Latent Learning: Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:00 Introduction to Latent…
  • 1:14 Definition of Latent Learning
  • 1:49 Example of Latent Learning
  • 3:01 Controversy with…
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an educator and writer with a particular interest in sociology and a master's degree in American Studies.

Learn what psychologists are talking about when they refer to latent learning. Discover an intriguing controversy in the field about whether reinforcement is necessary for an animal - or a person - to learn new things.

Introduction to Latent Learning

Imagine you're a rat in a maze. It's the same maze you've been in several times before today. You wander around, making your way down the various paths available. But something's different. As you find your way to the end of the maze, there's food! There's never been food here before. All right, now you're motivated.

The next time you enter the maze, you're more efficient with finding your way to the end, avoiding the dead-ends with greater efficiency. As the days go by, you get better and better at finding the food as quickly as possible.

What's strange is that you are just as good at this process, if not better, than the rats who have been receiving food since their first day in the maze. One would think you'd be behind in your learning and not as able to navigate the maze, since you didn't have an initial reason to get good at it (i.e., the food). In the first few days of the experiment, there was nothing to send you searching for the end of the maze with the same urgency as a rat who knew he'd get a tasty treat when he finished.

How could you, a rat who wasn't given a food reward until a few days into the experiment, become so skilled at navigating the maze almost as soon as food was introduced?

Definition of Latent Learning

Some psychologists use the term latent learning to describe what has happened. Latent learning is often described as the type of learning that does not immediately present itself, but can be called upon when useful. In other words, when a reward, or reinforcement, is involved, that latent learning becomes visible to us. You can remember this term by thinking of how the word 'latent' generally means 'hidden' or 'underlying.'

The theory holds that the rat has learned the maze through his wanderings, but we only see evidence of this underlying knowledge once he has drawn on that experience to get something he wants.

Example of Latent Learning

Let's consider another example in which you're actually human. Imagine that you've been learning about diabetes in your biology class during the last week of the school year. You know there won't be a test since final exams are finished and you aren't getting graded. You don't have much motivation to learn since you're already thinking about summertime. When the teacher asks the class to respond to questions, you rarely raise your hand.

Now imagine that you have a close family member who has just been diagnosed with diabetes. They're worried about it and are trying to learn more about what's going on in their body. You're really motivated to help the person. You offer to tell them what you've been learning in biology class. Unbelievably, you can spout off facts and information about the disease, knowing you're helping your family member learn more for their benefit.

What's happened? Some may argue that a type of latent learning has occurred, where you have learned despite your lack of motivation or reward for doing so. Only when you had a reason to recall the information were you able to recount facts you previously did not think you knew very well. This learning seemed to occur in the background and was not central to your focus in the classroom, but it was still there to use later.

Controversy with Latent Learning

But wait! Not all psychologists agree with how and why latent learning occurs. This is where the topic gets a bit juicier. We need to go back in time to understand why there's such debate about the idea.

The experiment described at the start of the lesson is similar to the results of research published in 1930 by American psychologists Edward C. Tolman and Charles H. Honzik. Almost two decades later, Tolman would use a theory known as cognitive map, which is a mental framework for the space around oneself, to explain the rat's behavior. He proposed that the animal creates a mental framework for the space prior to needing to use this information.

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