Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

The Forces and Filters of Self-Knowledge

The two filters and three forces that organize knowledge about the self

One of the oldest, most well-worn maxims is know thyself. A repeated and central theme of the teachings of Socrates, the inscription “know thyself” was inscribed the entrance the Temple of Apollo, home of the Oracle of Delphi. Freud famously argued that humans were governed largely by unconscious forces and that self-knowledge was limited and biased—and that true insight required years of intensive psychoanalysis. Today, there are Psychology Today blogs, courses for high school students, college students, and countless self-help, ten-step programs to know thyself. There are even innovative entrepreneurs exploring the ways in which information technology might help with this long sought after quest.

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Why is self-knowledge important? At least some self-knowledge is crucial because self-deception is so easy, as these powerful quotations make clear (all of which are drawn from this useful video).

“Awakening is possible only for those who seek it and want it, for those who are ready to struggle with themselves for a very long time and very persistently to attain it.” G. I. Gurdjieff

“There is no coming to [self] consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” C. G. Jung

“Try for a moment to accept the idea that you are not what you believe yourself to be, that you overestimate yourself, in fact you lie to yourself. That you always lie to yourself, every moment, all day, all your life…You are the prey of lying. You lie, everywhere…But you never stop yourself in what you are doing because you believe in yourself.” Jeanne de Salzmann

What is self-knowledge and why are we vulnerable to self-deception? Before I answer that, let me start with a little anecdote that might help frame the issues. Several years ago, I happened to be clandestinely watching two of my children, Jon (who was 2) and Sydney (who was 4), play with each other. Well, after some brief period, the playing escalated into more competitive pushing until finally Sydney had enough and pushed Jon down hard, after which he erupted in a sharp cry. I then immediately appeared on the scene and demanded to know what happened. Sydney quickly replied, “He fell.” I imagine that anyone who spends time around young children can relate similar stories.

Let’s think for a minute about the nature of Sydney’s reply. First, it is obvious that she knew what I was talking about. If she were confused about my frame of reference, she might have said some non sequitur like “Jon turned on the TV.” Second, Sydney clearly had the mental capacity to connect her actions to cause-effect sequences. If I had arrived at the scene and she had just given Jon a piece of her cookie, she would have said, “I am sharing with Jon.” So what is obviously notable about Sydney’s explanation is that it so clearly filters out a blatant aspect of the story—her pushing him—which, not coincidentally, where the very elements that would implicate her as being responsible for a negative action. It is worthy of note here that Sydney’s reply came very quickly, faster than the time it would take for her to reason through what she should say.

The Design of the Human Self-Consciousness System

To understand self-knowledge, we need to understand the design of the human self-consciousness system. I would posit that Sydney’s filtered verbalization represents a central evolutionary design feature of the human self-consciousness system. But before I dive into how the self-consciousness system was shaped by evolutionary adaptive forces, it is necessary to review just a bit about consciousness just to be clear about the territory we are covering.

As articulated in more detail here in this blog on mapping human consciousness, there are three broad domains of human consciousness. The first domain is a level of consciousness that we share with other animals and is called experiential consciousness (it also is called sentience). This is made up of the nonverbal sensations, perceptions, urges, and feeling states that guide actions. The second domain is private self-consciousness, and this is where explicit self-knowledge resides. This domain is the internalized narrator that develops meaning making “theories” about the world, other people, and one’s self. The third domain of consciousness is the public self, which refers to what we explicitly say to other people and the image we attempt to project.

Let’s go back to the situation with Sydney and Jon. Appearing on the scene, I was able to gain access both to information that had happened previously and to information that was inside Sydney’s head. How? Via language. Language was a game changer for Homo sapiens at many different levels. (Note that while other animals have very complicated systems of communication, they do not have an open, symbolic-syntactical system for representing states of affairs). For one thing, language allowed information to be cheaply shared. For another, it allowed for much more complicated cognitive representation and mental manipulation. It also allowed for much greater coordination of activity and, thus, cooperation. In short, language was a great boon for our species.

But it came with a significant adaptive problem. With it, for the first time in evolutionary history, another individual had a rather direct window into one’s thought processes…which, for now, we can call the problem of inquiry. Elaborating a little bit on this point with an example, consider what would happen if a male (call him ‘Beta’), was interested in forging a relationship with a particular female, but she was pair bonded with another male (‘Alpha’). Imagine further that Beta starts spending time with her, but is then confronted by Alpha with a question such as: “Why are you spending so much time around her?” If Beta simply translated his thought processes in response to the question, he would say something like: “I want to separate the two of you and have her as my mate.” Of course, such a statement seems blatantly foolish because the information would obviously be of crucial importance to Alpha, who, upon hearing it, would be able to take defensive action.

Evolutionarily, the problem for Beta is how can he explain his actions without costing him vital social influence and opportunities? To do this effectively, he must reflect on his actions, take into account the interests and knowledge of his audience and develop a reason-giving narrative that provides a plausible explanation of the public evidence without costing him key resources. A response such as, “She is teaching me how to plant seeds” might be a good justification, in that it could provide an explanation for Beta’s actions in a manner that avoids potentially negative social consequences. Of course, Alpha must then evaluate the coherence and consistency of such an explanation and decide whether or not to accept the justification. In addition, language allows information about another to be transmitted to others who are not directly present…we can call this the problem of gossip. Alpha, for example, can use language to check with others about Beta’s actions when he is not there.

Both of these problems, the problem of inquiry and the problem of gossip, can be framed as adaptive problems of social justification, which are the reasons we give that legitimize our behavior in a manner that important others find believable and acceptable.

