Implicit learning is learning that occurs without awareness that it is happening. It simply means that a person can acquire knowledge without the explicit intent or realization of doing so.
One of the most common examples of implicit learning is learning through play in childhood. Children’s play is natural and fun, but through the simple process of playing, children learn a great deal about the world and themselves.
Implicit Learning Definition
Surprisingly, a formal definition has become a bit of a challenge for scientists.
Frensch and Rünger (2003) explain:
“…it has so far proven extremely difficult to provide a satisfactory definition of implicit learning. At least a dozen different definitions have been offered in the field” (p. 13).
The key characteristic of whether learning is implicit or not, centers on the issue of awareness:
“Thus, learning is assumed to be “implicit” when participants are unaware of what they learned. Alternatively, learning is assumed not to be implicit when participants are aware of what they learned” (p. 14).
Implicit Learning Examples
- Vicarious Observation: Vicarious learning can sometimes be implicit. For example, a girl may observe their brother being punished for speaking loudly in a restaurant. She subsequently doesn’t speak loudly. When asked why she’s softly spoken, she can’t explain, but at some point, she learned to speak quietly through vicarious reinforcement that occurred when she observed her brother being punished for his loud mouth.
- Classical Conditioning: Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory is a typical example of implicit learning. Pavlov trained a dog to associate a bell with the smell of food through repeated pairing of the bell and food. The dog wasn’t given rewards, punishments or motivations, and likely didn’t have a clear moment of realization; rather, it learned slowly and implicitly.
- Children’s Play: Children don’t know they’re learning while playing, but they nevertheless learn a lot about hand-eye coordination, social skills, the physical world, and so on.
- Gender Socialization: While we might not be explicitly taught how to be masculine or feminine, we nonetheless develop this knowledge of how to conform to our gender norms through socialization with our parents, family, peers, and even through watching television. There is a lot of social debate over whether
- Mere Exposure Effect: The mere exposure effect explains that people come to like and enjoy things they are exposed to, and dislike things they are not exposed to. Here, we learn to like things not through explicit instruction but through ‘mere exposure’, and often, there is no clear lightbulb moment of learning.
- Learning by Observing Role Models: Gabrielle is a diligent but quiet worker and never expected to go far in the company. After she was promoted to supervisor, she was surprised to discover that she exhibited the same leadership style as her previous manager, who she greatly admired.
- Learning through Proximity: Javier doesn’t take notes in history class and usually daydreams through lecture. But one day, when trying to impress a female friend, he started citing a lot of history facts and had no idea where the information was coming from.
- Contextual Recall: A recent hail storm did some minor damage to Mitchell’s car. As he looked at the dents, he suddenly remembered a conversation he had with a guy in the body-repair business several years ago. He then proceeded to pop the dents out with his palms.
- Learning Bad Habits: A new high school teacher is struggling with classroom management because he is using strategies he experienced as a student, rather than the techniques he learned as part of his training.
- Learning from Entertainment: Ben has been playing guitar for many years and listens to all types of musical genres and artists. This explains his eclectic style of playing.
- Learning when Traveling: Janette has traveled abroad for many years. When she finally returns home, her family and friends notice that she has changed a lot.
Case Studies of Implicit Learning
1. Implicit Learning in Social-Emotional Learning
Survival of human beings has required working with others. The ability to function in various social systems involves both implicit and explicit learning (Lieberman, 2000; Norman & Price, 2012).
Costea et al. (2022) devised an intriguing way to examine how individuals function in a social system through implicit learning.
Participants were instructed to interact with a realistic avatar and attempt to get the avatar to exhibit a specific emotional state. In reality, the avatar had been programmed to respond to the participant’s facial expressions:
“…the avatar’s expression was influenced by the participants’ response, while the participant had to adapt his/her response to the avatar’s previous expression; in other words, the avatar and the participant were in a continuous interactive loop throughout the learning phase” (p. 4).
“…participants gradually increased their ability to regulate the avatar’s facial expression to the target state.” Self-reports indicated that “they felt they were not using conscious knowledge” (p. 13).
The results suggest that human beings acquire the ability to function socially, at least in part, through implicit socio-emotional learning.
2. Language Acquisition
Infants are able to learn their native language quite easily. It just seems to happen naturally. Although language acquisition is a function of cognitive development, and heavily dependent on brain maturation and the environment, it happens without intent.
In fact, infants progress through the same stages of language development on remarkably similar schedules. Although there is a range of speed, the stages are sequentially the same.
