The Hidden Power of Implicit Thought in Opinion Formation
By David Metcalfe
September 8, 2018
The beginning of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (the highest selling American title of all time), states this:
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
In the following pages, he proceeds to outline enlightenment era thinking on the proper role of government, and argues against the British monarchy, in favor of American independence.
It’s been almost a year now since I first read Common Sense, and while, of course, I think about the content within, I have found my mind to often be stuck in that first sentence. The vast majority of Americans, at the time, had never thought even the least bit about what makes a good government, and yet they had very strong opinions that the British King was their rightful ruler. But not long after its writing and distribution, majority of Americans were in favor of independence, and within just a few months, the “Declaration of Independence” was written and supported by all thirteen colonies.
I find it very interesting, and somewhat mysterious, how a collective, strongly held opinion can change so quickly. The American revolution was hardly the only time this has happened in history. In the 1930s, how did the German people, with an established democracy based on natural rights, so quickly descend into an ultranationalist, authoritarian dictatorship, with no conception of individual rights? And after they lost the war, how did they collectively return so quickly to democracy and natural rights?
In the early 20th century, how did women get the right to vote, in a society that vehemently opposed women doing anything other than looking pretty and bearing children? In the 1960s, how did schools become desegregated, in a country where black people had been considered inferior from its very conception? Or going back to the 1st century, how did Jesus and his followers successfully reject long standing Jewish law, and make Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire just 300 years later?
Now, you might be thinking, “David, these things are all very different. They are in different times, different cultures, and were changed for different reasons.” But what I want to convince you of today is that every social, political, and individual opinion throughout history has changed in essentially the same way for essentially the same reasons, and it is due to the hidden power of implicit thought.
Why Do I Feel Stupid All The Time?
People often assume that I must feel smart, considering I generally act as though I am, but really, I feel stupid a lot more than I feel smart, and it annoys me a lot sometimes.
I forget little things all the time that I know for a fact I know. For example, someone recently asked me what my mom’s eye colour was, and I could not remember. And here’s the thing: I know what my mom’s eye colour is. If I saw a picture of my mom with the wrong eye colour, I would notice. I’d be like, “yeah, that’s not right”. But to actually just say what it is, is something I seem unable to do.
There are also things that I am very dedicated to thinking, that sometimes I forget why I even think them. For example, I really believe in liberalism. But the other day, someone said they believe that the government should determine all the rules independent of the people, and I had quite a bit of trouble actually communicating to them why liberalism is better. Man, that annoyed me.
I also have friends that I think I know really well, and I have no clue why I think that. Like, I was talking about a friend a while ago to some other friends, just telling a little bit about him, and I said that he was a really nice guy, and has a good heart for people. They asked me why I thought that was the case, and I was like, “uhhh…hmmm…ok, no I know he is a good person, umm…oh yeah, I think he donates a lot to charity.” And, of course, everyone was like, “what the heck, David, you don’t even know anything about your friend.” But seriously, I know that he is a good person.
Ok, so why the heck can I not remember my mom’s eye colour, why liberalism is the right way to run a government, or anything about one of my best friends?
Maybe We’re All Stupid…?
You might say, “cuz you’re stupid, David”, or possibly, “you just have a bad memory”, etc. And aside from the fact that my IQ is much higher than average and my memory has been tested many times and proven very good, I think the answer starts to come out when we look at some peculiarities of other people that seem to be common to the human experience.
A classic example of memory issues employed in sitcoms is when the husband forgets about their wedding anniversary. The situational irony, of the audience and wife knowing, while the husband does not, is great potential for simpleton comedy. But the thing I’m interested in is: how does the husband forget his wedding anniversary, when he obviously does know when it is? Like, if you asked him, “what day is your wedding anniversary?” at any point in the year, he would say, March 11. But then when March 11 comes around, he sees on his calendar that it is, in fact, March 11, but doesn’t seem to connect the two.
