Latent Learning (Definition + Examples)

Latent learning challenges the idea that all behavior is learned through reinforcement – it’s an important addition to the study of psychology.

What is Latent Learning?

Latent learning is the process of subconsciously retaining information without motivation or reinforcement. You aren’t consciously thinking about the consequences of what you are learning while you are learning it. Just because there is no cheese at the end of the maze doesn’t mean we aren’t learning our way around. 

When we read about studies in psychology, learning, and behavior, we read a lot about rewards and punishments. Most of these rewards involve food. And for years, psychologists believed that learning was only done through a series of reinforcements.

But that’s not exactly how the world works. Our learning is not always reinforced. We may observe or engage in a skill without any tests to take later or punishments to fear. And the fact that you have learned these things isn’t apparent until much later, when you are asked to apply the information in order to get a reward.

Latent learning offers an explanation for retaining information that was never enforced by teachers, authority figures, or yourself!

How Does Latent Learning Take Place?

During latent learning, information takes place subconsciously. For example, you may watch the TV show Survivor as you wind down from a long day. You have no intention of using survival skills. The show is just interesting and you like watching it with friends. If you were to try and learn from it, you’d likely watch with a notebook in hand. Instead, you just turn it on, eat some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

You may be surprised, after watching a few seasons of Survivor, that you actually have survival skills. Maybe, a few years after watching the show, you go on a hike and accidentally get lost. You have to set up camp for the night and light a fire. As you search for materials to start the fire, information from years of watching Survivor comes back to you. Even though you have never taken a survival course or thought too much about learning how to build a fire, your latent learning pays off and you can successfully light the fire and keep it going.

Not all latent learning is kismet. You might not learn life-saving skills or anything that is particularly useful for many years until after you learn it. That doesn’t mean that the time you spent learning new information or skills is wasted, though!

Is Latent Learning Operant Conditioning or Classical Conditioning?

Neither! Conditioning requires rewards and punishments for the behavior to stick. There is no such thing as latent conditioning; only latent learning that involves no reinforcements.

Difference Between Insight and Latent Learning

There are many forms of learning that lead to solving problems or performing behaviors. Often, latent learning is confused with another form of learning – insight learning. But these two processes are slightly different.

Insight learning occurs when you’ve faced a problem, taken a pause, and then suddenly put together memories and information that will help you solve the problem. Many people refer to this as an “a-ha” moment. Maybe you are facing a conflict at work and don’t know the best solution that will make all your team members happy. You’ve read plenty of books and have tons of experience with conflicts like this, but the right answer just isn’t coming to you. So you take a walk around the block, make a cup of coffee, and let your mind think about other things.

All of a sudden, the answer comes to you! You realize that by piecing together a few different strategies that you’ve learned, you can solve the problem. This is insight learning.

Latent learning may also “catch you by surprise,” but the answers that come to you may be information that you didn’t even know you retained!

Who Introduced The Idea of Latent Learning?

Almost five decades after Pavlov used dogs to support his theories on classical conditioning, Edward Tolman used rats to support his theories on latent learning. Tolman did not discover latent learning, but his experiment brought the idea into mainstream psychology.

Tolman’s Rats

Tolman recruited three groups of rats for this study. The first group of rats was placed in a maze for 17 days. When the rats completed the maze, they would receive food as a reward. The second group of rats was placed in a maze for 17 days too, but they didn’t get any rewards for completing the maze. The third group of rats was placed in the maze for 10 days without any food. On the 11th day, the rats began to receive food for completing the maze. They were also left in the maze for 17 days.

rat in a maze

It’s no surprise that the first group of rats got to know the maze pretty darn well. It may also not be a surprise that the second group of rats just kind of wandered around without any particular aims to get to the end of the maze.

The third group’s results, however, were very surprising. Once the third group started receiving rewards for getting to the end of the maze, they started displaying more knowledge of the maze than even the first group. They took fewer wrong turns by the end of the 17 days than any other group.

