What is Implicit? If you get your neighbor’s mail would you return it unprompted?

What is Implicit?


I have a little informal experiment that I have set up in my office to see how in-tune my students are with their surroundings and regarding implicit expectations. The parents who accompany them are strictly advised to not say anything or prompt their child. Typically, I invite the student into my office where I have deliberately dropped a ruler on the floor in their path as they step into to my office. As a response to this a few scenarios are likely to unfold. Some students are just blatantly oblivious and might just walk past the ruler without even noticing it, let alone do anything. Some students may notice it, but yet not do anything about it. And finally, those observant few may actually notice it, pick it up, and hand it to me.

This little social experiment brings me to the concept of executive abilities that are required to meet the implicit expectation as part of the task demand. When we are instructed to perform or expected to do something, the brain needs to process information into two parts:

  • actions to take
  • conditions to follow

Let me illustrate this idea with an example. Imagine if a mom says to her teenager, “Put your clothes in the hamper”; the action involved would be picking up the clothes, walking to the laundry room, and then dropping colored and white clothes into two separate hampers. The implicit “condition” here that the teenager needs to adhere to is to pick up ALL the clothes and not just a few and to sort the colored clothes from the white ones.

Imagine another scenario where a teenager walks into his bedroom and his clothes are lying all over the floor. Here, as a response to this observation, several things need to happen. First of all, the teenager needs to observe and react to the fact that he is standing on top of a pile of dirty clothes. Then he needs to become aware that the clothes need washing, and finally, the teenager needs to separate the white clothes from the colored ones. The implicit “conditions” that the teenager needs to adhere to are that of personal hygiene and self-initiated effort.

These executive functioning elements of deciphering ‘actions to take’ while meeting the ‘implicit conditions’ is a driving force behind self-sufficient behaviors. Socially savvy individuals are completely aware of the social ramifications of violating these implicit rules or conditions. In order to navigate through the world effectively, one has to envision the goals that are designed by self as well as the implicit conditions that are imposed by self. These self-guided behaviors lead to productive management of one’s own intentions. We refer to such individuals as pragmatic, efficient, and independent. But not knowing how to create such imposed conditions on one’s self or failing to adhere to the unspoken rules or expectations can lead to a social faux pas and performance underachievement.