Psychology Of Tacit Knowledge Research Paper

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Tacit comes from the Latin tacitus and translates roughly as silent, or unspoken and, indeed, the sense of the unverbalized, the unuttered, is still carried by contemporary usage. Usually the Hungarian British scholar Michael Polanyi is credited with importing the notion of tacit knowledge into the social sciences and the credit is deservedly his (Polanyi 1962, 1966, Reber 1993a). In Polanyi’s framework, tacit knowledge was information that was intensely personal, introspectively opaque, and communicatively unresponsive. It was also, importantly, complex knowledge, abstract in nature, and deeply causal. He wrote of knowing more about familiar conceptual domains than we can tell and characterized his own early life as a creative scientist as being largely a struggle to make tacit knowledge available to consciousness and open to introspection and communication.

Within psychology, this notion of a rich, personal knowledge base with direct causal links to behavior has been around for a long time, surfacing and resurfacing in various forums from the psychoanalytic to the neurocognitive, from the study of perception and learning to models of memory and information storage. The flurry of interest in these issues has spawned a host of synonyms, so much so that Polyani’s original term tacit is actually rather rare. Preferred lexical entries refer to knowledge that is implicit or unconscious, occasionally to mental processes that are nonconscious, unaware, procedural, covert, and, from time to time, to functions which are incidental or automatic. However, no matter what cover term is employed, the focus remains on the cluster of perceptual and cognitive processes that function largely independently of awareness of both the processes by which such knowledge was acquired and of the mental representations that result from such learning. In short, tacit knowledge, by whatever name enjoys momentary currency, is knowledge that is acquired and used with little in the way of the top-down, modulating control of consciousness. And herein lie the big psychological puzzles. How is complex knowledge acquired largely outside of consciousness? How are memories encoded so that their impact on behavior is manifested by indirect measures while their contents remain largely unavailable to recall and recognition? Is the tacit system merely functionally distinguishable from the more cognitively familiar, consciously modulated systems? Or, as many suspect, are the observed dissociations reflective of deeper neurocognitive systems? Is it possible that explicit, retrievable knowledge systems are linked with biological systems that are evolutionarily distinct from the tacit, implicit systems? Is knowledge that was acquired implicitly superficial knowledge that is tied to the specific form of the stimulus displays, or can such knowledge also be abstract and symbolic?

While work on these questions since the 1970s has touched on virtually every area in modern psychology, it is not unreasonable to distill it down to four classical problems. Not surprisingly, these four are the classical topics that have dominated psychological thought since the nineteenth century: perception, learning, memory, and motivation. The difference is that here an exclusionary clause is invoked, the tacit dimension includes only those processes and mechanisms that operate while remaining more or less impenetrable to top-down, conscious access and control.

As noted above, the cover term tacit knowledge, despite its currency in earlier work and its central position in Polanyi’s writings, no longer appears in many ‘keyword’ lists. This is too bad. One of the difficulties with much recent work on the cognitive unconscious is that connotatively loaded terms such as awareness and consciousness pepper the field and fuel disputes that are often unproductive and unsatisfying. In the following, synonyms will be freely interchanged and attempts will be made to resurrect the core term tacit. So, with lexicographic inclusiveness in place, the following are the four primary areas of research.

1. The Four Primary Areas Of Research

1.1 Tacit Or Implicit Perception

For the most part, the existence of information pickup that occurs when the stimulus materials are presented under nonoptimal conditions is a generally accepted phenomenon. The last serious critique of the effect (Holender 1986) was countered by a large number of effective rebuttals and it seems safe to conclude that the acquisition of information about stimulus displays that participants are unaware of perceiving is a robust phenomenon. There is also good evidence that such subliminally perceived representations have emotive elements (Kunst-Wilson and Zajonc 1980). For more detail on this issue, see Perception without Awareness, Psychology of.

1.2 Implicit Or Tacit Memory

Implicitly held memories are, in effect, those memorial residues of experience whose contents affect behavior while remaining largely unavailable for recall or recognition. Such memories show up primarily in indirect tests such as word-stem completion tasks (fill in the blank with the first word that comes to mind: MOT ) where participants reliably complete the task using items previously encountered even though they are unable consciously to recall them. One of the more intriguing findings is that implicit memory is relatively intact in amnesic patients who manifest severely disordered explicit memories. For additional information on this issue, see Implicit Memory, Cognitive Psychology of.

1.3 Implicit Or Tacit Learning

Implicit learning is the process whereby knowledge about complex stimulus domains is acquired largely without involvement of top-down, conscious control (Reber 1993b). Naturally occurring examples of the operation of implicit learning are language acquisition and the process of socialization. Implicit learning yields implicit or tacit knowledge in that not only is the learner unaware of the process of learning, the very knowledge itself is highly resistant to explication.

This notion that deep, abstract knowledge about a complex stimulus domain can be acquired and represented outside of consciousness is the one that is closest to Polanyi’s original use of the term. In Polanyi’s framework, tacit, personal knowledge played a critical role in everyday life. Moreover, such communicatively resistant knowledge was also viewed as lying at the very core of creativity. In Polyani’s epistemology, to engage in a creative act to struggle to make tacitly acquired and held knowledge conscious and communicable. Doing science, in his mind, was following the urging of one’s carefully crafted intuitions and slowly shaping the reservoir of initially unavailable, tacit knowledge out into a communicable form.

