concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Implicit belief 

Implicit belief is important to recognise if we are to think of our beliefs in ways that allow the recognition of objectivity. Implicit beliefs are beliefs that we do not necessarily recognise ourselves as having, yet which are required assumptions for our actions and psychological states. They can be contrasted with explicit beliefs, which are ones we egoistically identify with and thus are usually aware of. If we are to think of ourselves as psyches rather than egos, with the revolution in thinking this involves, we must also recognise that the ego does not have a monopoly on the beliefs that shape our understanding of conditions.

Let's take a simple example of implicit belief, based on my experience as a teacher. A student is persistently failing to attend the course or hand in the work it requires, so I speak to her about this. She assures me that she's really committed to the course and will catch up very soon. However, she continues not to attend or to hand in work. There do not seem to be any background circumstances preventing her from doing this. I speak to her again, and again she makes similar assurances and promises with a good deal of conviction, but again she fails to do anything. In this case the student herself may believe that she is committed to the course, but the beliefs that we would deduce from her behaviour tell us that she is not really committed to the course. Her implicit beliefs are different from her explicit ones. These implicit beliefs, we could argue, are interfering with her explicit beliefs, and as long as they go unacknowledged she is unlikely to be able to address them.

The integration of belief involves the recognition of implicit belief, and the attempt to make our implicit beliefs coherent with our explicit ones. This process is closely related to the integration of desire and the integration of meaning. In order to harmonise her implicit beliefs with her explicit ones, the student in my example may also have to consider what desires or drives are stopping her participating and integrate those with the desire that led her to enrol on the course in the first place. She might also need to consider whether or not she finds the course meaningful, and integrate the aspects she finds meaningful with those that she does not.

The main difficulty associated with the concept of implicit belief is its alleged unfalsifiability. It is possible to make claims about oneself or someone else having implicit beliefs which apparently cannot be checked in experience. However, this difficulty is a matter of degree, not an absolute difficulty. Usually, as in the example above, there is clear evidence for an implicit belief - though it may be clearer to others than to oneself and one can gain objectivity about it by consulting others. If a claim about an implicit belief is made for which there is no evidence, we need to wait for evidence to emerge. If it doesn't after a reasonable time period (we would have to specify this time period for ourselves) then we might conclude that the claim is unjustified. However, it is not justifiable to object to the whole concept of implicit belief just on the grounds that we may not have access to experience of implicit beliefs at this moment. This would be no more justified than objecting to claims about explicit beliefs on the grounds that I may lose or forget these explicit beliefs in future. A time frame is always required to gain experience relevant to any kind of claim: if I wanted to check up on a claim about the feeding habits of gorillas, say, I would have to wait until feeding time, when this feeding habit became observable, not object to it on the grounds that the gorillas were not currently feeding!

Links to related discussion

The psychological basis of belief (from thesis)

Verification and falsification (from thesis - scroll down to section c)


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