Scientists have discovered that even second language acquisition happens implicitly. Dr. Patricia Kuhl has conducted numerous studies demonstrating that infants are capable of “learning” a second language, even though they are not intentionally trying to do so.
For instance, as early as 6 and 7 months old, infants are capable of detecting the sounds of a foreign language with amazing accuracy. This ability is not a result of conscious goal-oriented behavior, it happens as a natural result of the way the human brain is hard-wired.
Socialization is the process of people learning about a specific culture, such as its values, customs, and beliefs. Most socialization comes from the family. However, it can also occur when a person joins a social, political, or religious group.
There are many socialization agents and each one exerts a unique influence on the individual. Although there can be enormous consistency in the values and beliefs being endorsed among socialization agents, there can be differences as well.
Socialization agents shape the personality of each person, despite the fact that there are no textbooks or formal classroom instruction. This is what makes socialization an example of implicit learning.
Over a period of years, the individual is strongly affected and they are often not aware of its effect. In fact, it is often friends and a spouse that will call a person’s attention to how a certain group has affected their personality…sometimes in a not so positive manner.
4. Development of Writing Style
Every respected literary giant has a unique writing style. The uniqueness of their style is what distinguishes them from other writers. In most cases, that style developed over a period of many years, perhaps even decades, as a result of avid reading.
When reading novels, poems, and even newspaper columns, the future great author is picking-up on subtle variations in each.
There are differences in phrasing, pace, and use of metaphors. Eventually, the future great author produces a blend of those differences that are unique to them. When that is combined with the author’s creative perspective on an interesting subject, they may produce a literary masterpiece.
The author’s writing style is a culmination of years of implicit learning through the reading of so many other authors and genres. Rarely can it be said that the author set-out to read the works of the greats for the focused purpose of formulating their own style.
5. Implicit Coaching Techniques
When we think of coaching, most people will have an image of a coach speaking directly to a player and giving explicit instructions on how to perform a certain maneuver. This is certainly the case in most training. However, there are times when an implicit coaching strategy will be more effective.
Implicit coaching refers to when a player acquires a skill without being consciously aware of the learning process. A player learns how to perform a specific skill, but can’t necessarily explain how.
For example, instead of giving specific instructions on how to position the arms and legs, the coach might use an analogy or metaphor. The metaphor summarizes the key points of the skill, without explicitly stating them.
Many coaches believe that implicit learning is more resilient in competition and retained over a longer period of time. It also helps the athlete become more self-reliant, which is important in sports that don’t allow in-game coaching, such as tennis.
Implicit learning plays a central role in people’s daily lives. It is involved in mundane tasks such as driving to work or learning how to sing a catchy song.
Infants learn how to speak their native language without even thinking about it, and can even acquire elements of a second language effortlessly.
Implicit learning is an effective coaching technique that helps athletes adapt during competitions on their own. Novice writers internalize the styles of others, which over time, will lead to the development of their own unique expressive abilities.
Research has also indicated that implicit learning plays a vital role in how human beings adapt to the emotional states of others. This ability allows individuals to function in various social systems and facilitates survival of the species.
Implicit learning is an integral part of learning that can have very little to do with formal classroom instruction, but impacts our lives in wide-ranging circumstances.
Costea, A. R., Jurchiș, R., Visu-Petra, L., Cleeremans, A., Norman, E., & Opre, A. (2022). Implicit and explicit learning of socio-emotional information in a dynamic interaction with a virtual avatar. Psychological Research, 1-18.
Frensch, P., Rünger, D. (2003). Implicit learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 13-18. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.01213
DeKeyser, R. (2003). Explicit and Implicit Learning. In C. Doughty, & M. H. Long (Eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 313-348). Oxford: Blackwell. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9780470756492.ch11
Lieberman, M. D. (2000). Intuition: a social cognitive neuroscience approach. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 109. https://doi.org/10. 1037//0033-2909.126.1.109
Norman, E., & Price, M. C. (2012). Social intuition as a form of implicit learning: sequences of body movements are learned less explicitly than letter sequences. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 8(2), 121–131. https://doi.org/10.5709/acp-0109-x
Vinter, A., Pacton, S. A., Witt, A., & Perruchet, P. (2010). Implicit learning, development, and education. In J. P. Didier & E. Bigand (Eds.), Rethinking physical and rehabilitation medicine (pp. 111–127). New York: Springer.