How do you spell “Berenstein Bears”? Or is it “Berenstain”? Well, there is a huge group of people who believe they really remember it being spelled “Berenstein”, but it is, in fact, “Berenstain”. It’s erupted all kinds of absurd conspiracy theories that we’re in an alternate reality and such, but the fact remains that it is a very odd case of a collective memory being wrong (Smith, 2017).
One thing I’ve always found very odd is how people have very strong political and religious opinions but can rarely justify them when asked to. Like, where did all these Albertan blue-collar simpletons get the idea that Justin Trudeau is the worst Prime Minister in history? When I ask them, they often say something like, “he is ruining the economy”. Then when I ask, “What policies has he implemented that are ruining the economy?”, they often can’t think of a single example. Sometimes they can muster up, “the carbon tax!”, or something like that. Then I ask, “what effect has that had on the economy thus far?”, and I have never had a blue collar “Trudeau hater” ever give a coherent response to that. And yet, they’re so sure that Trudeau is the worst ever.
Religious people are often the same way. I found it very odd when I asked my Dad (who is a staunch xenophobic, theocratic evangelical Christian) why he believes his religion is true. He failed to muster up anything other than, “because it’s a good lifestyle.” What? He believes it so strongly and is completely against every view that is not his own, and his only justification is that it’s his “preferred lifestyle”. And when you ask Catholics and Protestants why they believe in the Trinity, they often don’t know a single verse that supports it, and yet, it’s a deeply held belief that they won’t let go of.
We Don’t Remember What We Remember
These lapses in not knowing things we do know is a matter of the differential thought and memories occurring between our conscious and subconscious. The conscious is associated with what we would call “explicit”, whereas the subconscious is associated with what we would call “implicit”. Let’s start with memory.
Explicit Memory is defined as the conscious, intentional recollection of factual information, previous experiences, and concepts. This is basically anything that you can talk or write about. For example, telling a story about the first time you rode a bike.
Implicit Memory is defined as the subconscious, unintentional knowledge of information that is unable to be consciously processed, but still affects one’s thoughts and behaviors. This is basically anything that you can do or are sure that you know, but can’t actually express in speaking or writing. For example, knowing that you are able to ride a bike, but not knowing when or how you actually learned it.
One very common aspect of implicit memory is “procedural memory”. This is things like tying your shoes or riding a bike. I noticed this in myself the other day when I was trying to play “Don’t Stop Believing” on the piano. I could not remember at all what the notes were, but I had played it so many times, I knew that I knew it somewhere deep down. I literally just closed my eyes and “felt” the song and sure enough, I played it. But if I had to tell someone how to play it, I would have no idea how.
What potentially has very important implications is the fact that our implicit memory can affect real things in our lives, through what is called “implicit cognition”, or thinking that occurs subconsciously, but nevertheless comes into our conscious thought in ways we don’t even understand.
Implicit Learning is defined as the subconscious acquisition of knowledge that can be used practically, but not thought of consciously or taught to others.
One thing psychologists have noticed is that children typically learn to speak by age four, yet don’t actually understand the rules of grammar and speech until age seven. So, basically, if you ask a five-year-old what is the proper way to say a sentence, they have no idea. But, by age seven, they should be able to explain it at a basic level. Much of our language learning is implicit.
It’s often said that teaching something is actually the best way to learn it. I have certainly found this to be the case. I remember once having to give a presentation on blood pressure, which I knew a lot about. But when I started to think of what to say for the presentation, I had to look up tons of things. I was like, “dang it, I know this”. And to teach something requires a very good understanding of it. It’s because you need to know it not just implicitly, but also explicitly.
Implicit Attitudes are defined as evaluations that occur without conscious awareness towards an object or the self. Essentially, you are making a judgement about something, but subconsciously.
One example is the “halo effect”. This is when the judgement of a certain attribute is influenced by an irrelevant attribute. For example, one study found that men rated essays to be of better quality when they thought the female writers were more attractive (Greenwald, Banaji, 1995). They had no reason to think that way, but since they have positive associations with attractive women, it translated to more positive feelings of the writing.
