Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge: An Essay on the Cognitive Unconscious
Arthur S. Reber
The book is an extended essay on implicit learning, a topic that emerged in recent years as an important but previously overlooked process. Implicit learning is learning that takes place independent of both the process and products of learning. It occurs without the intention to learn and largely without awareness of the nature of what has been learned. The process is “bottom-up”; information is acquired automatically when individuals focus attention on complex displays; and the knowledge base is “tacit” and largely opaque to introspection. Examples abound in everyday life, notably natural lan ... More
The book is an extended essay on implicit learning, a topic that emerged in recent years as an important but previously overlooked process. Implicit learning is learning that takes place independent of both the process and products of learning. It occurs without the intention to learn and largely without awareness of the nature of what has been learned. The process is “bottom-up”; information is acquired automatically when individuals focus attention on complex displays; and the knowledge base is “tacit” and largely opaque to introspection. Examples abound in everyday life, notably natural language learning and the acquisition of the mores of social behavior. A core assumption is that this implicit acquisitional mechanism is a fundamental “root” process that is based on evolutionarily old neurological structures and lies at the heart of the adaptive behavioral repertoire of every complex organism. Firstly, the book outlines the essential features of implicit learning that have emerged from controlled studies carried out over the past several decades. It also presents alternative perspectives that have been proposed and accommodates these views to the proposed theoretical model. It then structures the literature within the framework of Darwinian evolutionary biology that lies at the core of the theory. Finally, it shows how the evolutionary stance makes a series of predictions about how functions based on implicit mechanisms should differ from those mediated by consciousness.
Keywords: implicit memory, consciousness, unconscious cognition, automatic processing, bottom-up mechanisms, Darwinism, evolutionary biology, functionalism
|Print publication date: 1996||Print ISBN-13: 9780195106589|
|Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2008||DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195106589.001.0001|
Affiliations are at time of print publication.
Arthur S. Reber, author
City University of New York
Arthur S. Reber (born 1940) is an American cognitive psychologist. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association for Psychological Science (APS) and a Fulbright Fellow. He is known for introducing the concept of implicit learning and for using basic principles of evolutionary biology to show how implicit or unconscious cognitive functions differ in fundamental ways from those carried out consciously.
Reber was born in Philadelphia, PA. He received his B.A. in 1961 from the University of Pennsylvania in psychology, working with Justin Aronfreed and Richard Solomon and his M.A. in 1965 and Ph.D. degree in 1967 from Brown University under Richard Millward. He taught at the University of British Columbia from 1966 to 1970 when he moved to Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In 1998 he was appointed Broeklundian Professor of Psychology. He spent 1977-78 as a Fulbright Professor at the University of Innsbruck, Austria and 1995-96 as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Wales, Bangor. He retired in 2005 but maintains a Visiting Professor position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and continues to work with colleagues and former students.
His M.S. thesis was the first demonstration of implicit learning, a form of learning that takes place without awareness of either the process of acquisition or knowledge of what was actually learned. Those experiments used the artificial grammar learning methods where participants memorize strings of letters that appear chaotic but are actually formed according to complex rules. After the learning period they are able to discern whether new, novel letter-strings are "grammatical" (i.e., conform to the rules) or "non-grammatical" (i.e., violate the rules) without being able to articulate the rules they are using. These processes have much in common with the notion of intuition where people often find themselves able to make effective decisions without being aware of the knowledge they are using, how, or even when, they acquired it. His 1993 book, Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge: An Essay on the Cognitive Unconscious reviews the early decades of research on the topic.
A variety of other techniques have been developed to study implicit cognitive functions and a host of related phenomena have been explored including implicit memory, the Implicit Association Test, the role of implicit acquisition in language learning and socialization and the multi-national, multi-university Project Implicit.
Not all agree that implicit cognitive functions invariably lie outside of awareness. Researchers such as David Shanks, Pierre Perruchet and Lee Brooks have argued that implicit or tacit knowledge may, in fact, be available to consciousness and that much of this tacit knowledge is not based on rules or patterns but on fragments, concrete exemplars and instances.
Reber developed a model based on the assumption that the underlying mechanisms that control implicit learning are based on evolutionarily old cortical and sub-cortical structures, ones that emerged long before those that modulate conscious control and self-reflection. By applying principles of evolutionary biology, the model predicts that implicit cognitive functions should display features that distinguish it from explicit functions. Specifically, implicit processes should show little individual variation compared with explicit; they should be operational early in life and continue to function as people age. They should be robust and remain intact in the face of neurological and psychiatric disorders that compromise explicit processing and should display phylogenetic commonality.
