The “Instagram Filters” That Shape Our Decisions

Telling someone that outside forces are shaping their decisions isn’t a groundbreaking idea. They will likely instantly think of their parents or friends. However, our decisions are shaped by more than just the people we see regularly. The factors may be invisible to us if no one has pointed them out, just like we wouldn’t know what happens inside a building unless we go inside it.

These factors are like Instagram Filters. When you post a picture to Instagram, you want to select the most flattering filter without distorting the original picture. It’s a fine balance between upgrading photos and “trying too hard.” If we choose the wrong filter, the picture may end up looking terrible.

Image Source: Cool Mom Tech

So what are the filters that shape our decisions? The list is long, but some of the most important ones include moods, generational expectations, and environment. Filters can be all-encompassing — expectations and environment — and hard to see in the same way that we can’t see air, but we know it’s there. Other filters are temporary and change rapidly, e.g., moods.

Let’s look at mood first. The WSJ ran a piece where they show how good moods can lead to bad decisions. Your mood completely rewrites your perception and “what you notice in your environment, what you retrieve from your memory, how you make sense of these signals.” Think about how much better your city looks when you’re in a good mood versus when you’re in a bad one. It’s unlikely the entire architecture of your city changed overnight, but your perception did.

Good and bad moods will then make us see options and obstacles differently. What seemed impossible last week may now be trivial. Simple obstacles may seem insurmountable walls reinforced by barbed wire. The facts didn’t change, but our relationship with them did. I notice this with clients whenever we have stand-in calls every week. I have to calibrate my suggestions and ideas depending on the mood that I’m sensing from people within the company. 

Generational expectations are another filter. Generation Z — people born between X and Y — for example, have specific expectations that shaped their decisions. The people in this generation have higher rates of pessimism than any generation dating to 1960. They are pessimistic about everything — their prospects, the world, and the issues of our time. It’s not surprising that these expectations will shape their decisions and their risk appetite.

Every generation had expectations based on the world they grew up in and how their parents were raised. Your generation might have gone through civil war or large-scale events. Think about the children that experienced the pandemic while being locked at home. We need to be aware of these expectations, especially when thinking about building our teams. You don’t want a team of just optimists, or you might miss the big blinking red warning light.

We also see the filters in our environment. Chile is one of the most prosperous countries in South America today because of the 1975 free-market reforms instituted by Pinochet. The trouble is that Pinochet was also a brutal dictator who oversaw a reign of terror. Young Chileans feel conflicted about the price that their parents paid for their prosperity today. Growing up in Chile will give you a different experience than if you had grown up in Brazil. 

How do we deal with all these factors and choose the right filter? The first step is being aware of them, and the second is to understand what’s actually within your control. You can’t control the weather, but you can carry an umbrella with you if it rains. We give up too much control over the things we can change while we rally against those we can’t.

Think about the following areas as a way to make better decisions:

  • Learn when you’re the most mentally refreshed (morning/evening)
  • Check the performance fundamentals (sleep, eat, exercise)
  • Be aware of environment and culture
  • Be biased towards optimism
  • Have a framework for making consistent decisions

Filters on Instagram are fun. You can craft beautiful pictures (aka decisions) that are enhanced by the right filter or factor. Keep these ideas in mind next time you walk into a team meeting and face tricky decisions.

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