Latent inhibition, first described by psychologists Richard Lubow and Robert Moore in 1973, refers to the fact that prior exposure to a stimulus decreases its effectiveness as a stimulant.
Latent inhibition is a phenomenon that can impact how we learn and behave by affecting the processing of information. Repeated exposure causes habituation, making the brain less sensitive to the stimulus and can lead to eventual stimulus extinction.
For example, if one were repeatedly exposed to the smell of roses early in life, they would likely not be as stimulated when presented with it later.
This is because latent inhibition forms an unconscious association that lessens the need for conscious attention and processing power when presented with the same stimuli over time.
As a result, their response to it becomes more automatic and less conscious. So, latent inhibition can be considered a form of cognitive inefficiency whereby prior experience with a particular stimulus decreases awareness and responsiveness.
Definition of Latent Inhibition
Latent inhibition is a psychological phenomenon whereby the prior experience of a stimulus reduces its effectiveness as a motivator in subsequent encounters.
According to Byrom and colleagues (2018),
“latent inhibition (LI) is a startlingly simple effect in which preexposure of a stimulus without consequence retards subsequent responding to a stimulus–consequence relation” (p. 2102).
While analyzing schizophrenia in animals, Feifel and Shiling (2013) state that:
“latent inhibition refers to the reduced ability to learn the relevance of a stimulus that is paired with an aversive or positive condition through classic conditioning if there has been a previous exposure with the stimulus in a neutral context” (p. 728).
It can be described as a form of learning in which the repeated presentation of a stimulus, such as an odor or sound, causes it to become less effective at eliciting an observable response.
This occurs because stimuli presented multiple times lead to the formation of an unconscious association, which decreases the need for conscious attention and processing power when encountering the same stimuli again.
As such, this results in weakened responses and behavior becoming more automatic over time.
Simply, latent inhibition is a process whereby presenting a stimulus that has been experienced before leads to decreased attention and responsiveness.
10 Examples of Latent Inhibition
- Auditory habituation: A person is exposed to a continually ringing phone and, over time, becomes accustomed to it and stops being bothered by the sound.
- Desensitization to clowns: A child is repeatedly exposed to an image of a clown and gradually stops exhibiting fear when seeing one in the future.
- Language acquisition and forgetting: An individual learns a new language but quickly forgets the initial difficulty they had with understanding it over time due to repetition and exposure.
- Familiarity and boredom: A student regularly goes out for lunch at the same restaurant and ultimately no longer has the same level of excitement or anticipation when dining there again.
- Diminishing impact of repetition: A parent who constantly reads their child stories will eventually realize that the moral lessons are no longer as impactful as before and therefore stop making an effort to teach them those lessons through stories.
- Job monotony: An employee gets used to their job and no longer finds it stimulating once they have been doing it for some time without any change in tasks or reward system.
- Content fatigue: Someone who watches a particular show every week will stop paying attention as much to its content because of having seen it so many times before.
- Ad desensitization: A person keeps seeing ads for a product they don’t need until finally, they start tuning them out due to becoming desensitized.
- Routine train delays: A daily train rider eventually stops caring about whether their train is running late or not because they have become used to this happening without fail.
- Emotional exhaustion from repetition: After visiting the same museum exhibits multiple times, one can expect less of an emotional reaction than when first experiencing them due to already knowing what will transpire in each room.
Origins of Latent Inhibition
The origins of latent inhibition can be traced back to a study by Lubow and Moore in 1973.
The experiment involved two groups of rats, the first being exposed to a novel flavor of the food simultaneously with an auditory tone and the second being exposed only to the same flavor of food (Lubow, 1989).
After repeating this procedure over several days, it was found that when presented with the same flavor again, the rats who had also received exposure to an auditory tone demonstrated less interest in it than those who had not.
This led to the theory that prior exposure to a stimulus decreases motivation towards it due to unconscious associations forming between it and other related stimuli (Lubow, 1989).
Furthermore, subsequent experiments have demonstrated this phenomenon across different species, further validating its existence.
Theories of Latent Inhibition
According to Schmajuk (2002), when it comes to an understanding latent inhibition (LI), two main theories have emerged.
The first theory suggests that when a stimulus is pre-exposed, it disrupts the formation of associations between that stimulus and other stimuli during the memory storage process.
Essentially, this means that the pre-exposed stimulus becomes harder to associate with new information.
The second theory proposes that the pre-exposed stimulus makes retrieving previously formed associations during memory recall harder. So, it’s harder to remember the previous associations, making it more difficult to create new ones.
So, while one view suggests that LI is caused by a mechanism during memory storage, the other suggests that it’s caused by a mechanism during memory retrieval (Schmajuk, 2002).
Factors Affecting Latent Inhibition
Various factors can affect latent inhibition, including species of organism, age, level of experience, and environmental context.
