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Latent Learning – The Quiescent Process of Knowledge Accumulation

Latent Learning – The Quiescent Process of Knowledge Accumulation

Updated on May 27, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Latent Learning - Meaning, History, Characteristics, Theory & Examples

Key Takeaways

  • Latent learning is a dormant or covert form of learning.
  • It remains unexpressed unless a suitable incentive and circumstance arrive.
  • The attained knowledge manifests only when the person needs to display it.
  • Latent learning was first identified by Edward C. Tolman.
  • Latent learning is the subconscious holding of information. It might not become clear when it’s learned. But gets displayed at some other time.
  • This form of learning is not dependent on reinforcements and incentives.

Have you ever learned to cook a dish by seeing your mother but actually did the trial when you were staying alone in a different city?

Have you ever seen a child learning to eat on his/her own without even realizing it? These are simple examples of latent learning.

This type of learning occurs in the subconscious mind. The person becomes aware and makes use of the learning only when the right situation arises.

Latent learning remains in the dormant state. It manifests only when the person needs to do a similar action in some other situation. 

This learning occurs through observation. The person or organism will display the learning when there will be an opportunity or definite reason to do so.

In this article, we will learn about the different facets of this form of learning in detail.

Read On…

Latent Learning Infographic

Latent Learning - Meaning, History, Characteristics, Theory & Examples
Latent Learning – Meaning, History, Characteristics, Theory & Examples

Latent learning – definition, and meaning

Latent learning is a dormant or hidden learning process. It manifests only when there is the right opportunity to display the information that one learns.

In psychology, latent learning occurs when the person or organism learns a particular behavior but displays the learned information as per their need. 

Latent learning is spontaneous and incidental. The person or organism learns by observation and practical experience. 

In this type of learning, the impact of learned content does not lead to any immediate behavior change. It stays in a hidden state and gets expressed later on. 

According to the definition given by “,” latent learning refers to “the unconscious acquisition and retention of knowledge or skills without demonstrating them until the need arises or a reward or reinforcement is offered”

For example, you know how to climb big rocks because you learned it from observing your friend. Later on, when you need to display this learning in a college rock climbing competition, you can do it easily.

In the above example, your knowledge remained in a dormant state. It got noticed only when the right opportunity came. This is latent learning. 

You learn something by observing others. Then the learning remains in the subconscious mind. Later on, when the right situation and motivation are available, hidden learning displays itself easily.

The concept of latent learning became famous with the work of Edward Tolman. He used rats for his experiments. They showed that rats learned the way out of a complex maze unconditionally without an incentive. 

Thus, latent learning challenged the existing theories of learning like classical and operant conditioning.

It highlighted the fact that learning can happen on its own, even if there is no immediate incentive available to motivate the organism to learn.

Likewise, humans also learn a particular behavior and keep it with them until they get the motivation to manifest it in some other situation. 

Characteristics of latent learning

The features or characteristics of latent learning are as follows:

  • Latent learning is unintentional and unconscious
  • It is an observational learning 
  • Subconscious storage of information
  • Occurs without immediate reinforcement
  • It is a covert or hidden learning
  • No immediate behavior change 
  • The learning demonstrates at some other time
  • Makes use of cognitive maps and mental images
  • This type of learning uses higher-level information processing. It involves critical thinking, reasoning, memory consolidation, and retrieval

History of latent learning in psychology

In this type of learning, the learner’s behavior is not clear at the time of learning. It gets clearly displayed only when the right motivation and circumstances appear in a person’s life.

The term latent learning became famous with the work of Edward Tolman. 

Before Tolman, researcher Hugh Blodgett initially confirmed that when rats were allowed to run errands inside a complex maze to find their way out, they could easily do it without any incentive. 

This means that learning occurred on its own and remained hidden till the time to explore this knowledge arises. Learning is not always dependent on rewards and reinforcements.

Cognitive maps

Edward Tolman studied the concept of latent learning in 1930. He used the term ‘cognitive maps’ to describe the learning process shown by rats. 

Latent learning and cognitive maps emphasize the importance of information processing in learning. Cognitive maps are nothing but mind pictures and layouts. 

It is a mental image or internal picture that the organism makes of its immediate surroundings. 

This mental representation is a visual image that guides the organism’s course of action in a complicated spatial setup. For example, rats are put in a complex maze and told to find their way out.

Cognitive maps rely on deeper insightful learning. It happens without reinforcements. Tolman believed that the organism uses environmental cues to build these mental images. 

Then, the organism uses this mental image of the physical space to reach the desired goal. The organism also uses shortcuts to reach goals and do the given task.

Cognitive maps became the crux of the latent learning theory. For example, a child knows the way to the park because he regularly accompanies his mother to the park. 

Later on, even if the mother doesn’t go with him on a particular day the child will easily reach the park on his own.