The most important aspect of implicit attitudes is that they are created through classical conditioning, i.e. the pairing of stimuli. So, if every time you watched a football game you ate your favorite food, you might think you love football, but actually you just like the food you’re eating. Like, if someone asked you why you like football, you would have no answer to give them, because you don’t consciously realize it’s all about the food. This subtle, subconscious pairing of stimuli can create all kinds of thoughts that don’t actually make sense consciously.
Detroit Red Wings Are Not The Greatest Team In The NHL (but I’m certain they are)
I am not an avid hockey fan these days, but I do watch from time to time, and will sometimes check the standings to see whether my home team, the Edmonton Oilers, will make the playoffs. One thing I seem to be at least a little surprised by, every time I check the standings, is that the Detroit Red Wings are not at the top of the standings. I couldn’t figure out why that is the case. Like, the Red Wings have been a sub average team for several years now, and there’s no reason to think they are especially amazing.
But as I was reading about implicit cognition, it hit me. When I first became a fan of the NHL, I was 9 years old. I was really into it, and would watch lots of games, play the NHL game on PlayStation, and constantly look at stats. That was in 2004, when the Detroit Red Wings were the best team in the NHL. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was building an implicit understanding that the Red Wings were the best. Now, I don’t explicitly think that, but somewhere deep down, I believe they are still the best.
Where Is Your “Detroit Red Wings”?
If this could make me think a certain hockey team is the best, even when it clearly isn’t, it is fair to ask: what else might be wrong in my thinking as a result of implicit thought?
The “illusion of truth effect” states that a person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one. One study asked participants to determine whether a certain statement was correct or not. Ones that were false were more likely to be rated as true the more frequently they were posited. So, basically, it might say, “the statue of liberty is in San Francisco”, and they would rate it as wrong. But then, after the third time it appeared, they would eventually rate it as correct (Hasher, et al, 1977).
The people at the Mormon church have a very strong belief that the Book of Mormon is true. But when you ask them, “how do you know it’s true?” they often say some ambiguous thing about how they “just know”. But where could that “just know” feeling come from? Well, they would say it’s from the holy spirit. The problem, of course, is that the Catholics and Protestants also claim they came to know their faith was true through the holy spirit. What you find at the Mormon church, is that in one service alone, you will hear “I know the Book of Mormon is true” literally about 20 times. It enters the subconscious over time and manifests itself as this strong feeling that it must, in fact, be true. They have formed a belief through implicit means that manifests itself explicitly. The same could be said of the Catholics and Protestants who believe in the Trinity and yet can’t think of a single verse to support it. They have simply heard it so many times, it is implicit within their thought.
This process, of having your conscious thoughts based in, and informed by, subconscious thoughts, is known as “implicit assumption”.
The Need For Implicit Thought
There are two main limitations that make implicit thought absolutely necessary:
- The Limited Expenditure of Conscious Thought
- The Limited Ability of Conscious Thought in Knowledge Acquisition and Retention
As we go about our day, we have an incredible amount of information coming at us constantly. The vast majority of it is inconsequential for us to actually think about. Like, imagine if you consciously thought about every single thing you do and see. This is how waking up in the morning would go:
“I’m awake. I was previously asleep. This bed feels comfortable. The blanket is blue. I’m in my room. My phone is on the nightstand. I’ll check the time. It’s 8:22. I’m getting out of my bed. I’m standing up. Maybe I should start the coffee maker. I will turn this door knob to exit my room.”
And that’s just the first 10 seconds of your day. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to be consciously thinking about everything you do all day? For this reason, the vast majority of decisions we make are done subconsciously (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 2008).
Now, imagine if you tried to commit every conscious thought you have into long term memory. Every conversation you’ve ever had, word for word. Every word you read, everything you see and hear. Let me ask you: what did you have for dinner on January 12, 2006? You have no freaking idea. What sign did you read off the side of the highway 36 minutes into your most recent road trip? You get my point.
