Explanation of Latent Learning With Examples

Explanation of Latent Learning With Examples
Latent learning means learning without a reward, but demonstrating with one. This PsycholoGenie article provides you with a detailed explanation of latent learning with examples.
PsycholoGenie Staff
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Did You Know?
Experiments are being conducted to study the neural process in latent learning. Some experiments have shown that certain chemicals disrupt the process of latent learning in animals.

Latent learning is a term in psychology. Camouflaged in the simplest of words, it can be defined as a kind of learning that does not demonstrate itself unless the need arises; or rather, until an incentive is present. Which means that the 'learning' is 'latent' until it needs to show up.
The concept has found worldwide acceptance and has gained lots of prominence as it was exhibited in various research studies. The paragraphs below will tell you about the process of latent learning with supporting instances.
  • The latent learning psychology is said to have been first discovered by Edward C. Tolman. He proved this theory using the mice-in-the-maze' experiment.
  • Apparently, Tolman divided the mice into 3 groups.
  • Group 1 was rewarded every time they reached the end of the maze.
  • Group 2 was initially taken out when they reached the end. Later, they were rewarded.
  • Group 3 received no rewards. Every time they reached the end, they were taken out.
  • Through this study, Tolman concluded that while initially, group 2 took longer to reach the end of the maze, later, they reached quickly, since a reward was lying in wait.
  • This shows that the mice formed a cognitive map of the maze in their brains, and even though they processed it well, they exhibited the speed only after they discovered a motivation.
  • Thus, Tolman proved that a learning process occurs between the stimulus and response, but is exhibited only with a reinforcement.

The Latent Learning Theory
  • Prior to the advent of this concept, behavioral experts were of the consensus that learning occurs only if an incentive is present, i.e., only if a reinforcement is introduced.
  • However, Tolman proved that this theory was incorrect, and that learning takes place without a reinforcement.
  • Do not get this wrong; pay particular attention here - the learning does take place, however, it will not manifest itself immediately. It will show up only when the need arises or when a reinforcement occurs.
  • This means that even the person/animal may not be aware of this learning until he is forced to use it, or he knows that he will get an incentive on exhibiting this knowledge.
  • Thus, the long-standing illusion that a reinforcement is always necessary to stimulate learning was proved false.


Example I
  • Let us consider latent learning in dogs.
  • Have you tried training a dog to sit, or stand, or shake paws, etc.? You would notice that during the training, trainers initially use a treat to lure the dog into learning. Perhaps, this is what threw behaviorists off course.
  • However, try training him without the treat. He would resist at first. You would probably cajole or shout at him.
  • One fine day, you would notice that if you have placed a bone at his kennel entrance and are determined to allow entry only if he shakes paws, he would do it. Now, how did that happen? The answer is latent learning.
  • He probably learned how to shake paws in the second day of training itself. But for him to demonstrate it, you had to use a bone.

Example II
  • Consider some examples in everyday life. Let's say, you have dinner with your fork and spoon while your father has it with chopsticks.
  • You observe him everyday but do not use the chopsticks. Your father is probably of the assumption that you can never use a pair.
  • But, if your cutlery suddenly gets soiled or breaks, you would be forced to use chopsticks, probably surprising your father.
  • Thus, your learning has taken place, without a reinforcement, but has been latent until the need arose to use it.

Example III
  • Just like a dog, try training a parrot.
  • You can teach him to say a few words everyday.
  • Most of the people use the tactic of giving him fruit or chillies and then training him to speak. Some do it without giving him anything.
  • After a few days, when you would want him to demonstrate whatever words he has learned, he will not do so immediately.
  • Do not think that your giving him a treat has been the reason for his learning; fact is, he already knows the words taught to him, but he will say them enthusiastically only when you offer him a treat.
Example IV
  • Take an example of a child being asked to dance.
  • He/She may learn to dance by observing fictional characters on television.
  • He/She may even dance alone in the confines of his/her room.
  • But, the child may not exhibit this newly-learned art form unless asked to or unless there is a need to do so.
  • You must have often noticed how parents request their kids to exhibit their talent in exchange of a treat or something similar. This is an example of latent learning.
Example V
  • In an organization, as a junior employee, you will perform whatever tasks are delegated to you.
  • As time progresses, you will learn to handle other responsibilities too, which may not be a part of your job profile.
  • You may, over time, be adept at handling your senior's responsibilities.
  • Perhaps one day, if your senior is ill or has abruptly resigned, you may step into his shoes for a few days and carry out the same duties efficiently.
  • Thus, even though you knew all the jobs, you did not demonstrate them officially until the need arose.
  • It might also be possible that in such a case, you will not perform the jobs unless you are paid an incentive or given a promotion.

Latent learning is a fascinating concept and has been studied by many psychology experts. Most of them have conducted studies and have come to record the same observations as earlier, "Reinforcement unnecessary to learn, necessary to exhibit". These observations have suggested that we learn as we go, and not just because we are going to be rewarded. We learn even without the motivation.
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