Learn what psychologists are talking about when they refer to latent learning. Discover an intriguing controversy in the field about whether reinforcement is necessary for an animal – or a person – to learn new things.
Introduction to Latent Learning
Imagine you’re a rat in a maze. It’s the same maze you’ve been in several times before today. You wander around, making your way down the various paths available. But something’s different. As you find your way to the end of the maze, there’s food! There’s never been food here before.
All right, now you’re motivated.The next time you enter the maze, you’re more efficient with finding your way to the end, avoiding the dead-ends with greater efficiency. As the days go by, you get better and better at finding the food as quickly as possible.What’s strange is that you are just as good at this process, if not better, than the rats who have been receiving food since their first day in the maze.
One would think you’d be behind in your learning and not as able to navigate the maze, since you didn’t have an initial reason to get good at it (i.e., the food). In the first few days of the experiment, there was nothing to send you searching for the end of the maze with the same urgency as a rat who knew he’d get a tasty treat when he finished.How could you, a rat who wasn’t given a food reward until a few days into the experiment, become so skilled at navigating the maze almost as soon as food was introduced?
Definition of Latent Learning
Some psychologists use the term latent learning to describe what has happened.
Latent learning is often described as the type of learning that does not immediately present itself, but can be called upon when useful. In other words, when a reward, or reinforcement, is involved, that latent learning becomes visible to us. You can remember this term by thinking of how the word ‘latent’ generally means ‘hidden’ or ‘underlying.’The theory holds that the rat has learned the maze through his wanderings, but we only see evidence of this underlying knowledge once he has drawn on that experience to get something he wants.
Example of Latent Learning
Let’s consider another example in which you’re actually human. Imagine that you’ve been learning about diabetes in your biology class during the last week of the school year. You know there won’t be a test since final exams are finished and you aren’t getting graded.
You don’t have much motivation to learn since you’re already thinking about summertime. When the teacher asks the class to respond to questions, you rarely raise your hand.Now imagine that you have a close family member who has just been diagnosed with diabetes. They’re worried about it and are trying to learn more about what’s going on in their body. You’re really motivated to help the person.
You offer to tell them what you’ve been learning in biology class. Unbelievably, you can spout off facts and information about the disease, knowing you’re helping your family member learn more for their benefit.What’s happened? Some may argue that a type of latent learning has occurred, where you have learned despite your lack of motivation or reward for doing so. Only when you had a reason to recall the information were you able to recount facts you previously did not think you knew very well.
This learning seemed to occur in the background and was not central to your focus in the classroom, but it was still there to use later.
Controversy with Latent Learning
But wait! Not all psychologists agree with how and why latent learning occurs. This is where the topic gets a bit juicier. We need to go back in time to understand why there’s such debate about the idea.The experiment described at the start of the lesson is similar to the results of research published in 1930 by American psychologists Edward C. Tolman and Charles H.
Honzik. Almost two decades later, Tolman would use a theory known as cognitive map, which is a mental framework for the space around oneself, to explain the rat’s behavior. He proposed that the animal creates a mental framework for the space prior to needing to use this information.In other words, the theory holds that as the rat explores the maze, even before food is introduced, he is learning information about the spatial arrangement of the maze environment. This is described as latent learning.
Since the rat doesn’t need to use this information to reach a particular goal yet, there’s no promise of food at this stage, it doesn’t demonstrate strong knowledge of this map. But once you introduce a reason to navigate quickly (bam!), the rat is off and running.However, psychologists have debated this concept of a cognitive map and the ability to learn without reinforcement. Some researchers believe there are other explanations for how the rat gets good at navigating a maze so quickly. They don’t necessarily believe that latent learning functions this way or is even an actual cognitive process going on behind the scenes.For years, psychologists created experiments to test whether learning could occur without the presence of reinforcement, or reward. The final result? Unclear, according to a 2006 article in the journal The Behavior Analyst by Robert Jensen.
Jensen argues that psychology textbooks tend to cite Tolman’s study as evidence that reinforcement is not needed for learning. However, he highlights how this debate has never been fully settled through scientific experimentation.So the question still remains: Is there such a thing as learning that has nothing to do with reinforcement and reward?
Latent learning is typically described as the type of learning that does not immediately present itself, but can be called upon when useful. This makes sense since ‘latent’ essentially means ‘hidden’ or ‘underlying.’ Experiments by Edward C. Tolman and Charles H.
Honzik in the 1930s explored the theory that a rat can and does learn prior to needing to use the information to achieve a goal. Years later, Tolman would perform other experiments that led him to hypothesize about a cognitive map, or a mental framework for the space around oneself. Other researchers, such as Robert Jensen in 2006, have questioned the idea that psychology has reached any conclusion about whether reinforcement is, or is not, necessary for learning to take place.