Examples of Latent Learning

Updated May 11, 2021
latent learning definition mouse in maze
    latent learning definition mouse in maze
    Mike Kemp / Getty
    Used under Getty Images license

Have you ever learned something without realizing that you've learned it? That's called latent learning, which refers to the process in which learning takes place subconsciously without rewards or reinforcement. You can only tell that learning has occurred when animals or people demonstrate it. Take a look at additional latent learning examples in both the animal kingdom and the human world.

Understanding Latent Learning

Latent means "hidden," so latent learning essentially means "hidden learning." The latent learning psychology definition is that it's a type of observational learning that involves a person or animal learning a behavior but not demonstrating it until there is reason to do so. It's different than classical or operant conditioning, which are techniques that stimulate or reinforce specific behaviors with rewards. Latent learning has no immediate benefits but remains in a subject's mind until they need to demonstrate it.


Latent Learning Examples for Animals

Tolman's rat experiments are the most well-known example of latent learning in animals. However, you're likely to see animals demonstrating their latent learning every day. It's not the same as training an animal and then waiting for their behavior to change — the learning itself is non-reinforced, even if the performance is reinforced.

Some animal examples of latent learning include:

  • A dog in a new house takes time to explore every room and can later easily find its water dish in the kitchen.
  • A kitten observes its mother using the litter box and can later use the litter box itself when it needs to go.
  • A parrot quietly listens to its owner speak for weeks before demonstrating a perfect imitation of their voice for a treat.
  • A shark swims past a coral reef every day and later knows how to get there when food elsewhere is low.
  • A colony of ants explores a countertop for crumbs of food and later navigates the counter easily when a human spills syrup on the surface.
  • A dog breaks away from its owner on a leash but can find its way home by following their regular walking route.

Latent Learning Examples for Humans

So what is latent learning in the human world? Since humans are technically animals, it works very similarly. Humans learn how to do something by observing it and only demonstrate that knowledge when they need to.

Some examples of latent learning in humans include:

  • A student watches a lesson about adding double-digit numbers and can later demonstrate the knowledge during an important test.
  • A passenger in a carpool learns the route to work each day through observation, and when it's their turn to drive, they can get there without a map.
  • A child observes others using proper manners and demonstrates that knowledge when prompted to use the manners.
  • An employee listens to a colleague perform specific higher-level tasks and can later demonstrate the ability to do them when they are given a promotion.
  • A child watches their parents navigate the computer and can use one when given one as a gift.
  • A toddler watches their older sibling use the bathroom and can do so when they need to go to the bathroom, as well.
  • A college student is taught how to teach but is unable to demonstrate that knowledge until she receives a teaching job.
  • A new barista spends weeks watching others make coffee drinks very quickly, and when it's their turn, they can also make the drinks quickly.
  • A teenager watches their parent measure a car's tire pressure, and when their own tire pressure is low, the teenager can measure it without instruction.
  • A child learns how to dance by watching characters on television but only demonstrates that knowledge once asked by others.
  • A viewer watches cooking shows all the time and later automatically knows several cooking skills when making a complicated meal.
  • A child learns to sew by watching their mother and can easily sew when she loses a button on her own shirt.
  • A student learns to paint by watching others but does not do so until he must paint a picture for a grade in an art class.
  • A parent instructs their child on how to properly clean a bathroom, and when the child grows up, they use that knowledge to clean their bathroom.
  • A child watches others play soccer on the playground, and when they are asked to join, they can play quite well.

More About Latent Learning: Using Cognitive Maps

Think about the way you get from your house to the grocery store, or to the movie theater. No one taught you how to get there, and you don't receive a reward once you arrive, but somehow, you know how to do it. That's one form of a cognitive map — an internal model of the world around you — which you build as a result of latent learning. Animals use cognitive maps to find sources of food, water and shelter. We use them to guide us through our daily lives, as well.

Tolman's Rats

Edward C. Tolman developed the idea of latent learning and cognitive maps by placing three groups of rats in a maze every day for over two weeks. The groups were different in the following ways:

  • Group 1 received rewards every time they made it through the maze.
  • Group 2 received no rewards when they made it through the maze.
  • Group 3 received no rewards for making it through the maze until day 11.

Tolman found that while Group 1 very quickly learned how to navigate the maze as a result of operant conditioning, Groups 2 and 3 only wandered aimlessly throughout the maze. However, once Group 3 received rewards on day 11, they quickly navigated the maze. Tolman concluded that while the rats had been "wandering," they had really been creating cognitive maps of the maze. Once they knew there was reinforcement for completing the task, they demonstrated their latent learning of the maze by running it just as quickly as Group A, who had been receiving rewards all along.


Every Day Is a Learning Opportunity

Now that you know what latent learning is, you may see many of your daily behaviors in the same light! How many skills do you have that others only see when you demonstrate them? For more psychology help and insight, check out these examples of cognitive psychology and how it's used.