For example, in terms of species of organisms, animals such as rats and pigeons have been found to exhibit greater levels of latent inhibition than humans and other primates (Lubow & Weiner, 2010).
This is likely due to the difference in complexity between these organisms, with the more complex primates having more ability to process experiences consciously and thereby potentially forming direct associations with each stimulus, which would reduce their level of latent inhibition.
In terms of age and experience, younger organisms tend to display lower levels of latent inhibition as they lack the experience needed to identify patterns in stimuli and form associations between them (Shalev et al., 1998).
Similarly, experienced organisms that have had a lot of exposure to a particular stimulus will often display higher levels of latent inhibition due to them being able to develop unconscious associations based on all their previous exposures.
Finally, environmental context can be important in shaping how an organism responds to a particular stimulus (Miller et al., 2015).
If the environment is particularly stressful or uncertain, it can lead to greater levels of latency inhibition as organisms become more focused on being alert for potential threats or opportunities rather than processing all incoming information equally.
Low Latent Inhibition
Low latent inhibition (LI) is a condition where individuals struggle to ignore extraneous stimuli, which can lead to various symptoms.
The most common symptom is difficulty concentrating and paying attention due to being overly focused on irrelevant information and easily distracted (Williams et al., 1998).
This can manifest itself in many ways, such as feeling anxious or overwhelmed when exposed to large amounts of external stimulation, struggling with multitasking, or having difficulty making decisions due to overanalyzing every possibility.
For example, someone with low LI may find it difficult to focus on a task for long periods and become easily distracted by things happening around them.
They may also have difficulty distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant stimuli and thus become easily overwhelmed by too much external stimulation.
In addition, those with low LI may also experience cognitive distortions, such as thoughts or beliefs based on personal fears or anxieties rather than reality (Byrom et al., 2018).
For instance, they may be overly pessimistic about their own capabilities or skills due to being influenced by external sources.
Finally, low LI can also lead to emotional disturbances since individuals have difficulty controlling their thoughts and emotions and thus often struggle with regulating their moods and behavior (Byrom et al., 2018).
This means they may be more prone to emotional outbursts or feelings of depression due to an inability to ignore certain stimuli that are triggering these emotions effectively.
Applications of Latent Inhibition Research
Latent inhibition research has many potential applications in many fields, including neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry.
In neuroscience, latent inhibition research can be used to gain further insights into how organisms process information and form associations with stimuli.
This could include providing new insights into how memories are formed as well as potentially revealing ways to ‘reset’ memories that have been formed due to traumatic experiences.
In psychology, latent inhibition research can help better explain how our unconscious minds influence our conscious choices and behaviors.
For example, understanding how people become less responsive to certain stimuli due to forming an association between them and another stimulus could help to explain why some people develop habits or addictions more easily than others.
Finally, latent inhibition research has implications for psychiatry as well.
By better understanding how certain stimuli become ingrained in an individual’s mind, it may be possible to understand better various mental disorders, such as schizophrenia which historically had been difficult to explain.
The field of latent inhibition research is growing quickly and offers the potential for new insights into the workings of the human mind.
Developed in 1973 by Lubow and Moore, this theory seeks to explain why we become less responsive to certain stimuli due to forming an association between them and another stimulus.
The concept has been utilized in various fields, such as neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry, and there is potential for more applications in the future.
By comprehending the mechanism of latent inhibition, we can enhance our understanding of various aspects related to our minds and behavior.
This includes the reason behind some individuals developing habits or addictions more rapidly than others or how particular mental conditions become apparent in specific individuals.
Byrom, N. C., Msetfi, R. M., & Murphy, R. A. (2018). Human latent inhibition: Problems with the stimulus exposure effect. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 25(6), 2102–2118. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-018-1455-4
Feifel, D., & Shilling, P. D. (2013). Modeling schizophrenia in animals. Elsevier EBooks, 727–755. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-415894-8.00030-0
Lubow, R. E. (1989). Latent inhibition and conditioned attention theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lubow, R., & Weiner, I. (2010). Latent inhibition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, R. R., Laborda, M. A., Polack, C. W., & Miguez, G. (2015). Comparing the context specificity of extinction and latent inhibition. Learning & Behavior, 43(4), 384–395. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-015-0186-x
Schmajuk, N. A. (2002). Theories of latent inhibition. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-0841-0_1
Shalev, U., Feldon, J., & Weiner, I. (1998). Gender- and age-dependent differences in latent inhibition following pre-weaning non-handling: Implications for a neurodevelopmental animal model of schizophrenia. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 16(3), 279–288. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0736-5748(98)00031-8
Williams, J. H., Wellman, N. A., Geaney, D. P., Cowen, P. J., Feldon, J., & Rawlins, J. N. (1998). Reduced latent inhibition in people with schizophrenia: An effect of psychosis or of its treatment. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science, 172, 243–249. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.172.3.243