Evolutionary Cognitivism, Part IV: The Implicit and the Explicit

I am a big fan of Bjorklund & Pellegrini’s fifth chapter, “Classifying Cognition.”

The text divides thinking into “implicit” and “explicit” (2002, 114) thinking. This “implicit” thinking appears to be the same thing as “automatic,” “peripheral,” “heuristic,” and “unconscious” while “explicit” appears to be the same thing as “controlled,” “central,” “systematic,” and “conscious” (Morris, Squires, Taber, & Lodge, 2003, 4). Additionally, implicit memory is refered to as “Memory System I” and explicit memory is called “Memory System II” (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 123).

One of the text’s most interesting sections is the application of implicit attitude tests on very young children. For instance, even if they could not answer a question about remembering old students, children act as if they recall old kindergarten classmates (119-120). The authors also mention other research (Clements & Perner, 1994) showing how implicit belief becomes more reliable than explicit belief before the child is three years old. This implicit superiority continues throughout life. It is interesting that explicit thinking has such little access to one’s implicit state, as self-reports can be unreliable predictors of behavior (Kurzban & DeScioli, 2005).

Not that all implicit attitudes are necessarily good, however: research implying a possible human predisposition towards xenophobia (Hammond & Axeldor, 2006) and research that shows that whites and blacks both hold negative implicit attitudes of blacks (Bower, 2006) show the potentially negative effects of implicit cognition, as well.

Bjorklund & Pellegrini also describe Donald’s (1991) division of the levels of culture into “episodic culture,” “mimetic culture,” “mythic culture,” and “theoretic culture” (123-124). However, if they are describing Donald’s work correctly I must disagree with Bjorklund & Pellegrini. In particular, I do not believe our ancestors were as primitive as this theory purports, nor as we so developed. The theory assumes that chimpanzees and early men live “entirely in the present” without “imitation, in which one individual represents the actions and goals of another and attempts to reproduce the the outcome archived by another…” However, complicated cultures with varying styles of dominance, grooming, and food gathering exist even within baboons (Sapolsky & Share, 2004). As it appears that primatese use technology together social strategies to achieve what they want (Tomasello & Call), I do not see how there is evidence deying chimpanzees access to mimetic culture.

Likewise, while it is clear that humans have access to “external symbolic storage systems” (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 124) and other gizmos, I do not think that much of human behavior progresses much beyond mimetics. That is, while the development of moral reasoning and personal identity (see, for example, Moshman, 2005) would seem to follow theoretic or at least mythic cultural paths, I don’t think these things influences behavior that much. This ties into what I wrote above. One theory for why self-reports are so bad is that most behavior is driven by automatic processes the conscious brain simply does not have access to (Lieberman, Schreiber, & Ochsner, 2003). For instance, while moral reasoning is associated with some (but not other) forms of pro-social behavior (Eisenberg-Berg & Hand, 1979). I am not aware of any research demonstrating students who have more advanced moral reasoning behave more “morally” because of this reasoning (as opposed to students who learn moral reasoning acting more morally anyway, etc). This sentence is written out of ignorance – I simply don’t know the field that much – but I am skeptical that most human social behavior is more complicated than memetic culture.

On the whole, my take on this chapter is this: humans have very well developed and well evolved implicit memory and cognitive structures, which they use nearly all the time. Animals as well have very well developed and well evolved (for their typical lives) implicit memory and cognitive structures, which they use nearly all the time. Humanity is distinguished, not by a reliance on explicit memory and explicit cognitive structures, but by more explicit structures than other animals. Thus we are more reasonable and rational than other creatures in the jungle. But i do not believe that we are more reasonable and more rational than the reverse.

Bjorklund, D. F., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2002). The origins of human nature: Evolutionary developmental psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Bower, B. (2006). The Bias Finders: A Test of Unconscious Attitudes Polarizes Psychologists. Science News, 169(16), 250.
Clements, W.A., & Perner, J. (1004). Implicit understanding of belief. Cognitive Development 9: 377-395.
Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Eisenberg-Berg, N. & Hand, M. (1979). The relationship of preschoolers’ reasoning about prosocial moral conflicts to prosocial behavior. Child Development 50(2): 356-363.
Hammond, R., & Axelrod, R. (2006) The Evolution of Ethnocentricism. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(6).
Kurzban, R., & DeScioli, P. (2005) “Characterizing reciprocity in groups: Information-seeking in a public goods game,” (Submitted), alternate draft at http://www.psych.upenn.edu/~descioli/kurzban%20descioli%20p
Lieberman, M., Schreiber, D., & Ochsner, K. (2003). Is Political Cognition Like Riding a Bicycle: How Cognitive Neuroscience Can Inform Research on Political Thinking. Political Psychology, 2003, 24(4), 681-704.
Morris, J., Squires, N., Taber, C., & Lodge, M. (2003). “The Automatic Activation of Political Attitudes: A Psychophysiological Examination of the Hot Cognition Hypothesis,” Political Psychology, 24, 727.
Moshman, D. (2005). Adolescent Psychological Development (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sapolsky, R.M. & Share, L.J. (2004). A pacific culture among wild baboons: Its emergence and transmission. PloS Biology 2(4): e106.
Tomasello, M & Call, J. (1997). Primate Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Evolutionary Cognitivism, a tdaxp series
1. Selection and Cognition
2. Epigentics and Diversity
3. Children and Civilization
4. The Implicit and the Explicit
5. Man Among Men
6. More Than Genes
7. Bibliography