FAQ: What is the Source of “Implicit” Ideas and Value-Judgments?

A Value Orientation

In my husband’s discussion group for Objectivists, a member asked:

What I’m grappling with here is the manner and degree to which the underlying ideas and value-judgments can be formed in the first place, without one being conscious of forming them.

This is an interesting question that I’ve been grappling with for a long time. I think my answer will be of general interest to this list.

The hypothesis

My current hypothesis is that everything that is “implicit” is stored in the structure of one’s value-hierarchy. Although values can be strengthened, weakened, and organized by cognition, they are also strengthened and weakened by action and experience.

Let’s take an incident of a mother being cruel to her son. One day at the age of 8, he comes home to show her the drawing of a house he made at school, which shows the beginning of perspective. He is very proud of it. He thinks he’s onto something. His mother says, “Why are you showing me another lousy drawing? You’re just a kid. Your drawings are no good.”

What values are formed and the future effects of this incident depend entirely on how the child handles it.

Child 1: Ned

Child 1, call him Ned, feels hurt and angry. He slinks away to the bedroom and flings himself on the bed to mope about how he wished his mother had liked the drawing and how hurt he is. In the process, the drawing gets rumpled. When he sees that, he gets even more upset and in a fit of grief and rage he tears it up.

By the actions involved in wallowing in his emotions and unleashing them to destruction, he is:

  • Strengthening the value he attaches to his mother’s good opinion (by focusing on how much he wants it)
  • Increasing the suffering he experiences as a result of her negative opinions (by obsessing about it) — which will make them appear to be a bigger threat in the future
  • Reducing the value he attaches to his own first-hand work
  • Planting seeds of hatred — the desire to destroy — by destroying his own artwork

Ned did not make any of these value-judgments explicitly, and yet his values have been changed. In this case, he is starting the process of forming a defense value of wanting others’ good opinion as a means of avoiding the suffering associated with being criticized.

This will have the effect of motivating future action that looks an awful lot like he has an implicit premise that he should focus on other people, not reality, i.e., second-handedness. But I don’t believe that any such “implicit premise” exists as a psychological structure. When you analyze Ned’s thoughts and actions, you can relate them to second-handedness, but that is an armchair perspective. Psychologically speaking, no concept of second-handedness exists in Ned’s mind to cause his actions.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful to take that armchair perspective in retrospect. Au contraire. If you can explicitly identify a pattern of second-handedness in your own life, you gain the power to eliminate it as a causal factor. But that is another subject.

The desire for destruction

Incidentally, when Ned looks back on this incident, he will probably feel tremendous guilt at having destroyed his drawing. If he doesn’t handle that right, he is likely to repress the incident. That will make this pivotal experience more difficult to remember and his emotional reactions more difficult to understand.

The incident could be repressed by conscious evasion, but it could also be repressed by forming what I call an anti-value.

Ned’s suffering was exacerbated by wallowing in his emotions. Intense suffering creates a predictable fear of similar situations. If at some time in the future, Ned concludes that this experience of suffering is intolerable and that he must avoid it at all costs, his intention creates an “anti-value” that triggers much fear.

Most fear is caused by a particular situation. A value you want is threatened. You avoid the threat and move on. Or you feel the fear but take the action anyway, and you develop skill at handling the threat. You see fear as the exception. Threats do not have a lasting effect on your motivational system. Once handled, they are forgotten.

By contrast, an anti-value is a threat that has been elevated in importance to be something that you look out for and intentionally avoid. The fear you feel is fear of suffering per se, not fear related to some specific value that is threatened. As a result, you will have a disproportionately intense aversion to and fear of any action that might bring you closer to the experience of that suffering. This then distorts all future motivation, creating “defensiveness” in all its forms. If avoidance is not possible, if the intolerable suffering cannot be avoided, the anti-value triggers an intense desire to destroy whatever seems to be in the way of flight.

Incidentally, I think PTSD could be explained in terms of an anti-value that was created when a single experience was intensely terrifying or excruciatingly painful.

