19.   What is Unconscious Installation?


"What" AND "How"?

This is an interesting topic, probably unique to NLP - by this name (see below*) - and one which has quite frequently raised the temperature in certain online discussion groups.
In NLP, Richard Bandler, for example, makes frequent use of "unconscious installation as a training method, but often leaves trainees unsure as to what, if anything, they have actually learnt.

Some people complain on the grounds that they are being funded by their company, and companies want a tangible ROI (return on investment).  Others complain that they spent much of their time just sitting, listening to the trainer rambling on about this and that, leaving them unable to describe what, if anything, they had actually learnt.

Aside:   I personally worked for a number of years as a trainer in the IT sector, using what were, at the time, fairly novel methods such as playing music during training sessions in line with Georgi Lozanov's accelerated learning techniques.
As far as I know, not once during that time did anyone check up on how I was presenting the course material, and not one client checked in advance to see find out what approach I was using).

These objections are in one sense both reasonable and understandable.  In another sense they suggest that the person making the complaint should have checked before signing up as to what kind of training methodology would be used.

So before going into more details, my advice to anyone going on ANY kind of training course would be to ask BOTH "WHAT will be covered," AND "HOW will it be presented?"

Moreover, based on my own experience, if the trainer/training company start getting defensive when you ask the second question - go somewhere else.

So, what is "unconscious installation"?

Part of the problem seems to involve the question: "What is unconscious installation?"  And the a further question about the underlying presupposition: "Is there really such a process as unconscious installation?
In order to answer these questions I must first define what it is we mean by "skill" in NLP.

Simply put, from the NLP perspective almost anything you can do is a "skill".  That is to say if there was a time when you couldn't do some action, and now you can, then in some sense it must involve some kind of skill (no matter how trivial), and at some time or other you must have learned to do it.  In some cases an activity is quite obviously a skill, like riding a bicycle or driving a car, or playing chess or football.  Other "skills" might not be quite so obvious - like irritating everyone you meet, or always being late, or having "two left feet" (I'm referring specifically to situations where there is no medical cause at work).

The point of defining "skill" is that most people will think of a skill as being something positive and desirable, but those are themselves highly subjective words and we can easily forget that what seems desirable to one person can seem quite undesirable to someone else, and vice versa.

Unconscious Installation and Implicit Learning

*   In practise, "unconscious installation" is essentially the same thing as what main stream psychologists (for want of a better title) would call "implicit learning" - in contrast to "explicit learning".  And in fact it is probably easier to define "implicit learning" by contrasting it with "explicit learning", as in this example from Implicit Learning (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993), by psychologists Dianne Berry and Zoltan Dienes:

"In general, explicit knowledge is said to be accessible to consciousness, and can be communicated or demonstrated on demand, whereas implicit knowledge is said to be less accessible to consciousness, and cannot be easily communicated or demonstrated on demand."
(page 2)

Or in very simply terms, implicit learning is a process of learning something without knowing that you are learning it.  And if you don't know that you learned something, it's obviously no eay thing to verbalise what it is you've learn't, or to use the knowledge/skill in a conscious manner.

Seems simple enough, doesn't it?  But what do we mean by "without knowing," for example?  Does it really make sense to say that someone has learnt something if they didn't even know that they were in a learning situation?
And how can we have learnt anything at all if we can't describe what we've learn, can't answer basic questions about it, and cannot demonstrate what we have learnt when someone asks us to?

The answer is yes, and it is a lot easier to demonstrate how the process works than you might think, as in the following example:

I was walking past a cycle shop a while ago and a family (mother, father, two boys) came out and started walking right behind me so that I could quite clearly overhear their conversation.  What passed between the father and the taller (oldest?) boy in the next minute or two went something like this:

Boy:       "Why can't I have a new bike?"
Father   "Because it's a waste of money."
Boy:       "Why is it a waste of money?
Father   "Because it's a waste of money buying you a brand new bike just so you can wreck it."
Boy:       "But I wouldn't wreck it.  Why would I want to wreck it?
Father   "Lets be honest, Derek, there's no way you're going to be able to be able to ride a bike the moment you get on one.  You're bound to have a few crashes before you get the hang of it.  So a secondhand bike will be just the thing until you've learnt to ride properly."

Now maybe it's just me, but the father's side of that conversation sounded like a brilliantly brief, well meant piece of unconscious installation - not of the skill of riding a bike but of a game plan entitled "How to get yourself a brand new bike".

  1. Get a secondhand bike
  2. Learn how to fall off it (an unspecified number of times)
  3. Learn how to wreck the bike, or at least seriously damage it
  4. Now you are ready to learn how to ride the bike (repaired, presumably?) several times without falling off or wrecking it
  5. This means you are now a "proper" cyclist - and you get a new bike.

Of course the word "bike" has been mentioned several times, and "new bike" got mentioned twice.  Yet if we were to question that father about the conversation I'm willing to bet he would strenuously deny that he was "teaching" his son how to do anything.  And I imagine that the father would be quite horrified to think that his son might take from this brief exchange the message: "If you want a new bike you've first got to wreck a secondhand one."
Yet isn't this exactly the kind of "learning" that's behind many of our less constructive behaviours and skills?  Not by intentional unconscious installation, but by an unintentional form which I call "inadvertant hypnosis".

The upside to all this, of course, is that in the "hands" of a real master of NLP, who can combine implication, metaphors and storytelling, etc., unconscious installation can be a very powerful and effective means for knowledge transfer.

A Caveat

One valid objection to the notion of unconscious installation arises if we talk about the unconscious installation of skills rather than the unconscious installation of knowledge.
To be brief - you cannot directly teach a "skill", because a skill is something you do, not something you know.  I could teach you about furniture making.  I could show you how it's done,  I could tell you how to do it.  I could show you examples of well-made furniture, and give you books with a multitude of illustrations that take you through every step of the process.


Until you've actually cut up some wood, made a tenon joint or two, and so on, what you have is knowledge and not a skill, BECAUSE "skill" is not just "knowledge" - it is the combination of "knowledge" plus "experience".
The same basic principle applies to NLP and the NLP-related rechniques, in my opinion.  Taking a training course - with a competent training company, is more value than just reading a book (no matter how good it is), because you get practical, supervised, experience.  Until you've started using any given technique all you have is knowledge, and rather importantly, in this context, unsubstantiated knowledge, since the only way to find out what works for you is to "suck it and see".