What is Latent learning (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss the theory around Latent learning, Tolman, and Honzik’s experiment, what is a cognitive map, and examples of latent learning.

Latent learning

Latent learning is considered a form of learning that happens when there is no obvious reinforcement or association between a behavior and the consequences.

Moreover, it is not immediately displayed but only when the circumstances require you to display what you have learned. 

This type of learning differs from the classical and operant conditioning principles that are said to be responsible for most of the behaviors we learn.

However, we also learn through observation and thought, such as the case of latent learning.

“According to Albert Bandura, learning can occur by watching others and then modeling what they do or say. This is known as observational learning. There are specific steps in the process of modeling that must be followed if learning is to be successful. These steps include attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation (courses.lumenlearning.com).”

Many studies have shown how children learn through modeling, certain behaviors simply by observing their parents, siblings, and other people that they could come in contact with.

But can we learn even when there is no immediate reinforcement?

Behaviorists such as B.F Skinner and J. Watson may argue that it is not possible since they believed Psychology should only study observable behavior, but another behaviorist named Edward Tolman may have a different opinion about it.

Behaviorists defended the association between S-R for learning to happen but they were criticized by many theorists about the fact that they left internal processes such as cognition outside of the equation, which is one of the most controversial aspects.

However, it is a bit more complicated than that since Skinner’s work on behaviorism and cognition may have been misinterpreted or criticized to the point where researchers stated how Skinner seems to ignore cognition and its role in human behavior.

Tolman and Honzik’s experiments

Tolman and Honzik (1930), while studying trial-and-error learning, they placed three groups of food-deprived rats to navigate mazes.

The first group was always reinforced with food at the end of the maze, the second group was not reinforced and the third group had the same conditions as the second group for the first 10 days and on the 11th day, they started to get reinforced with food just like the first group.

The group with the rats that explored the maze without a reward or reinforcement seemed to develop a mental map or cognitive map of the maze.

After 10 sessions without reinforcement, food was finally placed at the end as a reward.

As soon as this group of rats was aware of the food, they decreased the amount of time that took for them to solve the maze and find it.

They even did it as quickly as the group of rats that were reinforced all along.

Subsequently, this is what is known by latent learning.

They noticed how the rats from the third group, on the day following finding food at the end, their average error rate decreased and they were faster from start to end compared to the averages obtained from the other groups of rats.

Therefore, we know how latent learning can also occur in humans where we are active learners.

As indicated by Saul McLeod from simplypsychology.org, “Tolman believed individuals do more than merely respond to stimuli; they act on beliefs, attitudes, changing conditions, and they strive toward goals. Tolman is virtually the only behaviorist who found the stimulus-response theory unacceptable because reinforcement was not necessary for learning to occur. He felt behavior was mainly cognitive.”

Cognitive maps

But, what is a cognitive map? you may be wondering.

Tolman believed, and in his own words, that while the rat was learning, “something like a field map of the environment gets established in the rat’s brain”.

Researchers have theorized the part of the brain involved in this process in the hippocampus.

Besides Tolman, other researchers have defined cognitive maps, such as O’keefe and Nadel (1978) or Bennett (1996), among others.

Definitions may change but they all seem to agree in the spatial representation of the environment and the coding of the information. 

Interestingly, as indicated by Jensen (2006), in a study that assessed introductory psychology textbooks in regards to the topic of latent learning found that  “Textbook authors typically relate the cognitive map explanation to the Tolman and Honzik (1930b) results. A look at introductory textbooks written by 10 different authors and published from 2000 to 2003 reveals that seven of those textbooks refer only to the Tolman and Honzik study when discussing the cognitive map. Yet the concept of the cognitive map actually did not surface until nearly two decades later (Tolman, 1948; Tolman, Ritchie, & Kalish, 1946).”

Latent learning applied to humans

As we have discussed, in most cases what we have learned is not displayed until we have the incentive and motive to do so.

You may have seen your partner make coffee every day and not until the day you found yourself having to make coffee on your own.

Another example could be solving a math problem.

You may have seen how your teacher did it on the board but it wasn’t until the day of the test that you had to use that knowledge to solve it.

Moreover, you could have learned the route from work, University, or even school simply by watching some of the shops, exits, and buildings. 

One day, you have to take the bus instead of going into the passenger’s seat of a friend’s car and you know which route and bus stop you need to get to work/university/school even though you have never done it before.

A child can see how their parents display proper manners, say thank you, or please but it is not evident until prompted to use them in a similar situation.

Another example could be a child watching certain dance routines on television from their favorite show but only demonstrates that they know the routine once asked by their mother or carer.

Moreover, you could have learned how to unclog a drain by watching your dad do so but did not actually do it until you had to unclog your own drain when you had to live on your own. 

Think about similar examples and you will see you will come up with plenty of them because even if we don’t recognize it at first, latent learning is very common.

Why is this blog about Latent learning important?

If you have been reading an introductory psychology textbook, you may have seen a chapter dedicated to learning where latent learning is included before talking about classical conditioning and operant conditioning, where it is indicated how latent learning doesn’t need reinforcement for learning to happen.

However, we need to be careful when interpreting this theory and comparing it with behavioral theories that seem to leave internal processes such as thinking, outside of the equation by reducing it to the association of S-R. Subsequently, it is important to be aware of the studies around latent learning and how the researchers demonstrated the importance of cognition in learning and how the behavioral theories seemed to be limiting or not really acknowledging it.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Latent learning

What is an example of latent learning in psychology?

An example of latent learning in psychology could be, learning the route you take to work every day through observation sitting on the passenger’s seat but it isn’t evident until it is necessary for you to drive on your own using that same route.

What does Tolman’s term of latent learning mean?

Tolman’s term of latent learning means or refers to the knowledge that is displayed only when a suitable motivation or occasion arises.

In other words, it only becomes clear and obvious when that person has an incentive to display it.

What is the difference between insight and latent learning?

The difference between insight and latent learning is, insight is our sudden understanding of the components of a problem making the solution obvious/apparent, and latent learning is the type of ñlearning that is not reinforced and is not displayed until there is motivation to do so.

Is latent learning operant conditioning?

Latent learning is not considered operant conditioning since the latter involves the association between a behavior and the consequences of that behavior, and latent learning is a form of non-associative learning where learning happens independently of a clearly defined consequence.

What are some examples of latent learning?

Some examples of latent learning could be:

– Watching your grandma bake those cookies you like as you have seen for a few years now.

Years later you decided to replicate the recipe exactly as she did even if you have never done it before.

– When you go to work every day, you take the same route and see the same stores.

If you need to go to one of those stores one day you would probably know how to get there without using a GPS or a map.  


Courses.lumenlearning.com: “Latent Learning”

McLeod, S. (2018) Tolman – Latent Learning. Retrieved from simplypsychology.org.

Cherry, K. (2020, May.) How Latent Learning Works According to Psychology. Retrieved from verywellmind.com.

Examples.yourdictionary.com: “Examples of Latent Learning”

Jensen R. (2006). Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks. The Behavior Analyst, 29(2), 187–209. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392130

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