Implicit Learning, Tacit Knowledge, and Implications for Stasis and Change in Cognitive Psychotherapy

By Dowd, E. Thomas; Courchaine, Karen E. | Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Implicit Learning, Tacit Knowledge, and Implications for Stasis and Change in Cognitive Psychotherapy


Dowd, E. Thomas, Courchaine, Karen E., Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy


With the evolution of cognitive psychotherapy, there has been an increasing focus on the nature and influence of cognitive structures or schemata. These structures are out of conscious awareness and therefore can be thought of as tacit in nature. As yet, however, there has been little written regarding the implications of the investigations in cognitive psychology of implicit learning and tacit memory for cognitive psychotherapy. This article describes the work of Arthur Reber and other cognitive psychologists on implicit learning and tacit memory and draws tentative implications for the practice of cognitive psychotherapy. Implicit learning processes have been described as robust in nature, holding evolutionary primacy over explicit learning processes, as dissociated from explicit learning, as involving different processes of learning, and as occurring through the tacit detection of covariation. Tacit knowledge precedes and is less available than explicit knowledge.

Throughout its relatively short life, cognitive psychotherapy has gradually shifted from an emphasis on conscious thoughts and images to an increasing focus on underlying cognitive schemata that operate at a tacit or "unconscious" level. Meichenbaum and Gilmore (1984) have cogently documented this shift. With the advent of the "cognitive" movement in the early 1970s, therapists first focused on "cognitive events," or thoughts and images that are conscious and identifiable. These cognitions can also be recalled at will, although sometimes not without prompting. Cognitive events have been labeled "automatic thoughts" (Beck, 1976), "internal dialogue" (Meichenbaum, 1977), or "belief systems" (Ellis, 1977). Primary and secondary cognitive appraisal (Coyne & Lazarus, 1980) may also involve cognitive events, at least in part.

"Cognitive processes" (Meichenbaum & Gilmore, 1984) are those cognitive activities that shape, process, and guide mental representations. Information processing, metacognition (thinking about one's thinking), the availability and representativeness heuristics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1977), and "confirmation bias" (Taylor & Crocker, 1981) are examples of cognitive processes. The cognitive model of Guidano and Liotti (1983), in which cognitive development and elaboration are seen as occurring through the repeated interaction of the individual and environment, is heavily based on cognitive processes. In their view, social reality is progressively constructed, elaborated, channeled, and differentiated by this repeated interaction. The development of personal identity (Mahoney, 1991) also heavily involves cognitive processes, as the individual develops a sense of ongoing and consistent selfhood by repeated interactions with the environment and other people.

"Cognitive structures" have been described by Kovacs and Beck (1978) as "...relatively enduring characteristics of a person's cognitive organizations...organized representations of prior experience" (p. 526). As such, they have also been referred to as schemata (Taylor & Crocker, 1981) and can be thought of as an organized system of tacit rules or assumptions that are the result of repeated cognitive processing over time that in turn supports further cognitive processing. Knowledge organization, as described by Guidano and Liotti (1983), consists of cognitive structures that have been progressively elaborated and differentiated over the years and operate at a tacit or "unconscious" level. Because cognitive structures operate at a tacit processing level, they cannot generally be explicated by individuals, even with external assistance. Thus, in many ways they resemble what is commonly thought of as unconscious processes, although without the elaborate explanatory structure and metaphorical constructs characteristic of psychoanalytic thought.

Schemata can be considered as cognitive structures involving a network or organization of the meaning attached to past experiences and past reactions.

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