Child 2: Frank

In contrast, child 2, call him Frank, withdraws from his mother, goes to the bedroom, and carefully puts his drawing on his desk. Then he cries and vents his anger in furious pacing of the room and putting it into words. “How could she say that? Of course I’m just a boy. But this one is better. Why doesn’t she see it’s better?”

Then he wonders if the drawing really is better. He pulls out his most recent drawings. It’s there, plain to see. He’s onto something. The new drawing of the house pops out of the page in 3-D. It’s a little crooked, to be sure, but it’s a big improvement over his previous drawings. And he was able to do it just from one comment the teacher made about how a house looks different from the top versus square-on, and depending on how high up you are.

By this time he has calmed down and he is spontaneously inspired to try to make another drawing that doesn’t look crooked. Sometime later he remembers his mother’s criticism. He concludes that she’s wrong.

By the action of carefully taking care of the drawing and then attempting to process his emotions, he is:

  • Strengthening the value he attaches to his first-hand work
  • Strengthening the value of understanding

These are both implicit, not explicit.

And then, of course, he does think about it. He forms explicit conclusions, including:

  • Today I figured out how to make a drawing look 3-D.
  • I know better than my mother how to judge my drawings.
  • The teacher’s comment was helpful.

By having done this explicit thinking, (which after all, is another action), he is:

  • Strengthening the value he attaches to his own judgment
  • Strengthening the value he attaches to thinking (he not only does it, he learns from it — he is successful)
  • Strengthening the value he attaches to understanding the things around him (he wonders why his mother doesn’t see — even though he doesn’t actually follow up that question in this vignette
  • Strengthening the value he attaches to justice (his work should be judged by standards suitable for a boy, relative to his stage of development)
  • Reducing the value he attaches to his mother’s opinion
  • Increasing the value he attaches to the comments of the teacher

These are all implicit. They will have the effect of motivating future action that looks an awful lot like he has an implicit premise that he should focus on reality, not other people.

The additional beneficial consequences of thinking instead of wallowing in emotions

Note that because of his conscious efforts, Frank is also developing concrete skill at:

  • Managing emotions
  • Making objective judgments
  • Drawing in perspective

This skill plus Frank’s explicit knowledge increase his efficacy. He is more capable of dealing with the world after the incident, not less. As a result of all of this, he is also likely to remember this incident. That original drawing in perspective could take on a symbolic significance for him later in life. In any case, there will be no impediment to remembering, as there was in the case of Ned.

Because he remembers this incident and things like it, Frank can develop a database of memories that includes many incidents where he rejected someone else’s judgment and was a little puzzled by how that person reached his conclusions. Then, years later, he may be in a position to put the pieces together into new explicit knowledge.

For those familiar with Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, I think this is the process that starts in Chapter 1 when Howard Roark reflects on his conversation with the Dean:

He had met many men such as the Dean; he had never understood them. He knew only that there was some important difference between his actions and theirs. It had ceased to disturb him long ago. But he always looked for a central theme in buildings and he looked for a central impulse in men. He knew the source of his actions; he could not discover theirs. He did not care. He had never learned the process of thinking about other people. But he wondered, at times, what made them such as they were. He wondered again, thinking of the Dean. There was an important secret involved somewhere in that question, he thought. There was a principle which he must discover. (Quoted from The Fountainhead, Chapter 1.)

In this passage, the character changes his mind. He does care. These incidents have become not just a puzzlement, but leads to “a principle he must discover.” He has created a value by setting an intention. He has decided that there is a principle he wants to know. This change of mind was a result of his thinking and his explicit judgment. This new value (of knowledge of the principle) will motivate more systematic thinking in the future, when next he encounters situations like the one with the Dean. Over time, this thinking may lead him to form a new concept of independence. (In the novel, it does.)

An armchair observer might point out the implicit concept of independence in an incident like Frank had when he was 8. But this is a third-party perspective. What Frank has is a clear, conceptualized memory of a concrete incident, which could be used as an example of independence. But until he induces that concept (as Roark did) or learns it from someone else (as I did and probably you did), all that exists in his subconscious databanks are the memories of the concretes and the connections they have to other material.

