my master thesis. Socialisation is thus a way of social control as we regulate our own beliefs and behaviours to act properly — fit the "norm".

Another interesting concept in impression formation is called thin slices of behaviour.

These slices of behaviour are our brief exposure to others' behaviours. Based on them, we are able to form a pretty accurate impression.

Psychologists demonstrated that our decisions based on thin slices of behaviour in a short exposure, are incredibly consistent with our decisions based on longer exposure.

First impression matters A LOT! If you dislike someone in the first 5 minutes you meet, you are likely to hate him forever. This feels a lot like sampling ice cream flavour before making up your mind to get a scone. Our brains love to save energy. By sampling a thin slice of others' behaviour, we are ready to make a decision. Not hard to see there is a lot of room for bias in this process.

There are three strategies that we often use to manage our own impressions on others. I am sure you have used one or maybe all of these strategies. Does it work well? It depends on how skilful you are.

Ingratiation is basically flattery. You want to get people to like you by stressing how similar you are, e.g., your interests, religions and lifestyle. We all like people who share similarities to us, don't we?

Exemplification is essentially presenting yourself to be a moral person. You want to tell people your good deeds so that they would see you as virtuous, kind and with all these good qualities, you are a good person to trust and admire.

Self-promotion is in everybody's toolkit nowadays with the rise of social platforms. You want to tell others about your achievements, competence and social network so that people will see you positively.

What I reflect from the literature is that though we constantly manage others' impression on us in order to achieve certain outcome, in some sense, don't we also manage our impression on ourself? By posting the newly added certificate of yours, by sharing the good deeds that you've done or by connecting with people with a higher status, we fulfil our psychological needs of being recognised, admired and connected. We feel better about our self.

A counter-intuitive strategy of impression management is self-handicapping. I have seen people doing this but I did not have a solid understanding as to why people destroy themselves. Now I seem to get a hold of this trick. By creating obstacles to sabotage your own performance, you shift the blame to the obstacles instead of your own ability should you fail, thus releasing oneself from the guilt of failure and the social liability resulting from the failure. The other upside is that, if you somehow manage to succeed with all these self-created obstacles, you will be seen as extra competent and receive extra honour.

Need for affiliation is our desire to attach to beneficial social contact.

This comes natural, right? Since we are born, we attach to families who love and take care of us. As we grow up, we begin to attach to various social or professional groups, e.g., friends, classmates, sports teams, leisure groups, volunteer community, professional associations and etc. There are uncountable benefits, both psychological and survival, provided by affiliation.

When we feel upset, we receive emotional support from our friends; when we succeed, we receive attention such as praise and compliments from our families, teachers, and mentors; when we are around people we like, we feel more satisfied and be more positive; and when we are around our peers, we could socially compare ourself with them so that we know how well we are doing.

Once we have a targeted affiliation goal, we often try to achieve via what researchers call chameleon effect.

Chameleon effect is the process whereby we unconsciously imitate people with whom we wish to affiliate.

Motivational process is very much a goal oriented process. By imitating individuals, we also touch upon ingratiation effect in impression management. We like people who are similar to us and agree with us; therefore, we are more likely to enjoy interaction with them and to welcome them to our social groups. Chameleon effect often happens unconsciously.

I can easily think of a number of social occasions where chameleon effect just flows in. When our respected professor brings up that she often visits XYZ cafe, all of us would start to bump into her at XYZ cafe. In another occasion, when our boss tells us he often has suits made at ABC tailor, some of our male colleagues would start making theirs there. It is common to see children talk and act like their parents.

Need for consistency is our desire to ensure consistency in our cognitive process.

We hate inconsistency. When things are not consistent, they often indicate danger and failure. We experience cognitive dissonance — an irritating psychological state arising from inconsistency, leading to a strong motivation to restore consistency.

Such uncomfortable, annoying and disturbing dissonance state is no stranger to all of us. We feel it when we work so hard on a deal but the client cuts it; when we said we would start working out but we couldn't; when we apply for a dream school but no offer; when we are torn between two ideal destinations but end up choosing the one with bad weather… I can go on and on.