1.4 Implicit Or Tacit Motivation

The focus here is the exploration of unconsciously held representations. The essential argument, which derives from the classical, Freudian approach, is that unconsciously held knowledge plays its primary role by modifying and adjusting perceptions and memories. This approach goes one step further than the above in that the unconsciously held knowledge in assumed actually to change conscious representations in accordance with deeply held knowledge systems. This use is found primarily in analytically and psychodynamically oriented research where unconsciously held knowledge is presumed to have its impact on behavior through disguised, hidden routes (e.g., Horowitz 1988) although hints of it emerge in more recent work on the development of preferences and aesthetic judgment (Manza and Bornstein 1995).

2. Disputes And Controversies

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the issues raised in these contexts have proven controversial. It is important to appreciate that most of modern experimental psychology is built on a foundation that goes back to Locke and other British empiricists. This approach, which favored introspection as the primary method of inquiry, equated mental with conscious and rejected out of hand the notion of a cognitively sophisticated unconscious. Although few appreciate (consciously?) these Lockean roots, many of the arguments being waged over the characteristics of the tacit dimension appear to hinge on the notion that the unconscious, as Polanyi maintained, is just flat-out smart. Specifically, we can consider the following.

2.1 Methodological

It has been argued that the observed implicit–explicit distinction is not an ontological one but merely results from the procedures used to measure participants’ awareness of held knowledge (Holender 1986, Shanks and St. John 1994). This argument turns on two points: first, that the measures used to evaluate tacit knowledge are more sensitive than those used to evaluate consciously held knowledge, and second, that no other independent evidence exists to support the distinction. There are good reasons for suspecting that the former is (or was) correct. When more effective methods of inquiry are employed, participants often have shown more awareness of held knowledge than first suspected. Contemporary researchers are much more careful to use more sensitive measures of knowledge held by participants in these studies. The argument, however, appears weaker on the second point. There is a large and growing body of evidence that shows that distinct neuroanatomical substrata are involved in the acquisition and storage of tacit knowledge, specifically structures in the medial temporal lobes. Patients with severe damage in these cortical regions show often devastating episodic memory dysfunctions with little or no disruption in the pick-up and acquisition of tacit knowledge. In addition, there are good reasons for suspecting that the two systems have emerged under distinct evolutionary pressures and have very different evolutionary biological histories (Sherry and Schacter 1987, Reber 1992).

2.2 Functional

The point is often made that there is no ‘true’ cleavage between tacit knowledge and knowledge held at the edges of consciousness, that the observed dissociations are mere functional adjustments made to particular contexts (Whittlesea and Dorken 1993). The argument here is that participants in standard experimental settings shift from conscious to unconscious modes depending upon the constraints placed upon them and the contexts in which they are required to function. Neither system is the default system and, in fact, they should probably not even be thought of as separate systems but as poles on a continuum running from the deeply tacit to the poignantly conscious. From a functionalists point of view, there is much to recommend in this contention. In all likelihood, most of the interesting things that human beings do on a routine basis involve a synergistic blend of the conscious and the unconscious, the explicit and the tacit, the overt and the implied. However, recognizing this truth of a complex mind operating in a world of flux misses a basic point. The tacit dimension still needs to be viewed as neurologically and evolutionarily distinct from those processes that are modulated by consciousness. Human consciousness is a late arrival on the evolutionary scene and was preceded by a sophisticated unconscious that functioned without benefit of top-down controlling mechanisms that were open to introspection. They may function interdependently but they are almost surely distinct systems.

2.3 Representational

The dispute here concerns the underlying form of tacit knowledge. Beginning with Polanyi’s (strictly nonempirical) work, the presumption was that unconsciously held knowledge had all the rich abstract and symbolic features of knowledge that resided within the spotlight of consciousness. However, many theorists have maintained that the evidence tends to support a more concrete and nonsymbolic representational system (Brooks 1978, Perruchet et al. 1990). Ironically, the problem turns on methodological and functional issues. As has been noted (Manza and Reber 1997), the conditions under which the stimuli are presented seems to be the strongest predictor of the nature of the mental representation. When the inputs consist of large numbers of complex stimuli, participants invariably set up abstract memorial systems which reflect rule-governed qualities. When they consist of simple displays or of small numbers of exemplars, concrete representations abound. Tacit knowledge, like conscious knowledge, most likely can take any of a variety of epistemic forms. The critics of the symbolic are almost certainly correct in that much knowledge held tacitly is concrete and tied to the form of the input stimulus. They are also almost certainly wrong that all tacit knowledge has these features.

2.4 Causal

The dispute here stems from the psychoanalytically motivated claim that tacit knowledge can affect behavior through covert means by disguising the meaning of stimulus displays or adjusting the symbolic content of thoughts, dreams, and fantasies. Of all the purported characteristics of the tacit knowledge system, this one is the most controversial, so much so that it is rarely even mentioned in the cognitive literature (see Erdelyi 1985, 1996 for a singular exception). The problems stem from the assumption of a second level of causal action. Not only must the tacit system be capable of representing complex, symbolically rich knowledge, it must also be capable of making adjustments in its representational form and of disguising its functional meaning. Even theorists who are comfortable with the notion of a cognitively sophisticated and abstractly represented tacit knowledge base resist this extension.

3. Conclusion

The intriguing state of affairs at the start of the twenty-first century is that virtually no one in the social sciences doubts the existence of and the importance of a tacit epistemic dimension, and virtually no two can agree on the nature and mechanisms that underlie it. The future looks interesting.


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