What Is Latent Learning in Psychology?


Behaviorism is a school of psychology that measures learning through observable changes in behavior. Behaviorists originally defined learning of new non-reflexive behavior as limited to "operant conditioning." Operant conditioning describes the way in which reinforcement, in the form of punishment or reward, leads to the development of new, voluntary behaviors. Latent learning experiments, on the other hand, have disproved some of the basic assumptions of the early theories of operant conditioning.


  • Early behaviorists doing research in the first part of the 20th century, such as Clark Hull, O.H. Mowrer and Edward Thorndike, maintained that reinforcement in the form of punishment or reward was necessary for the learning of voluntary behaviors to occur. Later research would demonstrate that there are other ways to learn new behaviors, such as social learning (when people pick up patterns from each other's behavior). And an experiment conducted in 1930 by Edward C. Tolman and C.H. Honzik on latent learning provided some of the first evidence that reinforcement is not necessary for learning to occur.


  • In the experiment, Tolman and Honzik divided rats into three groups and exposed each group to 17 trials in a 14-choice point maze. The experimenters removed the rats from the first group when they reached the goal box. The second group was rewarded with food when they reached it. Finally, the third group began receiving rewards on the 11th trial. Tolman and Honzik then measured performance based on the number of errors each rat made. Fewer mistakes indicated a better performance.


  • By trial 12, the performance of the second group had rapidly improved and was even lower than that of the first group, around three errors. The researchers concluded that the Group 2 rats could not have learned that much in just one trial. Instead, they demonstrated that the second group of rats had been learning all along. More experiments conducted up to, and through, the 1950s confirmed this theory: learning a new voluntary behavior does not require reinforcement, though the performance of that behavior does require a reward system.


  • Latent learning often shows up in everyday life. Imagine you have watched your mom make macaroni and cheese every week for years. You have never done it yourself and no one has asked you to do so. Then, one day, when you are 13 and your mom is in a hurry, she tells you that if you make dinner, you can have a sleepover. Voila! You know how to make the macaroni and cheese and do so successfully. Positive reinforcement causes you to perform, for the first time, a behavior you had already learned.

Word Meaning

  • The word latent means "existing but previously unknown." Use this definition to remember that of latent learning. Latent learning is learning that has taken place but doesn't show up until later.


  • Learning and Behavior; James E. Mazur, Ph.D.; 2002
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