What Does This Say About Latent Learning?

This shows that the rats had retained at least some of the information about the maze before they started getting rewarded for their learning. If we only learned things when motivated by rewards, the rats who received rewards later might not have been able to learn the maze as fast as the first group in the remaining 7 days of the study.

So what was happening? In the first 10 days, even though they were not asked to display their knowledge, the rats in the third group had been making “cognitive maps” of the maze. The rats didn’t even display their learning on their own – until they were asked. Once they were motivated to display their knowledge, they pulled from what they had learned in the first 10 days.

This is latent learning in action.

Examples of Latent Learning In Everyday Life

Observational

Latent learning can be done in many ways. Let’s say you observe your parents time and time again as they tended to their garden. You’re never given this task, but years later find yourself joining a community garden. You pick up your gloves and start weeding and tending to the garden as your parents did.

woman and child watering plants

This is an example of both observational learning and latent learning. You observed someone else’s actions and retained the information even though you were never asked to display your knowledge of working in a garden.

But latent learning isn’t just observational.

Learning By Doing

Think about your commute to work. You pass a lot of exits, stores, and street names on your drive to and from work every day. If you need to one day go to one of those stores that you saw on your commute, you could probably know how to get there without using a map, right?

That’s also latent learning in action.

What if you have to take a detour on your commute? Maybe you pull from your knowledge of the town and find another way to get to work. You’re also applying latent learning here. Additional studies on rats show that when the fastest route to food is cut off in a maze, they can easily find an alternative route that still takes them to the food. Even if they have a “preferred” route, they learn the whole map through latent learning and know how to problem-solve when faced with obstacles.

Latent Learning in Infants

How early does latent learning start? Studies suggest it begins earlier than you might think. Babies as young as three months may retain memories before they have the ability to imitate them. At three months, researchers presented one group of 3-month-old participants with two puppets and performed a target behavior. The other group of 3-month-old participants was only exposed to one of the puppets.

One puppet was exposed to both groups multiple times for the next three months. Then, when the infants reached six months, researchers reintroduced the second puppet.

child watching finger puppets

The infants who had been exposed to the second puppet months earlier were more likely to imitate the target behavior of the second puppet. They remembered the connection between the first and second puppets, even though they could not imitate any behavior at that stage of development.

How Teachers Bring Latent Learning Into the Classroom

Great teachers understand that latent learning could be the best strategy for students who are struggling. If a teacher allows their student to play with material in their own ways, they might just learn more than what is being presented to them. On the science subreddit, two teachers share their experiences with latent learning.

  • “This is why I always give my students ‘fiddle time’ when introducing new software and workflows. About half of them figure out the basics of what they need to do by the time the lesson begins, and they’re proud of figuring out themselves, so they’re eager to help classmates who are still learning. Then I can focus on technique, advanced tools, and details when I do the lesson instead of reviewing the UI and essentials.”
  • “As a teacher, this has always been one of most important concepts I try to employ in the classroom.

    Exposure.

    For kids, everything can’t remain so simple and one-sided forever. Plus the world is connected now more than any time in history. We don’t have to throw everything in their face, but we need to at least give them a chance to see what all is out there. And it’s amazing sometimes, even though it can be rough seeing more of the world and its harsher realities.

    It’s easy for me as a language teacher since I can easily employ linguistic culturology any chance I want. But there’s a lot of beauty to be shared from all around the word in terms of math, science, history, and really just anything. One country, or one subject, or one class, or one culture doesn’t hold all the secrets.”

Get Learning!

Remember, latent learning is all done subconsciously. This means that you don’t know what you’re capable of! You may already have the skills and knowledge to complete tasks and accomplish things, even if you have never done them before. That means that you can’t force yourself into latent learning. If you want to learn something new, just go out and experience something that you’ve never experienced! Try a new hobby. Talk to a stranger. Read a book in a genre that is new to you. You never know what you’ll gain from it.

Now go out and discover what you have learned through latent learning!

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.