Latent learning refers to learning that is only exhibited at a later date. For instance, a child might learn a new words, but not use it until a week later, thus surprising their parents with their knowledge.
It is a type of observational learning wherein the learner doesn’t have to actively participate in an obvious lesson for learning to occur.
But unlike most versions of observational learning (like vicarious learning, operant conditioning, and classical conditioning), there doesn’t seem to be clear observation of rewards and punishments that would motivate the behavior.
Rather, the learner (often a child) is acting like a sponge. They see behaviors and try them out at a later date without clear prompting or motivation.
Latent Learning Definition
De Houwer et al. (2013) offer the most succinct definition of latent learning:
“Latent learning refers to a change in behavior at time 2 that is produced by an experience at an earlier time 1”(De Houwer et al., 2013, p. 635)
The concept of latent learning was originally discovered by psychologist Blodgett in 1929 while conducting maze-running studies with rats.
Similar research was conducted by Tolman (1948), rats that had not received a reward for learning the maze showed sudden improvement once rewarded.
Tolman is often given credit for coining the term “latent learning” because he published similar results, but he gives the credit to Blodgett when describing his research:
“It appeared, in short, that during the non-rewarded trials these animals had been learning much more than they had exhibited. This learning, which did not manifest itself until after the food had been introduced, Blodgett called “latent learning”(Tolman, 1948, p. 194)
Latent Learning Examples
- Becoming our parents: A teenager observes their loving mother instructing him to clean his room. A few decades later, when he has a child of his own, he repeats those same instructions to his child.
- Stepping up in your role: One employee is a diligent but quiet worker for many years. Later, when promoted to a leadership position, all of a sudden, they display the same charisma they had observed from their previous supervisor.
- Turning on the charm: A high-school teenager isn’t much interested in history. Then, when trying to impress a girl, he is surprised at how much he knows about the Industrial Revolution and American Civil War.
- Listening in and absorbing the information: One day an acquaintance explains how his car repair company fixes body damage from hail. Several years later, a hail storm passes through town and the listener is able to fix the damage to his own car with no problem.
- Young people learning to swear: A third-grader hears a classmate use some foul language on the playground. A few weeks later, he utters those same words to his father at the dinner table.
- Somehow knowing the route to work: A member of a carpool rides along for weeks. When it’s their turn to drive they take the route as usual with no mistakes.
- Mimicking our parent’s social media practices: A child’s mom frequently uses her iPad to show cartoons. One day when the mother isn’t looking, the child turns the iPad on, finds their favorite cartoon, and presses play.
- Students who learn when we think they aren’t: A kindergarten teacher tries for days to teach a rambunctious boy how to read two CVC words, but he is constantly moving and looking elsewhere. The following week, he picks up the two flashcards, says the words, and then runs across the room.
- Somehow understanding how to cook: Although a mother’s son never tried to cook while growing up, once in college he seems to know how to prepare several simple meals.
- Talking parrots: A parrot seems to ignore its owner repeating the same phrase multiple times a day for weeks. Then, one day when the owner is not around, the parrot speaks and reproduces the words exactly.
Case Studies of Latent Learning
1. Rats Creating Cognitive Maps
One study that demonstrated latent learning was Blodgett and Tolman’s (1948) study of rats running through mazes.
The dominant theoretical perspective in psychology at the time were operant and classical conditioning from behaviorism theory. Both these approaches stipulate that learning can only occur as a result of a direct stimulus.
But in the Blodgett and Tolman studies, the rats demonstrated latent learning. The rats were placed in the maze before their reward/punishment study was to begin. In this preceding time, the rats learned the maze without experiencing any kind of reward for learning – they were just hanging out in there! So, how could that be explained?
Tolman theorized that the rats had created a “cognitive map” of the maze in their minds.
When a reward for running the maze successfully was finally introduced in the study, the rats instantly relied on that cognitive representation of the maze to reach their destination without the need for trial and error or exploration.
To quote Tolman in the 1948 paper,
“Once, however, they knew they were to get food, they demonstrated that during these preceding non-rewarded trials they had learned where many of the blinds were. They had been building up a ‘map,’ and could utilize the latter as soon as they were motivated to do so” (p. 195).
See Also: Learned Behaviors Examples
2. Infant Language Acquisition
Although infants are born with underdeveloped brains, they certainly begin to learn and associate meaning of stimuli in their surroundings within the first few months of life.
