Latent Learning

Learning Objectives

  • Explain latent learning and cognitive maps

Although strict behaviorists such as Skinner and Watson refused to believe that cognition (such as thoughts and expectations) plays a role in learning, another behaviorist, Edward C. Tolman, had a different opinion. Tolman’s experiments with rats demonstrated that organisms can learn even if they do not receive immediate reinforcement (Tolman & Honzik, 1930; Tolman, Ritchie, & Kalish, 1946).

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. 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.

In the experiments, Tolman placed hungry rats in a maze with no reward for finding their way through it. He also studied a comparison group that was rewarded with food at the end of the maze. As the unreinforced rats explored the maze, they developed a cognitive map: a mental picture of the layout of the maze (Figure 1). After 10 sessions in the maze without reinforcement, food was placed in a goal box at the end of the maze. As soon as the rats became aware of the food, they were able to find their way through the maze quickly, just as quickly as the comparison group, which had been rewarded with food all along. This is known as latent learning: learning that occurs but is not observable in behavior until there is a reason to demonstrate it.

An illustration shows three rats in a maze, with a starting point and food at the end.

Figure 1. Psychologist Edward Tolman found that rats use cognitive maps to navigate through a maze. Have you ever worked your way through various levels on a video game? You learned when to turn left or right, move up or down. In that case you were relying on a cognitive map, just like the rats in a maze. (credit: modification of work by “FutUndBeidl”/Flickr)

Latent learning also occurs in humans. Children may learn by watching the actions of their parents but only demonstrate it at a later date, when the learned material is needed. For example, suppose that Ravi’s dad drives him to school every day. In this way, Ravi learns the route from his house to his school, but he’s never driven there himself, so he has not had a chance to demonstrate that he’s learned the way. One morning Ravi’s dad has to leave early for a meeting, so he can’t drive Ravi to school. Instead, Ravi follows the same route on his bike that his dad would have taken in the car. This demonstrates latent learning. Ravi had learned the route to school, but had no need to demonstrate this knowledge earlier.

Everyday Connection: This Place Is Like a Maze

Have you ever gotten lost in a building and couldn’t find your way back out? While that can be frustrating, you’re not alone. At one time or another we’ve all gotten lost in places like a museum, hospital, or university library. Whenever we go someplace new, we build a mental representation—or cognitive map—of the location, as Tolman’s rats built a cognitive map of their maze. However, some buildings are confusing because they include many areas that look alike or have short lines of sight. Because of this, it’s often difficult to predict what’s around a corner or decide whether to turn left or right to get out of a building. Psychologist Laura Carlson (2010) suggests that what we place in our cognitive map can impact our success in navigating through the environment. She suggests that paying attention to specific features upon entering a building, such as a picture on the wall, a fountain, a statue, or an escalator, adds information to our cognitive map that can be used later to help find our way out of the building.

Glossary

cognitive map: mental picture of the layout of the environment
latent learning: learning that occurs, but it may not be evident until there is a reason to demonstrate it

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