Values as the key psychological phenomenon to understand

What I have described here is speculative. It is based on my work on understanding values as a psychological phenomenon. I have written several articles related to this:

FAQ: What Is a Value Hierarchy?
How Values Form
How to Maintain a Value Orientation in Action
The Importance of a Value Orientation Toward Past Actions

What I have done here is to create fictional concrete incidents to help you see how specific psychological processes, plus the choice to think or not, explain not only a person’s character, but also the appearance of implicit knowledge, implicit value-judgments, etc.

The choice to think or not is critical. First and foremost, it affects which values are strengthened or weakened, which has a direct effect on character and efficacy. Because Ned wallowed in emotions rather than taking charge, he programmed his values in a self-destructive way. But Ned also failed to develop knowledge and skills that he could have gained in the crisis. Frank, in contrast, strengthened many values by thinking, but also developed self-knowledge that would stand him in good stead.

In short, the choice to think or not has many implications, but psychologically, only a few causal processes are involved:

  • Existing values are strengthened or weakened (true for both Ned and Frank)
  • Pleasurable and painful experiences are stored in memory (true for both)
  • Explicit knowledge is gained (Frank only)
  • De facto skill is gained (Frank only)

Later, in the scene with the Dean:

  • A new value is created through setting an intention (Roark)

Or if Ned repressed this or a similar incident:

  • A new anti-value is created through setting an intention (Ned)

My hypothesis is that these simple processes, plus the choice to think or not, explain everything puzzling, mysterious, or “implicit” in people’s psychologies.

I sum this up as: the value-hierarchy is the source of “implicit” value-judgments. To repeat from my opening: although values can be strengthened, weakened, and organized by cognition, they are also strengthened and weakened by action and experience.

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  1. Marcia Yudkin

    Although this post does an excellent job describing several scenarios in which values could have formed, I think these examples are overly dramatic and overly personal, with respect to portraying how values get formed. It’s neither necessary nor typical for there to have been a traumatic personal incident for a value to form. Values could come from observation of others and mundane daily experience over a long period of time.

    For example, I have an entrenched belief that money isn’t that important. I can trace that to my childhood, growing up in a comfortable middle-class family where neither of my parents and none of my siblings yearned for material things or to show off what we had. At the same time I had an uncle, my father’s brother, who got rich by working so hard that he neglected his family, and his relationship with his son got completely screwed up. In high school most of the girls my age whispered about how many sweaters of a certain brand the other girls had, and that topic had no interest whatsoever for me.

    At no point was there an upsetting or dramatic incident like those in your examples. Equally, I didn’t sit down and think through the question of whether or not money was important. (Nor did anyone ever lecture me on the subject.) Yet I formed a value that other things besides money are important in life, and that has guided many of my most central life choices. Isn’t that exactly the sort of factor that we call “implicit”?

    • Jean Moroney

      Marcia, thanks so much for your comments.

      I did not mean to imply that traumatic experiences are needed to form values nor to form implicit values. Not at all. I agree it is unusual. (I will say a bit more about why I chose these examples in a separate comment.)

      To state my agreement with you as strongly as possible, I want to point out to you and other readers that in many of the cases mentioned in the articles on “How Values Form” and “What is a Value Hierarchy?” that I linked to above, the examples are mundane in the extreme. None involve trauma. Moreover, some of the examples in those articles involve values that are not formed by explicit cognition nor by volitional intention, but by experience and self-generated action. They, too are clear cases of implicit values as described in this article.

      Marcia, the cases you mention from your own history are interesting for another reason. They mostly concern negative judgments in relation to money–that certain things connected to money were bad (the uncle’s neglect of the family) or unimportant (how many sweaters girls owned). Negative judgments motivate avoidance or inaction. Associating money with these negatives is completely consistent with not thinking about money that much. As a result, money did not become a strong value to you.

      My hypothesis is that values are the main causal factor in motivation, not the absence of values. They are not equal. In other words, the pursuit of a positive makes a lasting change to your psychology, but the avoidance of a negative leaves it as is, except in unusual cases–like the traumatic incident for Ned in my example above when an anti-value is formed.

      A conclusion, such as your conclusion that money is not that important, is judged by you as true or false based on whether it is consistent with all your values.

