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. Just because there is no cheese at the end of the maze doesn’t mean we aren’t figuring our way around.
This type of learning is called latent learning. In this video, I’ll talk a little bit about latent learning, how it works, and the studies that show it exists. 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 reinforcements. You aren’t consciously thinking about the consequences of what you are learning while you are learning it.
In fact, 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.
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 recruited three groups of rats for this study.
The first group of rats were 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 were placed in a maze for 17 days too, but they didn’t get any rewards for completing the maze.
The third group of rats were 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.
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.
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
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 like your parents did.
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 needed 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 were 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.
The infants who had been exposed to the second puppet months earlier were more likely to imitate the target behavior on the second puppet. They had remembered the connection between the first and second puppet, even though they could not imitate any behavior at that stage of development.
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. Now go out and discover what you have learned through latent learning!