This is demonstrated by the facial expressions of joy they exhibit when seeing a loving caregiver or being presented with their favorite toy.
As the brain undergoes certain maturational processes, the range and complexity of understanding increases exponentially.
Early maturation of the language areas of the brain, neural pathways to the mouth, and development of associated motor tissue will allow the infant to babble.
Eventually, each infant will be able to pronounce those much-anticipated single-syllable utterances, “ma ma” and “pa pa.”
Scientists have determined that the language skills of infants are far more advanced than believed just a few decades ago.
For example, research by Dr. Patricia Kuhl has revealed that infants as early as 6 and 7 months old are able to discriminate among languages even though they cannot speak any of them.
Although infants can’t demonstrate learning a second language by speaking at this early age, it is clear that latent learning has occurred.
3. Socialization while Living Abroad
Living abroad can be a life-changing experience, especially if it takes place over a period of several years. Once immersed in an unfamiliar culture, people do begin to socialize. They begin to talk a little differently, develop different food preferences, and maybe even alter their perspective on the meaning of life. And then, they return home.
Being back home and surrounded by old friends and relatives can reveal some surprises.
Although the person returning may feel the same as when they left, their close significant others might notice several significant changes.
The person may no longer get upset as easily, or prefer to avoid the political discussion they used to crave. Their demeanor may change and their obsession with punctuality may have dampened.
But one thing is for sure, most likely, they may not have realized how much they have changed. Because the change process took place over so many years and were so gradual, it might not feel like much is different.
They do not realize they have changed, they may not have intended to change, but they did.
4. Latent Learning with Mere Exposure
Latent learning occurs without intent. That is, when individuals are going about their daily lives, they are not walking around studying everything they see with the goal of learning something. However, at a later point in time, they may in fact demonstrate that they did learn something.
In an interesting study demonstrating that latent learning occurs naturally and without intent, researchers at Ohio State University devised a clever experiment.
Over 400 participants played a computer game which also showed images of unfamiliar animals. No instructions regarding these creatures were presented and they were not integral to the game.
Later, participants took part in a learning task that involved identifying the category of various animals. Some of those animals were the ones presented incidentally in the game.
The results revealed that participants categorized animals they had previously seen incidentally much faster than those not previously seen.
“We often observe new things out in the real world without a goal of learning about them. But we found that simply being exposed to them makes an impression in our mind and leads us to be ready to learn about them later.”
5. Latent Learning and Formal Assessment
Formal assessment refers to the methods teachers apply to evaluate student learning. Because student performance results in a grade, it is termed “formal assessment.” Unfortunately, not all students are able to demonstrate their learning in ways that match a teacher’s assessment strategy.
For example, a student may have a thorough grasp of a subject’s key concepts and related facts, but perhaps lack the necessary writing skills to express that knowledge.
If the formal assessment involves writing a term paper or responding to essay prompts on an exam, that student’s performance will not be an accurate reflection of their knowledge.
The student has learned the targeted knowledge at time 1, but the assessment procedure doesn’t allow it to be demonstrated at time 2.
Therefore, some progressive teachers offer students different assessment options. The student that doesn’t write well, might be very skilled with graphics. They would be able to express their knowledge fully by creating an infographic.
The infographic allows for the student to demonstrate latent learning.
Latent learning occurs without conscious intent. A person or animal may learn something passively and not even be aware of its effect.
However, at some point in time later, the results of latent learning will surface. This could be in the form of a rat running through a maze with surprising speed never before exhibited.
Amazingly, infants that cannot utter a single word in their native language, somehow develop the ability to detect the sounds of a foreign language.
Students may be given an opportunity to demonstrate what they learned if the teacher just provides an assessment option suitable to their learning style.
Or, latent learning could emerge in the form of the personality changes a person goes through after living in a foreign country vastly different from where they were raised.
Blodgett, H. C. (1929). The effect of the introduction of reward upon the maze performance of rats. University of California Publications in Psychology, 4, 113–134.
De Houwer, J., Barnes-Holmes, D. & Moors, A. (2013). What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20, 631–642. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-013-0386-3
Tolman, E. C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review, 55(4), 189–208. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0061626
Unger, L., & Sloutsky, V. M. (2022). Ready to learn: Incidental exposure fosters category learning. Psychological Science, 33(6), 999–1019. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211061470
Giles, Amy & Rovee-Collier, Carolyn. (2011). Infant long-term memory for associations formed during mere exposure. Infant Behavior & Development, 34, 327-38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2011.02.004