What Is Latent Learning?

Latent learning is not immediately apparent
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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 obvious. Only when the child is offered some form of reinforcement for completing the problem does this learning reveal itself.

How Latent Learning Works

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 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.

How Was Latent Learning Discovered

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 nonreward trials. Once rewards were introduced, the rats were able to draw upon their "cognitive map" of the course.

Examples of Latent Learning

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.

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 route to get to the food.

In order to do this, they animals have clearly 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 is associated 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.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

References

Brain, C., & Mukherji, P. (2005). Understanding child psychology. United Kingdom: Nelson Thornes.

Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior with concept maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Hothersall, D. (2003). History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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