Latent learning happens when the brain acquires knowledge at a certain date or time, without reinforcement, but does not use it until a later time when that knowledge is needed.  An example of this could be:  your friend drives you to the mall every time you go.  Then, on one trip to the mall you drive yourself without getting lost.  This is an example of latent learning.  You learned the route to the mall without reinforcement. 

Latent learning has been described as the association of different situations or stimuli that often occur without reward.  For instance, as a child you may observe your father using a screwdriver to fix a loose screw on the table leg.  However, you don't use this skill until later in life.  This is also an example of latent learning because you actually learned to use the screwdriver while your brain was stimulated from observing your father and you did not receive any type of reward from merely watching.

Edward Tolman, a behaviorist, conducted an experiment with rats in 1938.  He placed three groups of rats in a maze and observed how they behaved over a two week period.  Group 1 always received a food reward when they reached the end of the maze in a timely manner and would not go down to the dead end portions of the maze.  The rats in Group 2 never received a food reward and seemed like they followed no particular path, as if they were just wandering around.  The rats in Group 3, however, were a very interesting group.  For the first ten days of the experiment, they seemed to wander around like the rats in Group 2 and found no food.  However, on the eleventh day, Tolman placed food in the maze and it appeared that they had learned to go to the end of the maze without any reinforcement but never desired to.  On the twelfth day, the rats from Group 3 were doing as well as the rats from Group 1, which had been rewarded with food from the very beginning of the test.  It appears that the rats from Group 3 used latent learning since they did not immediately display the same performance as the rats in Group 1.

Latent learning not only happens without an obvious reinforcer; it also questions about what is learned during the latent learning period.  In Tolman's experiment with the rats, Group 3 did not receive any food until Day 11.  They seemed to display characteristics showing that they had acquired a "mental image of the maze", that they had been learning during the first ten days, but without reward had no reason to act on what they had learned.  Once they began to find food, they went through the maze rather quickly.

The knowledge acquired with latent learning does not provoke a specific response.  However, it does provoke knowledge about the consequences of a certain response.  They learned how the maze was organized, which path would lead to a dead end, and which path lead to food.  Such knowledge allows us to be flexible and creative in attaining our goals.

In another experiment, Tolman set out to prove that an animal acquires a mental relation between a response and a subsequent reinforcer. He called this response cognitions.

To prove this fact, Tolman provided evidence of latent learning in rats. In the first part of his experiment, rats were placed in a T shaped maze which taught them that if they turn left it will lead to box 1 and a right turn leads to box 2. Both boxes contained identical amounts of food, each box had its own unique shape.

In the second part of the experiment, the two boxes were removed from the maze, and the when the rats were placed in box 2 they received a shock.

For the third part, both boxes were placed back into their original positions in the maze, and the rats were placed in the original situation. The rats were able to use latent learning from  parts 1 and 2 of the experiment. Because the rats had learned that box 2 shocked them, they instead turned in the direction of box 1. This shows that Tolman's experiment provides an argument against the claim that instrumental learning involves simply the strengthening or weakening of particular response tendencies.

Other examples of latent learning include:

  • Learning song lyrics without realizing it.
  • We learn the answers to trivia questions through latent learning.


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