This happens because the child has prepared a mental route to the park. This cognitive map allows him to understand the way to the park. 

The mental representation of the place is already stored in the memory. He will use this mental image when he needs to visit the park on his own.

Tolman’s experiments on latent learning (The theoretical framework)

Tolman and Honzik (1930) investigated latent learning in rats. They created complex mazes for their experiments. 

The study findings showed active information processing by rats in finding their way through the maze. The learning was not dependent on stimulus-response patterns.

This means that learning is not a passive process. The organism or person learns through active participation in the learning process. 

In the experiments, they use three groups of rats. They put the rats in complex mazes and were allowed to run around until they find their way out of the maze. This process continued for about two weeks.

The model of the experiment

The three groups of rats varied in the followings ways:

  • Group 1 received food every time they found their way out of the maze. 
  • Group 2 never received any food (reward) when they reached the end of the maze.
  • The last group was given the food only on the 11th day of the experiment. 

Tolman found that the rats in group 1 learned the way out of the complex maze very quickly with fewer errors only. 

This happened because of the operant conditioning method. Their response to finding the way out of the maze was reinforced by a reward. 

Receiving rewards while taken out of the maze helped the rats in the first group to keep the information properly. They were motivated to repeat the act again when placed in a similar situation.

When rats found the palette of food at the end of the maze every day, the association between stimulus and response became strong. They learned the way easily and made very few errors on the way.

The second and the third group made many errors. They helplessly moved around inside the complex maze and tried their best to reach the end of the maze. 

Group 2 rats never improved their time to reach the goal. It was because there was no reinforcement of the trial and error behavior.

No food was given at the end of the maze for this group. They were simply taken out of the maze.

The rats in group 3 behaved like the rats of group 2 in the initial days. But when food was given on the 11th day of the experiment, they started behaving more like group one.

They quickly learned the way out of the maze and even performed better than group 1.

This means that they started making fewer errors. Their reaction time to reach the end of the maze improved. They took a shorter time with minimal errors to reach the end of the maze. 

It is because they know they will receive a reward for their behavior.

The theory showed that the learning of group 3 was unconditional. They were not expecting a reward until the 11th day. But after the reward was introduced, the response was prompt and errorless.

Results of the experiment

From these experiments, Tolman noted that animals learned to form a mental framework of their learning. When group 2 and group 3 rats ran errands inside the maze, they developed a mental image of the maze.

Group 3 rats already knew the way out of the group in the first 10 days but kept it with them. They showed prompt action only when an incentive (food) was given on the 11th day.

The findings proved that latent learning happened in the first 10 days only, but got displayed only when the right moment arrived.

The food acted as a positive reinforcement that quickened the response of the rats.

The study findings concluded that when rats were moving around inside the maze, they created mind maps. 

They formed mental images of the space inside the maze. It means that learning was active and information processing was undertaken in a vivid way by the rats.

Once the rats in group 3 realized that their learning will be rewarded, they showed extra motivation to showcase what they have learned. 

The reaction time to reach the end of the maze decreased. They made no errors because the incentive (food) was waiting right away at the end of the maze.

Thus, Tolman concluded that learning can happen in a hidden way. The knowledge remains with the organism in a dormant state. 

The performance of the organism can be strengthened by giving the right incentive at the right time.

The theory of latent learning

The experiments done by Tolman confirmed that learning is an active process. The experimental group of rats participated actively in learning the way out of the maze. 

For the first 10 days, they did not know that they would eat food as a reward for their behavior. They framed cognitive maps of the maze and already knew the way out of the maze. 

This means that between stimulus (maze) and response (end of the maze) there was an active informational processing system that was in place.

The rats had learned the route latently inside the maze. They were able to display the knowledge easily and quickly when incentives were given.

The theory proved that cognitive maps and active information processing lead to successful learning. The reinforcements following behavior can only strengthen or weaken the learned behavior. 

10 latent learning examples

Latent learning occurs in everyday life. We learn so many things in our daily life but only replicate that learning when the need arises. 

The learning remains in an unused and untapped state till the right opportunity strikes in.

We will discuss a few examples to illustrate the concept of latent learning more clearly.

Example 1

Let’s consider that you have seen your mother baking chocolate cookies at home. You never tried out the recipe until one day when friends demanded homemade cookies from you. 

For the first time, you used what you had learned through observation from your mother. 

This example shows that you had learned to bake cookies long back but never got the right moment to display your learning skills.

Latent learning was inherent in you but got manifested only when the need arose.

Example 2

A dog learned how to play fetch ball from his master but used his skill in competition with other dogs. 

In another instance, the dog trainer teaches the dog to shake hands, wag its tail when someone comes inside the house. But the dog was not motivated to show off the learning already present in them. 

Later on, if the master gives an incentive such as a dog bone, the learning shows off spontaneously. In this example, latent learning became clear when the reward was introduced by the master.