It would be nice, in a sense, if we could literally consciously recall everything. In fact, that’s a huge goal of education. Students with high levels of retention generally get much higher marks with less effort than students with low levels of retention. As you practice remembering things more, you gradually get better at it.
But majority of things simply aren’t worth thinking about. We need to reserve most of our conscious thought for new things happening now, and planning for things in the future. With limited brain power, it would not be a good use to spend it all on remembering your dinner 12 years ago or random road signs, unless they had a significant meaning to you that impacted your current or future life.
Let’s briefly review what we know thus far:
1) There are lapses in being able to consciously know things that we really think we know. This is explained by the fact that a lot of information is kept in our subconscious and is only partially able to be known consciously.
2) This subconscious thought is known as “implicit thought”. This comes in the form of memory (like being able to play piano but not consciously remembering what the notes are), learning (like figuring out a math problem but not being able to explain how you did it), and attitudes (like thinking an attractive woman is a better writer).
3) Many of our conscious thoughts are founded upon implicit assumptions. This is when these subconscious thoughts create an inherent bias towards thinking a certain way (like how I inherently think that Detroit Red Wings are the best, although they clearly aren’t).
What I’d like to suggest now is that I believe the vast majority of our opinions are implicit, rather than explicit. We often think we have a lot of control over our own mind. We think we are free to believe as we wish, but I don’t think it’s as true as we’d like to think.
We know that the majority of stimuli are put into the subconscious, and affect our conscious thought in major ways, which means the content of those stimuli have huge importance. Imagine if, instead of being taught that the Detroit Red Wings are the best team in the league, I had been taught that the Pittsburgh Penguins were the best team in the league? Well, then my bias would be inherently towards them. And it was never up to me to determine my bias. It was simply the circumstances around me.
But more than that, what if I had been taught that Jews were inherently evil? Even if I had no actual reason to think that, simply hearing it often enough would create the “illusion of truth effect” in which I would gradually come to think it is true as I hear it more and more.
The reason I think liberalism is amazing is because I have read so many articles and books and watched so many lectures on it. But majority of it is in my subconscious. This means that, even without proper reason, I have conditioned myself to inherently bias things that favor liberalism.
My friend, who is a good person, but I have no idea why, probably did a lot of small things here and there that got into my subconscious. For example, he paid for a meal, or mentioned that he feels bad for poor people, or held a door open for someone at the movie theatre. But I don’t explicitly remember these occurrences. Instead, they simply created a conception that he must be good.
This is fine, of course. But when it comes to very important decisions and debates in political or religious contexts, we are often attempting to explicitly argue things which are implicit. An atheist may say something like, “Christians are morally worse than atheists”, and falsely attribute it to some Old Testament verse in the Bible that condones violence. When in reality, he was treated poorly by some Christians a long time ago, and it’s given him an implicit sentiment against them.
When considering something like transgender washrooms and gay straight alliances in schools, people are very sure of themselves on either side. Right-wing people will say things like, “I know that this will corrupt our children!” and left-wing people will say things like, “I know children need to understand their sexuality for themselves!”. But when you ask right-wing people more about it, they often can barely articulate it. They maybe say something like, “it says in the Bible that God created them male and female”. They don’t even know what the verse is, and if you ask them, “how do you know this is actually a command to act in accordance with social constructions of gender?” they have no clue. The other side is no better. When you ask the left-wing side about it, they say, “people should be able to express themselves how they want”. But then you ask, “what is your basis for thinking that? Do you know for a fact that people are happier when they have no restrictions on them?”, and of course, they don’t know.
But yet, their opinions ARE SO CERTAIN!!!
But when you look at the lives of these people, you realize that these right-wing people were raised in gender strict environments. If a boy acted like a girl, he would get beaten or ridiculed by others. That creates an implicit attitude towards thinking that different gender expression is bad, because it becomes associated with an irrelevant factor of being beaten or ridiculed. It’s just like how the men think better looking women write better essays, or the good food making someone think they like football.