      That idea could have been held implicitly before you adopted it explicitly, because the organization of your values would have put everything else you cared about (not mentioned in your post, so I won’t speculate) ahead of money when you were making specific decisions about what to do. That would look a lot like a belief that money was not important, even if you had never had that conscious thought.

      Jean M.

  2. Jean Moroney

    A reader wrote to me privately with concerns about this article:

    “But remember a child is not yet fully conceptual so he will be unable to objectively process everything that is going on in his life and to consider alternatives. He also may have access to other evaluations and have many types of experiences including reading and media. I think your post comes across as rather moralistic.”

    I think the concern here is for poor Ned, who is only eight years old, has a completely understandable emotional meltdown, then destroys his precious drawing before he can compose himself. I feel sorry for him, too.

    I did not mean to imply that poor Ned was doomed from this incident, nor that he was immoral. I am happy to stipulate that he is only eight and doesn’t know better. It’s a tragedy for him.

    My goal was to explain the causal mechanism whereby a vicious cycle can get started. One incident in which the value of approval is strengthened–not by intention, but by experience and self-generated action–will make it more likely poor Ned seeks approval another time and feels hurt by future by disapproval.

    One of the great tragedies of childhood is that innocent mistakes can have lasting psychological harm. This fictional example of poor Ned is intended in part to show how a basically good person can develop a significant psychological issue such as a defensive need for approval through what amounts to only a little passivity on his part.

    But again, this is fictional, to make a specific theoretical point.

    As my correspondent points out, a real-life Ned will have many other experiences. These will give him a chance to question his burgeoning value of approval. At any time, he can change his mind. He can decide that his mother’s approval is not as important as he thought. He can intercede when he gets upset by her comments and hold that context to help him calm down. Then perhaps he seek out other values, such as the ones that Frank pursued in the other example. This kind of intervention gets easier as he gets older, because he has more knowledge and more skill at self-direction.

    Incidentally, this is why it is so important to view any adult psychological issues with generosity and kindness. You should not assume they were formed by evasion or even immorality. They could be created by a little passivity that set up a vicious cycle that for one reason or another didn’t get caught and challenged before a defense value formed.

    Incidentally, the reason I chose this example was that the post I was responding to on my husband’s discussion group included as an example of the phenomena to be explained as “example of a young boy who ‘ . . .fills his subconscious across years with negative value-judgments in regard to his mother, who is cruel to him. He is not attentive to his mental processes, however, so that much of this content remains implicit and unidentified.’ “

  3. carl

    You ascribed cognitive capabilities to Frank that few, if any, will achieve before the age of 26.

    • Jean Moroney

      Hi, Carl

      Just to be clear: these are fictional examples used to make a point about a causal mechanism. Neither Ed nor Frank is representative of a typical child. But the causal mechanism is real, and when you take a simple example like this, you can spell out all the causal factors in only 6 pages.

      Part of the challenge in communicating these ideas is that I think you really learn the causality involved by seeing how your own values develop (or not) by reference to your own autiobiographical incidents. Since we don’t share those, I needed to make up fictional incidents that you could get the idea from. (This is an add-on to my comment after having answered Marcia’s second question, below.)

      However, I want to affirm that some children are very independent at an early age. It’s unusual, but it’s real. I know people who judged their parents as wrong at 8. I know 8 year olds who would retire and keep the drawing safe in such a situation. Whether an 8 year old would think to compare the current drawing to past drawings–that is where the fiction really begins. But if a child did compare them, or say if his older drawings were hanging up in his room so he almost couldn’t help but see them (that would be more believable), he would see the image pop off the page in the new one.

      I deliberately chose this example so that each action was possible to an 8 year old. I did not mean to imply in any way that you should expect it of an 8 year old. See my response to another critic, above.


  4. Marcia Yudkin

    Jean, I feel like you dismissed my example on a technicality – because it was worded in a negative way. You concluded, “Money did not become a strong value to you.” That has all the (light) weight of saying that I did not become interested in sports or fine cuisine. That doesn’t capture my experience.