Example 3

An infant will observe his/her mother putting the toys in one room every day. Sometime later, they will crawl around on their own and find the exact room to get the toys.

Example 4

Several everyday incidents depict latent learning. A child learns how to use chopsticks from his/her parent. 

But never used it until one day when their spoon and fork got dirty and they were forced to pick up the chopsticks to finish off their dinner.

The child has learned the use of chopsticks. This is latent learning that got displayed only when the necessity to do so was apparent.

Example 5

Have you ever seen how a bird trainer teaches a parrot to talk? They teach words that the parrot imitates. Later on, the parrot may not immediately start talking whenever asked to do so. 

But if the trainer offers an incentive, the parrot feels motivated to show what it has learned. This example shows how latent learning operates when rewards are given.

Example 6

Students learn to play guitar by imitating the master. If they are asked to play on their own they will display the learning comfortably without an incentive. 

The learning was subconsciously present but was demonstrated only when the opportunity was available.

Example 7

You have learned sewing and knitting from your mother and grandmother but never used this skill. But while living in a hostel, away from home, you started displaying this knowledge. 

When the need to showcase the knowledge became probable, your latent learning got displayed.

Example 8

A child picked up dancing skills by watching YouTube videos. Later on, she could exhibit her skills in a school dance competition. 

If her performance receives praise from teachers, she will get the motivation to hone her skills further. This example shows that latent learning is strengthened if the reward is given.

Example 9

A toddler imitates his/her sibling playing scrabbles and learns the art of word making. Later on, they can easily prove this learning in a playschool. 

Example 10 

A junior employee learns the finer skills in the workplace from his group leader and can exhibit those skills independently in the absence of the leader. 

Latent learning and its comparison with other forms of learning

In latent learning, a subconscious accumulation and retention of information occur. This type of learning occurs without conscious effort and awareness. 

The person learns new concepts much before they could realize them themselves.

Latent learning was inherent in the classical conditioning learning theories also. Here we will discuss how latent learning helped dogs to develop stimulus and response association.

When dogs learned that the footsteps of the researcher mean that they will receive food, they started salivating in anticipation of the food.

Here, the dogs had already formed a mental association between footsteps and the food. 

They knew that hearing the footsteps means that it was time to get food. Thus, latent learning took place unconsciously. The dogs waited for food until they heard the food steps. 

The footsteps led to an increase in salivation because latent learning had already taken place spontaneously.

In operant conditioning, learning occurs with reinforcements. It means that if good behavior is accompanied by a reward, the chances of its future occurrence increase. 

But latent learning occurs on its own. It may not need any conscious understanding of the learning process. 

Latent learning occurs without reinforcements when it happens. But if reinforcements are given later on, the learning gets strengthened.

Importance of latent learning

We learn so many things without even realizing that learning had already taken place. This has a lot of benefits in daily life.

  • Latent learning improves problem-solving abilities.
  • This learning is a cognitive process. Thus, it also helps to sharpen our memory and reasoning skills.
  • Latent learning helps to form mental associations that improve a person’s ability to learn complex things.
  • It facilitates critical thinking.
  • Latent learning is used to train animals such as dogs and parrots.
  • Children can be taught to learn good habits by using latent learning.
  • Latent learning happens in classroom setups where students learn simply by observing the teachers. Later on, they replicate the same learning in solving complex problems.

Tolman’s theory of latent learning – An evaluation

The behaviorists believed that learning occurs through stimulus-response association. Learning can be either strengthened or weakened following reinforcement or punishment. 

The behaviorists denied the role of internal cognitive processes in learning.

Tolman’s cognitive theory of learning was criticized because it happened through a mediation process of information processing. Tolman believed that learning is an active process and the learner is not a passive being.

The learner participates actively in establishing the stimulus-response association through mental images and cognitive maps. 

The theory faced evaluations with regard to the absence of reinforcements for learning. Further, the theory did not study overt behavior. Thus, it was contradicted by the behaviorists.

In spite of all the criticisms, Tolman’s theory was a pioneer work in cognitive psychology. This is the only theory in learning that claims that learning is an unconscious knowledge-gathering process. 

It does not depend on any immediate reinforcements. It does not express itself as and when it happens but displays at the right time when the need arises.

Latent learning broke the previous idea of behaviorists who refused to attribute learning as an active cognitive process.

Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

To close the discussion, we can infer that latent learning doesn’t show an immediate overt behavior. It manifests only when the organism needs to display the knowledge.

The learning process relies on the active participation of the learner. The learner uses his/her beliefs, past experiences, and intuition to create cognitive maps. 

These maps are retained in the subconscious mind and are put to use when the right motivation to display the behavior is clear.

This type of learning occurs either through observation or learning by doing. You will not know that learning has occurred until there is a need to display it arises in your daily life.

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