These people were also told and reinforced this concept of strict gender roles. Growing up, their parents and teachers would always say, “you throw like a girl”, or “you’re a boy, you should be tough”, “act more lady like”, etc. It was drilled into them subconsciously.
The left-wing people, on the other hand, lacked many of these things, and they may have been replaced by other types of implicit cognitions. While in university, their professors constantly said, “gender is purely a social construct” and they read LGBT publications that told the stories of young people who had difficulty with the gender roles assigned to them. Eventually, this formed the conception that gender should be fluid, and up to each individual.
The same thing occurred with the Nazis. The German people were told repeatedly and rewarded for antisemitism, and eventually the individual and collective mindset shifted towards it, despite it not being based in truth.
Implicit thought does not do an effective job of creating truth. In fact, it’s been shown to create all kinds of false conclusions. Implicit memories cause us to form conscious ideas without evidence to back them up. Implicit learning causes us to do things that we don’t even know how to do. Implicit attitudes utilize irrelevant evidence to form opinions.
Explicit thought is the best form of thought for establishing truth. It uses our full capacities of reason, has no bias, and requires stated evidence that is equally available to all. It is much more objective, and less subject to individual experience and emotion.
But we need implicit thought, because there’s no way for us to think explicitly about every possible opinion that we can have. So, the question is, with these massive limitations in human thought, what is the best way for us to arrive at truth in individual and social matters?
While I do think constantly, I myself can only think explicitly about a couple things at a time, and can only gather evidence and good reason in a few specific fields. But that’s fine, because if I were to gather a bunch of explicit thought in the field of say, sociology, then I can be the expert in that. But then I might not have the capacity or energy to learn a lot explicitly about say, biology. That would leave any of my opinions about biology to be mostly implicit.
But implicit and explicit thought are NOT EQUAL. One is far superior. When I, as a sociologist, speak on my opinion of a topic in sociology, I can speak more explicitly, and thus have a far truer opinion than that of a biologist. This is why expert opinions really are valuable.
In public debates and education, we should do whatever we can to build implicit thought in accordance with what has been discovered to be the most correct view through explicit means. This means we allow experts to inform public opinion and education in the greatest capacity we can. We cannot expect a 90 IQ plumber to explicitly conceptualize why all people should be treated equally, regardless of race. Instead, we must drive it into him implicitly in his early education, so that he will have a strong belief in it. He will not know why, but it’s ok, because others do.
The debates then transcend beyond a bunch of idiots claiming they are certain they are right, and into intelligent people gathering objective evidence, and interpreting it through the best reason possible. We evaluate arguments based on their evidence and reason alone and leave implicit to the wayside to the greatest extent we can.
When Thomas Paine wrote his first sentence in “Common Sense”, he was aware of the implicit bias that people had in favor of the King. However, he proceeded to move it toward explicit thought. Upon realizing that their deeply ingrained loyalist sentiments were unreasonable, they ultimately changed their opinion in favor of independence. It is perhaps the greatest story of the triumph of explicit thought ever in history.
As we teach people to base their views in reason and evidence, and when they do not have the expertise to do so, to trust the experts who do, we can move towards a society that appreciates truth in the greatest extent possible. We can recognize that racism is unreasonable, that climate change is supported by evidence, that women deserve the same rights as men, and that a constitutional democracy is the best way to ensure this free exchange of explicit thought to take place.
Explicit thought is the greatest aid to human progress in our goal to discover and align ourselves with truth and is ultimately the best thing we can do to create effective and correct opinions about ourselves and the world around us.
Greenwald, A.G.; Banaji, M.R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review. 102 (1): 4–27. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.102.1.4.
Hasher, Goldstein, & Toppino (1977). Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 16: 107–112. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(77)80012-1.
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (2008, April 15). Decision-making May Be Surprisingly Unconscious Activity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 8, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080414145705.htm
Smith, R. (2017). Berenstain Bears debate is a case of Schrodinger’s nostalgia. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/berenstain-bears-debate-is-a-case-of-schrodingers-nostalgia/article25972071/