The Influence of Tacit Knowledge

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The Influence of Tacit Knowledge

Ilana Vine

Have you ever known something without knowing how? Have you ever instinctually felt one way despite intellectual evidence to the contrary? That instinctual feeling is tacit knowledge, which is all our unconscious understanding and which governs all of our habitual daily interactions, such as acknowledging people as we pass by them on the street, or sitting at the same desk everyday, although the teacher has not assigned seats. While this type of tacit influence on our actions may be innocuous, and indeed necessary for continuing in day to day social interactions harmoniously, tacit knowledge may have a greater influence on our actions, emotions, and decisions than we are aware. In each generation, a small group of people try to revise stories: societal beliefs, theories, commonly accepted practices- and are inevitably met with the fear and anger of many who want things to stay the same. Oftentimes, these advocates against change fight adamantly for their beliefs, despite convincing evidence that they are, in fact, wrong. Some people may go so far as to accept these stories intellectually, yet inwardly have a gut feeling that rebels against the common sense and evidence that proves the new story. This inability to reconcile intellectual understanding with an instinctual gut feeling is due to tacit knowledge and inspires a two part question: can tacit knowledge be taught by society? And if so, can we change that knowledge once it has become ingrained?

To better understand tacit knowledge, I ran a small test of my own on the Bryn Mawr College campus concerning what we know as unspoken or unwritten rules. While walking around campus, I would, in passing people, acknowledge them despite the fact that I didn't know them. Instinctually, my inclination was to look the other way or look down as we passed each other and, I noticed, that was how many subjects behaved. When I did acknowledge them, many of my subjects became visibly uncomfortable. However, some more naturally friendly people didn't seem to mind a brief, polite, impersonal greeting (which is also, in terms of unspoken rules, appropriate to do). Yet when I maintained eye contact with them for longer than felt comfortable, they also became flustered and unsettled.

From this experiment, I conclude that much of our behavior, especially minor day-to-day interactions such as greeting each other in passing, deciding where to sit in a classroom, or tapping a pen absently on a desk, is influenced by tacit knowledge. The fact is that our conscious mind cannot possibly handle the vast amount of information that we deal with every day. Therefore, we have relied on our unconscious mind, or our tacit knowledge, to help us. Rather than consciously debating how or when to greet someone in passing, we instinctually know how to handle this small interaction. Through our daily dependence on our tacit knowledge, we learn to trust our instincts and so when something goes against our tacit knowledge, we get an innate feeling of wrongness. That innate feeling of wrongness translates into our conscious actions, and may be why we cannot accept new stories, even if they are proven intellectually to be true.

So is this tacit knowledge that we deal with every day inborn in humans or do we learn it from our societies? Actually, tacit knowledge is probably a combination of both. In Steven Pinker's article on the instinct to acquire language, he discusses a child 's natural ability to pick up language. "Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term, instinct" (Pinker 18).

Yet while some of our tacit learning is inborn, it is also possible to assimilate personal and societal experiences into our tacit knowledge. Consider Bertolt Brecht's play, Galileo, where the title character makes the astounding new discovery that the earth revolves around the sun. Despite the evidence for his case, which even a church official deems to be legitimate, many people fear and reject his theory, calling it absurd and blasphemous. Galileo tries to prove his theory by showing people the evidence, but they refuse to see it, and the Church, incensed with Galileo's theory, forces him to publicly recant it. Nowadays, Galileo's theory is the most widely accepted and is taught in schools across the world. Why such a drastic change? Because Galileo's society and our modern society have different cultural theories embedded in our tacit knowledge.

In the time of Galileo's society, the Church was the most powerful governing body and people lived according to the Church's rule in almost every aspect of their lives. The Church beliefs and teachings, including the one that said that the earth was the center of the universe, was ingrained in people. So when Galileo changed the story of his society, people's tacit knowledge rebelled against what felt innately wrong. It was for this reason that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they could not consciously accept Galileo theory.

However, our modern society is structured differently. While some still recognize and follow Church teachings, we are mainly governed by a secular body, and society in general has become much more secular. There is a much stronger emphasis on science, and many people have come to interpret the Bible and religion figuratively rather than literally. With this emphasis on science that we are taught starting in elementary school, we have learned to accept Galileo theory.

