How Latent Learning Works According to Psychology

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In psychology, latent learning refers to knowledge that only becomes clear when a person has an incentive to display it. For example, a child might learn how to complete a math problem in class, but this learning is not immediately apparent. Only when the child is offered some form of reinforcement for completing the problem does this learning reveal itself.

Why Latent Learning Matters

Latent learning is important because in most cases the information we have learned is not always recognizable until the moment that we need to display it. While you might have learned how to cook a roast by watching your parents prepare dinner, this learning may not be apparent until you find yourself having to cook a meal on your own. 

When we think about the learning process, we often focus only on learning that is immediately obvious. We teach a rat to run through a maze by offering rewards for correct responses. We train a student to raise his hand in the class by offering praise for the appropriate behaviors. But not all learning is immediately apparent.

Sometimes learning only becomes evident when we need to utilize it. According to psychologists, this "hidden" learning that only manifests itself when reinforcement is offered is known as latent learning.

Discovery of Latent Learning

The term latent learning was coined by psychologist Edward Tolman during his research with rats, although the first observations of this phenomenon were made earlier by researcher Hugh Blodgett. In experiments that involved having groups of rats run a maze, rats that initially received no reward still learned the course during the non-reward trials.

Once rewards were introduced, the rats were able to draw upon their "cognitive map" of the course. These observations demonstrated that learning could take place even when an organism does not display it right away.

Consider, for example, your knowledge of various routes in your hometown. Every day you travel a variety of routes and learn the locations of different businesses in your town.

However, this learning is latent because you are not using it most of the time. It is only when you need to find a specific location such as the nearest coffee shop or bus stop that you are required to draw on and demonstrate what you have learned.

Latent Learning Observations 

In his book History of Psychology, author David Hothersall explained that while there was initially some controversy surrounding the phenomenon, numerous researchers also reported that lab rats did learn in the absence of rewards.

This notion challenged much of what the behaviorists believed, which was that learning could only occur with reinforcement. As a result, some of the more entrenched behaviorists suggested that there must have been some sort of reinforcement present during the non-reward trials, even if that reinforcement was not immediately obvious.

Research has demonstrated that the latent learning phenomenon is, as Hothersall explained, "reliable and robust."

Rats placed in a maze may learn the route they need to follow to obtain a food reward, but research has also demonstrated that the rats also learn the entire maze as well.

How do investigators demonstrate that this latent learning has taken place? When experimenters block the learned route, the rats will then use the next shortest path to get to the food. In order to do this, the animals learned the rest of the maze as well, even if such learning occurred without reinforcement.

These findings suggest that learning occurs as we go, often by accident, but not just because of incentives and rewards. So how does such latent learning take place? Some experts suggest that simply satisfying our curiosity often serves to reward learning.

Latent learning correlates with many higher-level mental abilities, such as problem-solving and planning for the future.

If students learn something now, they may be rewarded in the future with good grades, a high GPA, and acceptance to the college of their choice. The rewards of this learning may not be apparent or immediate, but this learning may take place in anticipation of a reward later on down the road.

3 Sources
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  1. Blodgett HC. The effect of the introduction of reward upon the maze performance of ratsUniversity of California Publications in Psychology. 1929;4:113-134.

  2. Hothersall D. History of Psychology. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social; 2004.

  3. Iordanova MD, Good MA, Honey RC. Configural Learning Without Reinforcement: Integrated Memories for Correlates of What, Where, and When. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2008;61(12):1785-1792. doi:10.1080/17470210802194324

Additional Reading
  • Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior With Concept Maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2010.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.