Latent learning is a form of learning that is not immediately expressed in an overt response. It occurs without any obvious reinforcement of the behavior or associations that are learned. Interest in this type of learning arose largely because the phenomenon seemed to conflict with the widely held view that reinforcement was necessary for learning to occur. Latent learning is not readily apparent to the researcher because it is not shown behaviorally until there is sufficient motivation. This type of learning broke the constraints of behaviorism, which stated that processes must be directly observable, and that learning was the direct consequence of conditioning to stimuli.
Latent learning implies that learning can take place without any behavioral changes being immediately present. This means that learning can be completely cognitive and not instilled through behavioral modification alone. This cognitive emphasis on learning was important in the development of cognitive psychology.
Early Work with Latent Learning (Tolman, 1930)
Edward Tolman (1886-1959) (Figure 1) first documented this type of learning in a study on rats done in 1930. Tolman designed a study with three groups of rats placed in a maze. The first group received no reward for finishing, the second received a reward, and the third received no reward for the first 10 days, but did for the final eight. The first group consistently made errors in running the maze, and showed little improvement over the 18 day study. The second group showed constant improvement in the number of errors made. The third group showed little to no improvement over the first ten days, then dramatic improvement once a food reward was presented. The final group's improvement was more pronounced then the constant reward group.
Tolman theorized that the rats in the final group had been learning the maze over the first ten days but had no incentive to run the maze without any errors. Once a reward was presented, the learning that had remained latent became useful and the rats ran the maze more efficiently. Tolman argued that the rats had formed a "cognitive map" of the maze but did not demonstrate this knowledge until they received reinforcement.
Latent Learning in Humans
Most early studies of latent learning were done with rats, but later studies began to involve children. One such experiment required children to explore a series of objects to find a key. After finding the key, the children were asked to find "non-key" objects. The children found these objects faster if they had previously been exposed to them in the first part of the experiment. Their ability to learn this way increased as they became older (Stevenson, 1954).
Another experiment with infants explored latent learning at an early age. Three month old infants were exposed to two different hand puppets simultaneously. Then the infants were periodically presented with one of the puppets until they reached six months of age, at which point a target behavior was demonstrated on the first puppet. Finally, the infants were presented with the alternate puppet and performed the target behavior on that puppet at a higher rate than the control group who had not seen the two puppets paired. This suggests that the pre-exposed infants had formed an association between the puppets without obvious reinforcement. (Campanella & Rovee-Collier, 2005).