When inconsistency happens, we have such urge to restore consistency so as to reduce dissonance — irritating feelings. Typically, consistency is restored via adding more justification or changing a behaviour or attitude.

Case 1:

Inconsistency: when we work so hard on a deal but the client cuts it.

Change a behaviour: I shouldn't serve the client so well in the future.

Case 2:

Inconsistency: when we said we would working out but we couldn’t.

Add more justification: Work is busy and I am too tired after work. I often work late, so it is hard to work out in the morning.

Case 3:

Inconsistency: when we are torn between two ideal destinations but end up choosing the one with bad weather.

Change an attitude: The weather could be much worse and we are lucky already.

Again, given my interest in our digitalised informational and social landscape, I wonder how the motivational process rolls out when we move our communities and discourse online? Namely:

What happens to our personal brand in digital platforms?

How much can we trust someone's social media posts? or put it in a different perspective, how much do your social media posts say about you?

These questions also touch upon digital impression management and a need for consistent personal image. We tend to confuse our reputation as our personal brand. Read this article titled What’s the Point of a Personal Brand? on Harvard Business Review. Everybody has a reputation whether you like it or not. People make judgements on you whenever you act, you speak and you socialise. Personal brand is intentional impression management. It is how you foster a desirable image and sell it to people.

In the digital age, this translate into strategic social media posts. What strengths of yours do you want to highlight? Who do you picture with and tag? How to increase the reachability of your posts, e.g., what time should you post? Are you considering paying for fake followers? What do you advocate? How heartfelt should your post read? What hashtags do you use? What happens if someone attacks you online? Should you retaliate or maintain peace? How much should you comment on political news so as to be seen as a good citizen yet not falling into a wrong camp?

The rise of various social platforms have added extra drama and spice to our personal brand building. I confess that I only trust about 30% of what people post about themselves and their lives on social platforms. I tend to believe that your posts say little about who you really are. But, this is a huge but, if I happen to know the person offline and their actions or characters match what their posts show, I tend to like them very much. I guess this gives me a sense of consistency and reassurance that this person is authentic.

Though personal brand may seem "inauthentic", I think it really boils down to how you present and sell it. An honest personal brand brings in opportunities otherwise would not exist, lets people know better about you and makes you happier thanks to good social relationship. The key, in my humble opinion, is to be consistent — turns out to be incredibly hard, and really align your true values to your personal brand.

How do you choose your affiliation when digital censorship is on the rise?

What if you got cancelled due to someone else's incident?

The debate around cancel culture invokes a range of social values: accountability, empathy, freedom of speech… Digital platforms make it possible for people, who used to be silenced, to voice out their opinions without much real-life consequences should they choose to remain anonymous. This helps the public to hold powerful people accountable for their actions; yet this also gives a weapon to those with other agenda in mind.

What's true anonymity? This reminds me of one of exercises that a company did. The company asked staff to fill out honest opinions regarding its DEI policy. In the questionnaire, one can report individuals or incidents that one feels violate the policy. Interestingly, the questionnaire can only be filled in on company computers due to security reasons. The company promised not to identify anyone via IP address. What do you think of the results?

Vox.com has a great piece on cancel culture. Surely there are benefits and drawbacks. It is inescapable these days when everything we post and comment leaves a digital evidence. You cannot deny what you have said. Damage control is difficult. This makes our decision to affiliate with whom and what a tricky one. One could accidentally become collateral damage.

I don't have an answer. I guess the best (lame) thing one can do is to really affiliate with people or organisations that align with your true values, not the potential social benefits that come with it. When things did go sour, admit your mistakes.

References:

American Psychological Association PsycLearn: https://digitallearning.apa.org/psyc-learn

--

--

Yinghui Liang

Aspiring management researcher. Previously auction and wine industry veteran. Programming language: Python, R, SQL, C