Yet in each generation there are people willing to change stories. Galileo, for instance. This is where tacit knowledge through personal experience comes in. While undoubtedly we are born with some tacit knowledge and learn more from our society, the entirety of our tacit understanding is not identical to the tacit knowledge of every other individual within our society . Therefore, some of our unconscious must also be developed through individual experience. I don't know much about Galileo's past; or why he was willing to change the story, but there are many possibilities. Perhaps he grew up in a home where science was accepted as much as the Church, or grew up in a home that had hostile feelings towards the Church. Perhaps as a child he disproved something he had taken for granted through a scientific experiment, and thus understood tacitly that science could disprove a popular theory. There are a hundred plausible personal experiences that Galileo could have had to explain his willingness to change stories.

But if people are so influenced by their tacit knowledge, is it possible for them to be retaught, or do stories have to change slowly, one generation at a time? Certainly, stories develop and change through the years, as each generation is taught a slightly different version. For example, take the current social issue of gay marriage. This issue certainly changes the story of families and of marriage. In my experience, I find that the older generation tends to be more against it, while the younger generation tends to be more accepting (this is, of course, a generalization, as many people of all ages have varying views on this issue). Taking the theories of tacit knowledge into consideration, I can only conclude that the wider acceptance of gay rights and gay marriage by the younger generation has to do with tacit knowledge absorbed by society. In my parent's time, this issue was hardly discussed openly. They and their peers learned that it was shameful and not an appropriate topic for discussion. Yet my generation has been taught a little differently. There are still the same prejudices and stereotypes, but they are not as rampant as they have been in past generations. Nowadays, the issue is more openly discussed. TV shows like Will and Grace deal with the issue more openly. Within our schools, there are support groups for gay students and many teenagers know at least one or two people who are openly gay. At my senior high school prom, there were even same-sex couples in attendance, a thing that never could have happened in my parent's day. So obviously, stories can change over time. But can people, in one generation and having tacitly learned one thing, be retaught and accept another?

Although many people can intellectually and consciously accept something, they can not always reconcile it to their tacit, instinctual feeling. My parents are good friends with a homosexual couple, and have helped out with many fundraisers for the gay community. Consciously and intellectually, they believe in gay rights, and they will attend their friends' wedding this winter. Yet tacitly, they still sometimes feel uncomfortable. "I know it's irrational," my dad admits. "Intellectually, I support them and believe that they have the right to get married, but sometimes it still makes me a little uncomfortable." He isn't , I'm sure, the only one who has trouble reconciling conscious knowledge to his tacit understanding. It is a hard thing to do, and in fact I don't think it can be done consciously. Tacit knowledge is all about unconscious knowledge and trusting your instincts. It can't be rationalized to go in accordance with intellectual and conscious understanding.

The key to reconciling intellectual learning and tacit knowledge must therefore lie in the subconscious. Take, for example, neurologist Dr. Oliver Sack's case study on Dr. Bennet, a surgeon who suffers from Tourette . When consciously considering his situation, Dr. Bennet is subject to tics. Yet when he is performing work as a surgeon, he forgets his conscious state and falls into a subconscious rhythm. He doesn't suppress his tics, he simply forgets that he has them and therefore does not suffer from them while in this state. Although this story has many implications, the focus for this topic is its relation to tacit and conscious knowledge.

In order to reconcile the two, it seems probable that a person needs to forget that there is a difference between their conscious knowledge and tacit understanding. Rather, they need to get into a rhythm or subconscious state where they can accept and reconcile the two things.

Yet there is no known formula for a subconscious reconciliation. In fact, it may be a process that, like tacit knowledge itself, is particular to each individual. Until each individual solves the problem for him or her self, our tacit knowledge will continue to assert itself into our daily actions and conscious decisions. In some cases, this is innocous and even helpful. But in other cases, especially when stories are being revised, this can be harmful and counter-productive. However, there may be at least a temporary solution. If one can consciously recognize the dichotomy between tacit knowledge and conscious action, one can consciously modify his or her own behavior. Although this solution is only temporary, it may be the first step towards a subconscious reconciliation.


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