Origins of consciousness
Reber maintains that human consciousness should be viewed as a pole on a continuum of subjective, phenomenal states that can be traced back to simple reactivity of organic forms and not as something special in our universe. We would do better to treat consciousness like we treat memory, not as a singular thing but as a label for a host of functions all of which have a common functional core. Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists are, he notes, quite comfortable viewing memory as beginning in very basic functions of cellular biology (as Eric Kandel has shown) while still recognizing the various complex and sophisticated forms we see in humans as on a continuum with the primitive forms.
In 1985 Reber authored the Dictionary of Psychology, now in its 4th edition. His daughter Emily Reber co-authored the 3rd edition and his wife Rhianon Allen joined for the most recent edition. The dictionary has sold over a half-million copies in six languages.
A separate career
In addition to his work in cognitive psychology and the philosophy of mind, Reber has had a parallel career as a reporter and commentator on gambling, particularly poker. As a free-lance writer, he has authored hundreds of columns, most from the psychologist’s point of view. These have been published in magazines such as Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Poker Pro Magazine and web sites like PokerListings.com. His breakdown of forms of gambling based on expected value was presented in The New Gambler’s Bible. An overview of gaming appeared in Gambling for Dummies (co-authored with Richard Harroch and Lou Krieger) and recently he published Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things, a collection of essays. In 2012 he proposed a novel framework for the notion "gambling" based on the two dimensions of expected value of a game and the flexibility that a game affords each player. Most recently Reber has turned to novel writing. His first effort at literary fiction, "Xero to Sixty" was published in 2015. It follows the life of Xerxes ("Xero") Konstantakis, a Greek layabout with intellectual roots who is tugged at constantly by the world of carnivals, smoke-filled gambling halls, poker rooms and race tracks. We first encounter Xero when he flunks out of college and runs away with the circus and follow him through to his sixtieth year.
- Reber, A. S. & Scarborough, D. L. (Eds.) (1977). Toward a Psychology of Reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Reber, A. S. (1986, 1995, 2001, 2010). Dictionary of psychology. London, Penguin/Viking. Second edition, 1995, Third Edition, (A. S. Reber & E. S. Reber, 2001), Fourth Edition (A.S. Reber, R. Allen & E. S. Reber, 2009).
- Reber, A. S. (1993). Implicit learning and tacit knowledge: An essay on the cognitive unconscious. NY: Oxford University Press.
- Reber, A. S. (1996). The New Gambler’s Bible: How to beat the Casinos, the Track, your Bookie and your Buddies. NY: Three Rivers Press.
- Harroch, R., Krieger, L. & Reber, A. S. (2001). Gambling for Dummies. NY: Hungry Minds.
- Reber, A. S. (2012). Poker, Life and other Confusing Things. Pittsburgh: ConJelCo Press.
- Reber, A. S. (2015). Xero to Sixty: A Novel.
- ^Reber, A. S. (1967). Implicit learning of artificial grammars. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 855‑863.
- ^Shanks, D. & St. John, M. (1994). Characteristics of dissociable human learning-systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 17, 367-395.
- ^Perruchet, P. & Pacteau, S. (2006). Implicit learning and statistical learning: One phenomenon, two approaches. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 33-38.
- ^Brooks, L. & Vokey, J. (1991). Abstract analogies and abstracted grammars. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 120, 316-323.
- ^Reber, A. S. (1992). The cognitive unconscious: An evolutionary perspective. Consciousness and Cognition, 1, 93‑133.
- ^Reber, A. S., Walkenfeld, F. F., & Hernstadt, R. (1991). Implicit learning: Individual differences and IQ. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 17, 888‑896.
- ^Meulemans, T., Van der Linden, T. & Perruchet, P. (1998). Implicit sequence learning in children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 69, 199-221.
- ^Dennis, N., Howard, J. & Howard, D. (2004). Implicit sequence learning without motor sequencing in young and old adults. Experimental Brain Research, 175, 153-174.
- ^Knowlton, B., Ramus, S. & Squire, L. (1992). Intact artificial grammar learning in amnesia. Psychological Science, 3, 172-179.
- ^Herbranson, W. & Shimp, C. (2003). "Artificial grammar learning" in pigeons: A preliminary analysis. Learning and Behavior, 31, 98-106.
- ^Reber, A. S. (1997). Caterpillars and consciousness. Philosophical Psychology, 10, 437-450.
- ^Reber, A. S. (2012). The EVF Model of Gambling: A novel framework for understanding gambling and, by extension, poker. Gaming Research and Review Journal, 16, 63-80.