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What Is Latent Learning In Psychology?

What Is Latent Learning In Psychology?

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Latent learning refers to learning that is not immediately displayed. Essentially, it learning that happens as you live your life. You might not consciously try to notice and remember it, but your brain picks it up anyway.

While you might not demonstrate such learning right away, it’s something that might come in handy later when you encounter a situation that requires it.

Understanding Latent Learning

Latent learning is a passive form of observational learning. Sometimes referred to as incidental learning, it happens without obvious reinforcement or punishment.

Latent learning was first introduced during the mid-20th century by the psychologist Edward Tolman, who observed the phenomenon during this research with rats.

The traditional behaviorist view suggests that the focus of psychology research should be on observable behaviors. Reinforcement or punishment could be used to increase or decrease a behavior.

Tolman found, however, that learning could occur even without any apparent rewards.

For example, in one study, rats were placed in a maze that did not involve any type of reinforcement or reward. The rats were allowed to explore the maze freely but did not display any changes in their behavior or any signs that they had learned the maze.

However, Tolman later found that when a reward was introduced, rats demonstrated that they had already learned the maze during their earlier explorations. While their immediate behavior did not show any signs of learning, the later trials revealed that latent learning had, in fact, occurred.

How Latent Learning Works

Latent learning suggests that people and other organisms can acquire knowledge without reinforcement. They also form mental representations without immediately demonstrating such knowledge.

While latent learning is not readily apparent, it may emerge later when a person has an incentive or reason to use it. 

For example, you might not make any effort to learn the location of a specific business in your town. However, you’ve driven down that street enough times that you know where it is, even if that information has not been reinforced. Later, when a friend tells you to meet them at that location, you are able to demonstrate this latent learning.

Latent learning happens regularly, even though we might not be consciously trying to learn at all. Researchers have found that people learn new things just by being exposed to them, even if they are not trying to understand.

Factors That Influence Latent Learning

There are a number of important factors involved in the process of latent learning:

Exposure

In order for latent learning to take place, you first need to be exposed to a source of knowledge. This might involve passively witnessing events or exploring a new environment or situation. 

Cognitive Mapping

During the exposure and exploration period, you begin to form a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of this new environment. It includes details about where things are located, the layout, and the relationships between different elements that are involved.

Lack of Reinforcement

Unlike other learning experiences, there is no reinforcement delivered. While there are no explicit rewards, learning is still taking place.

Behavior Expression

Latent learning later emerges when their is an incentive to display it. When a specific goal or reward is introduced, you’ll be able to demonstrate what you learned during the earlier exploration period.

Improvement

Latent learning is also connected to a sudden, significant improvement in performance.

Examples of Latent Learning

You can probably think of a few examples of latent learning in your own life. A few examples to consider include:

Academic Learning

In school, you might acquire information outside of class without having any incentive to do so. This learning only becomes apparent when you have an incentive to display it in a school setting, such as while writing a paper or taking an exam.

Navigating to a New Location

When you move to a new city, you might slowly explore different areas of the town. However, this knowledge might not be expressed until you actually have a need to navigate to a specific location.

Game Play

When playing a video game, you might acquire latent learning of the game environment or different playing strategies. Such knowledge might not be immediately apparent, but you might display it when you must complete specific challenges to win the game.

Latent Learning vs. Observational Learning

Latent learning and observational learning are related concepts with important differences. 

Observational learning is a concept that plays an important role in Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. In observational learning, people learn by watching and imitating others. 

Key differences between latent learning and observational learning include:

Reinforcement

Latent learning does not involve reinforcement; observational learning doesn’t involve direct reinforcement while learning, but the anticipation of future reinforcement is important in the learning process.

Change in Behavior

Latent learning does not involve an immediate change in behavior; observational learning, on the other hand, often involves observing and imitating someone else’s actions.

Modeling

Latent learning does not involve watching a model and is instead focused on direct experience and exploration; observational learning specifically involves observing someone else perform a behavior as a means of learning.

Timing

Latent learning is not immediately expressed and only emerges when there is a motivation or incentive to use it; observational learning can also take time to emerge, but it tends to be more immediate.

Latent learning may be demonstrated sooner if the individual believes that they will receive reinforcement or reward for doing so.

The Bottom Line

Latent learning involves learning things without showing it right away. This type of learning challenges the idea that rewards or punishments must happen for learning to take place.

Instead, latent learning shows that we explore and gather information about our surroundings, forming mental maps. This knowledge stays hidden until there’s a reason to use it, like when we get a reward or motivation. Latent learning suggests that learning is much more than a simple behavior-reward process.

Sources:

BehrensTEJ, Muller TH, Whittington JCR, et al. What is a cognitive map? Organizing knowledge for flexible behavior. Neuron. 2018;100(2):490-509. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2018.10.002

Jensen R. Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks. Behav Anal. 2006;29(2):187-209. doi:10.1007/BF03392130

Tolman EC. Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review. 1948;55(4):189–208. doi:10.1037/h0061626

Unger L, Sloutsky VM. Ready to learn: incidental exposure fosters category learning. Psychol Sci. 2022;33(6):999-1019. doi:10.1177/09567976211061470