A central insight from my work on the unified theory of psychology is that the human self-consciousness system was shaped by evolution to foster narratives of one’s self and valued others in a way that solves the problem of social justification. This insight, called the Justification Hypothesis, has many elements to it, one of which is that it allows us to frame and understand the forces and filters that organize our self-knowledge. Here I want to highlight why there are two filters (the Freudian and Rogerian), and three forces (accuracy, consistency, and enhancement), which if we fully understand, we can frame our quest for self-knowledge more effectively.

Two Filters and Three Forces that Shape Self-Knowledge

One implication of the analysis above is that, because it is an evolutionary add-on, the human self-consciousness system does not have full access to all of one’s mental processes. Although some prominent scholars challenged this notion (e.g., William James called the very idea of an unconscious “a tumbling ground for whimsies”), it is now well documented that there are filtering processes between self-conscious and sub-conscious elements, and that sub and nonconscious elements impact our behavior, sometimes dramatically. Some of the most direct and clear examples of such processes are seen with split brain patients, as shown in this video. This research on neurologically impaired individuals demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is an “interpreter”, housed in the left hemisphere, who reports on what the person is doing and why, and that this aspect of consciousness can be functionally isolated from other mental processes.

Of course, we did not need split-brain patients to recognize the notion that explicit self-conscious narratives often were biased or blinded by underlying needs, fears or motives. Indeed, it was Freud’s central insight, and I refer to the general filtering between the experiential system and the private self-consciousness system the “Freudian Filter”. In essence, the Freudian Filter works to align one’s feelings, impulses, or experiences with one’s private identity. For a blog on how we filter our thoughts this way, see here.

The second filter is between the private self-consciousness and the public, and is one that every adult I have ever asked can easily recognize. Imagine for a moment that you had to automatically share everything that came into your mind with anyone who asked. It is universally reported to be an undesired state. The film, Liar Liar, takes the idea to comic heights. To see the power of the social field on how we filter, check out these YouTube videos of Asch’s famous experiments showing that people will give blatantly incorrect answers to appease the social field. I call the filtering that takes place between the private and the public self the Rogerian filter because Carl Rogers how judgmental others would stunt the development of one’s “true self”, because individuals filter out their true desires and put on a mask—a “social self”—often to appease (and, sometimes, to deceive) influential others. Here is a diagram of the domains and filters of human consciousness. 

Now let’s shift our attention to the forces that organize self-knowledge. If the self-consciousness system was shaped in response to the problem of social justification, then the way knowledge about the self is constructed and organized should be related to the kinds of pressures that would result in the capacity to respond to social justification. Flipping this on its head, we can ask: What would make someone unjustifiable in the eyes of others? Some ideas that immediately come to mind are: 1) that someone has done something undesirable (e.g., “You should not have done that!”) or that someone is undesirable (e.g., “She is ugly”, “You are stupid”); 2) or that someone has claimed something inaccurate (e.g., “That is not true”, “You don’t know what you are talking about”); or 3) someone is inconsistent (e.g., “You said this and now you are saying that!?! You can’t have it both ways!”). In his review of the organization of self-knowledge, Brown (1997) identified three central forces in organizing self-knowledge, which he called: 1) the enhancement motive; 2) the accuracy motive; and 3) the consistency motive. The enhancement motive is the push most people experience to think and feel about themselves positively. Social psychologists have long documented the presence of a self-serving bias, in which people tend to explain good outcomes as being caused by them and bad outcomes being caused by external factors. Brown reviewed how, when it comes to their ideas about socially valued qualities and abilities (e.g., their kindness, attractiveness, and intelligence), most do not have entirely accurate views of themselves, but rather regard themselves as better than others judge them.

Although people in general tend to be biased in the way they think about themselves, they are not completely blind to reality and there are many circumstances and reasons that people engage in what Brown calls the accuracy motive. Let’s return for a moment to the example that I began this blog with. What do you think my reaction to Sydney was? Obviously, I said something to the effect of, “How did he fall?” Indeed, much of the process of socialization is learning what you can’t get away with, and we require an inner pressure to ground our beliefs in at least some evidence. The motive for accuracy is not hard to understand from an adaptive perspective. If we think about our beliefs about the world as representations of the outside world, and ask the question: “Does it matter if your map is accurate?” the answer is obvious. As anyone who has operated from a faulty map or faulty set of perceptions or assumptions can tell you it, can be a significant problem when we have misinformation about reality in general and ourselves in particular.

If one of the primary functions of the self-consciousness system is to generate a justification narrative that helps the individual function in and navigate the social world, it follows that the system would require a degree of stability and consistency, both for the individual and in relationship to the expectations of others. Several authors have argued that a need for consistency is a central principle of mental organization in general, and the understanding of the self in particular. Swann (1990; 1996) has marshaled an impressive array of findings that people strive for consistent self-knowledge and seek information that verifies their existing self-knowledge. Second, although we certainly sometimes want people to change their beliefs, it is also the case that we rely on the predictability of others and the coherence of their justification systems. As a consequence, there should be social pressures for consistency, and individuals who frequently alter their beliefs, waffle in what they say, or are flat out contradictory should be criticized, disliked, or lose social influence. Although I could not find any direct research supporting the idea that people who tend to be inconsistent are less well liked, in anecdotal support of this idea, flip-flopping is a common criticism political opponents’ use against one another. For example, George W. Bush used the criticism with great effect against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, especially after Kerry, when speaking on his attitude for funding the Iraq war, told a crowd “I voted for the bill before I voted against it”.

There are many pathways to self-knowledge. I have found that understanding how the self-consciousness system was designed is an important one to gain a more objective perspective. When I am dealing with negative feedback, or in an awkward social situation, or have a feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on, I find reflecting on the forces and filters of self-knowledge to be a useful guide in helping me authentically center my experience.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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