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What Is Implicit Cognition?

By Christina Hall
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Implicit cognition is the transpiration of unconscious influences accumulated from the sensory environment that may alter a person’s behavior. It is considered to be a somewhat intangible but powerful force that has the potential to define a person’s perception of herself and how she interprets reality. Implicit cognition is a key concept in the field of social psychology, and psychologists regard the abundance of environmental unconscious stimuli as a dominant factor in the development or lack of development of self-esteem; instinctual attitudes towards objects and ideals; and the development of eschewed stereotypes. Unconscious observation of background stimuli affects personality and decision-making through traces or “shadows” of the memories established by the unconscious observation, which can be stored from early childhood.

Inherent ideas about logic, origins, and intention are part of a person’s implicit cognition. Logic is used in everyday situations, predominantly in social and monetary transactions, and can be drawn largely from unconscious cues. If there is a confrontation, it may lead to violence in individuals that have been primed with violent subconscious cues; the person may describe the rage as “coming out of nowhere” or uncharacteristic of his personality. The origin aspect of implicit cognition refers mainly to a person’s view of her childhood and how it affects her adult life, her family heritage and how it fits into the social hierarchy, and her overall consideration of the universe and life itself. Inherited implicit cognitive cues that are related to intention directly affect motivation, lifestyle choices, and the development or lack of development of altruism and consideration for kin and people of contrasting cultures.

The study of implicit cognition began in the late 1800s and suggested that stimuli presented to a subject below his level of conscious awareness could be recalled later on a validation test. Subjects in an early study were shown distant, indiscernible stimuli, like letters, numbers, and simple geometric shapes. Words and numbers were whispered to the participants at a frequency that the human ear cannot easily interpret. The test subjects reported that they could not hear nor adequately examine the stimuli during testing. The results of the validation test, which was designed to provide cues to assist subconscious recall, were significantly accurate, suggesting authenticity and substantive evidence for the phenomenon of implicit cognition.

Subliminal stimuli are being presented constantly below the threshold of conscious awareness in the average citizen’s daily life. Advertisements for food are a fairly benign example of implicit cognition at work. A person may glance at a billboard on the highway, not really reading or focusing on the object, but finds himself craving whatever food was advertised at a later time. Addressing the limitations that implicit cognition has on authentic and self-actuated thoughts and behavior involves striving to make contemplative decisions and judgments based on rational thought processes and avoiding “knee-jerk,” subconsciously-programmed reactions during customary day-to-day interactions.

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