    I would say instead that I developed a strong value that money, in itself, is not worth paying a lot of attention to. Or that chasing money is foolhardy. It is hard to state this without any negative words, but it’s more definite than simply preferring to put attention elsewhere. Maybe part of your theoretical framework is that a negative judgment can’t count as a value, but if I were asked to state my central values, that would go high on the list. We don’t seem to have a word in English for not valuing money, the way we have a word for not believing in God (atheism). But that doesn’t make it less “a thing.”

    • carl that guy you know

      Marcia — maybe “Bohemian” ? (for not valuing money) 🙂 .

    • Jean Moroney

      Hi, Marcia,

      I certainly didn’t mean to come off as dismissing your example on a technicality. As I said in my response, I think we are in profound agreement on what I took to be the main point in your original comment.

      In answering this, after I wrote a lot about the difference between a thing and a non-thing, and the complexity of the money example, it occurred to me that the real issue may just be terminology, and that there is a phenomenon I had not mentioned that is relevant to so-called “implicit” knowledge.

      I distinguish a value from a value judgment or a premise. A value is something you act to gain and keep. It is a stable structure in your psychology. A value judgment is a conclusion you reach about whether something is good or bad for you. This is normally ephemeral. You reach the conclusion, act on it, and often forget about it (though the act of thinking does have side effects on how knowledge is organized in your databanks).

      A premise is a conclusion you reach consciously and treat as important by deliberately integrating other conclusions to be consistent with it. At this point in time, I would say you have an explicit premise “Money, in itself, is not worth paying a lot of attention to.” Or “chasing money is foolhardy.”

      In your original comment, you wrote:

      “I didn’t sit down and think through the question of whether or not money was important. (Nor did anyone ever lecture me on the subject.) Yet I formed a value that other things besides money are important in life, and that has guided many of my most central life choices. Isn’t that exactly the sort of factor that we call “implicit”?”

      To express the point you’re making, I would use the words “implicit premise” instead of “value.” But I don’t think “implicit premises” actually exist per se. What exists is the raw material from which you will reach future conclusions, organized in such a way that those conclusions are pretty easy to reach. But the actual premise doesn’t exist until you put it into words.

      Part of that is values. But in addition, the factor I haven’t mentioned is autobiographical memory. These are little stories that you remember that have some significance to you. Because they are real stories, about which you know a lot of real details, these turn out to be excellent material for future thinking. Decades later, you can still draw new explicit conclusions from dramatic stories from your childhood, conclusions that you didn’t reach at the time and maybe couldn’t have possibly reached at the time.

      The two instances I think I see of this in your original post are:

      1. You saw the example of your uncle, and from what I understand, you consciously judged it as bad and you didn’t want to be that way. This particular concrete was dramatic and important enough that it remained in your memory banks as an anti-role model. In the future, when you were thinking about money, this example would naturally pop up. Note that it has affect associated with it–but that affect came from whatever values you used to judge it as bad in the first place. Those may or may not have been implicit.

      2. You noticed that the other girls were counting sweaters and you were indifferent to the number of sweaters. This sounds like an autobiographical memory to me. What we don’t hear in your recounting of it is why you remember that incident.

      If I project myself into that situation, I would remember something like that because it made me feel incredibly aware of how I had different values from them. This would prompt an affective reaction. What affective reaction? It could be pride (if I thought my values were more serious) or sadness (if I felt this meant that these girls had less in common, and weren’t the friend material I’d hoped for). It could be just puzzlement (if I thought, gee, what’s going on in their heads? I really don’t understand that). Or–it could have been a flash of clarity (if I thought–wow, I understand something important about me).

      I don’t want to speculate per se on what it was in your case, but I hypothesize that you had some strong affective reaction, which is what made this incident stick in your mind all of these years.

      In contrast, the family values regarding money were probably absorbed in part by learning from your parents’ explicit views and in part by the process of value formation that I described as implicit.

      Bottom line, yes, something else is stored, but it is concretes that have value-judgments associated with them, not a premise per se.

      If that was your question, I hope that helps.

      If it’s not, I wrote about 2 pages on the difference between psychological structure involved in values vs. non-values or anti-values…which I have saved in case that is the real issue.


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