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Understanding the Private-to-Public Filter

How we filter our public thoughts is an important part of human consciousness.

Key points

  • Every day we filter our thoughts to manage the impressions we make on others.
  • We engage this filter to protect our social standing, to avoid punishment, or to manipulate others.
  • The filter exists between the Private Ego and the Public Persona.

This blog was co-authored with Marcia Gralha, MA.

Do you see yourself as genuine, authentic, and unfiltered? Even if you do, it is part of your human nature to manipulate information before sharing it, as illustrated in these scenarios:

  • You and your partner have a significant argument on the way to a family gathering, yet you both make an effort to mask the tension while interacting with relatives.
  • During a job interview, when asked about past challenges, you omit a conflict with a colleague, focusing instead on how you collaborated with your team to solve problems.
  • When discussing your day with your anxious mother, you choose not to mention the minor criticism you received from your boss to avoid dwelling on it and causing unnecessary stress or worry.

While our communication with others often feels like a free flow of information exchange, there are many times when we choose to keep certain information private, filtering out content that we do not want others to know about. Indeed, regulating "who has access to what" is a crucial part of our lives. Take a moment and consider locks on diaries, confidentiality agreements, and the whispering of secrets. The list of the ways we try to regulate information flow is almost endless, and it is all structured to generate a membrane that keeps information from leaking out into unwanted places.

Justification Dynamics Drove the Evolution of Human Consciousness

According to UTOK (the Unified Theory of Knowledge), the structure and function of human consciousness took shape in response to something called the adaptive problem of justification. This refers to how, once humans became able to use propositional language to make claims, the capacity for questioning those claims quickly followed. The result was the need to provide justifications, both to oneself and others.

This was crucial because the aggregate of the justifications produced by individuals would, in turn, link up to one another to form networks of explanations to legitimatize and coordinate shared beliefs, values, and actions in human groups. According to UTOK, these systems of justifications evolved to structure a new complex adaptive system: the Culture-Person plane of existence.

According to UTOK, we can obtain a much clearer map of human consciousness and its evolution when we frame it via the lens of justification dynamics. Doing so suggests we can think of the structure and function of human consciousness as an interface between:

  1. Pre-verbal embodied sensations, perceptions, and emotions, including our drives, feelings, and relational attachments that we share with other primates;
  2. Our internal, private speech, which involves generating a justification narrative to ourselves;
  3. The “public-facing” aspects of ourselves that we share with others.

These domains are called, respectively, the Experiential Core Self, the Private Ego, and the Public Persona. As shown in the diagram below, there are filters between the domains, with our focus here being on the Private-to-Public filter (for more on the other filters, see here).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

The dynamics of justification operate both individually (i.e., privately) and socially (i.e., publicly). The theory is that the human ego evolved as a “mental organ of justification" (Henriques, 2003) in response to the adaptive problem of justification. This means that the human ego functions as a second-order awareness system on top of our Experiential Self that translates events and feelings into systems of justifications that we build for ourselves. The justifications we develop emerge over the course of being socialized into the family, community, and cultures in which we were raised. We learn what others want to see and what we need to regulate. The regulation process is private-to-public filtering.

The Private-to-Public Filter

Following the insights of Carl Jung, the Public Persona can be thought of as the “mask” we put on to interact with others. It is the embodiment of what we think and feel coupled with the image we want to project to the world. It is informed by our interactions in the social world, incorporating external norms, values, beliefs, expectations, judgments, and so on.

Obviously, not everything that we think is going to be compatible with the image we want to portray. Many of the things we experience privately will conflict with the image of ourselves that we wish to share. As suggested by the examples above, there are many reasons why we would choose to filter information from the public domain, including not hurting someone’s feelings, preventing tension, and avoiding shame, among many others.

UTOK has its origins in psychotherapy. In UTOK, this private-to-public filtering process is normally called the “Rogerian filter,” in honor of the insights of Carl Rogers. Central to Rogers’ humanistic psychology was the idea that the judgments and expectations of others influenced our sense of self, actions, and overall well-being. For Rogers, the judgments and evaluations of others could generate external standards of approval that could make some people discount their genuine core needs, interests, desires, etc., in order to conform and fit in. This process would leave people feeling alienated from their “true self,” out of touch with their genuine organismic valuing process. In UTOK terminology, this means filtering out the genuine contents of the self-conscious Private Self from the Public Persona, emphasizing the impressions compatible with one’s projected image of oneself.

The idea that the private-to-public filtering process can go wrong if taken to extremes is not hard to see. Think of folks with severe social anxiety or those who suffer from imposter syndrome, the fear that others will find out “who you really are” behind the mask being presented and will reject you for it.

Should We Call it the Rogerian or Machiavellian Filter?

It is also the case that folks filter out information from the public domain in a conscious manner with the goal of actively deceiving and manipulating others. With this lens, we can entertain an alternative label for the filter, perhaps calling it the Machiavellian filter. This embraces a “darker side” of the human condition, including drives for power, control, competitiveness, deception, and destruction. Psychopaths can be framed as operating through the Machiavellian filter, as they have little to no concern about the feelings of others over and beyond their own objectives and will actively lie and manipulate to achieve those. Of course, psychopaths aren’t the only ones that lie. Kids generally start lying by age four, and research suggests that, on average, people lie more than once a day. The reasons for lying are well-framed by UTOK’s model. To give just some examples, people lie to protect their image, to avoid social pressures, because it is convenient, to manipulate or gain an advantage, or to protect status.


The take-home point is that we live in a world of justifications and we need to regulate who has access to information. This dynamic has shaped human consciousness in profound ways, such that we have a Private Ego and Public Persona and are constantly filtering between them, as well as our nonverbal thoughts and feelings. The reason is that there are different audiences, and thus, what one shares with whom and how has different consequences. Consequently, there is a private-to-public filter that, through the lens of humanistic psychology, can be called the Rogerian filter because of the important dynamics the judgments of others can have on the formation of the self. We can also flip it around and frame lying and deceit as the Machiavellian filter. Either way, filtering our thoughts depending on the audience has a profound influence over the course of our lives.

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