Latent learning

Latent (hidden) training – the formation of certain skills in situations where their direct application is not necessary and they are not required. Interest to him arose largely due to the fact that this phenomenon contradicted the widely held opinion that for education a stimulus (reinforcement) is necessary.

Imagine that you learned about a disease, for example, pneumonia. After you have never used this information and it seems that you have completely forgotten everything. But suppose that one of your friends diagnosed pneumonia with pneumonia. With a very high probability, after receiving such an incentive / reinforcement, you will remember much of what you learned about it before.

This is what is called latent learning. You learned about the disease without any motivation and stimulus for remembering. But when it came time to apply knowledge, you could do it. The trick is that a person can unconsciously absorb some information, and in cases when it is necessary, remember it. With surprise to myself.

But this does not mean that you can learn English in a dream by including an audiobook.

Here are other examples of latent learning:

  • A student does not know math very well, although he goes for all pairs. When there is a moment to apply knowledge in practice, it turns out that he absorbed information well unconsciously.
  • The employee learns to perform tasks of a higher level, but does not demonstrate his skills until he is offered a promotion.
  • A parrot learns to talk, but does not do it until he receives food as a reward.
  • A shipwrecked man swims to an uninhabited island. Suddenly it turns out that he knows the basic principles of survival in the wilderness, although he watched the broadcasts about this in his distant childhood and, it would seem, had already forgotten.

The Edward Tolman experiment

Tolman at one time was the only psychologist who did not accept the stimulus-response theory. He believed that reinforcements are not always required for training. It was he who introduced the term cognitive map.

A cognitive map is a type of mental reproduction that serves a person to acquire, encode, store and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their daily or metaphoric spatial environment.

Each person has thousands of cognitive cards, which he does not even suspect. In simple words, when you are studying something, the imagination seems to take a snapshot of the information received. And then, when you study further, this cognitive map is superimposed on new data, without causing cognitive overload. That is, you do not need to apply any mental effort to remember it: it appears as if by itself at the right time in the right place.

Tolman built a labyrinth for an experiment that was supposed to confirm the existence of latent learning. He also wanted to prove that the stimulus / reinforcement is not at all necessary for the person to learn something.


  • The scientist divided the laboratory rats into three groups.
  • Each group was trained to pass a labyrinth.
  • The first group received a reward each time a labyrinth passed.
  • The second group was rewarded not immediately, but after a while.
  • The third group did not receive a reward at all.


The second group, receiving a deferred reward, was the purpose of the experiment.

Tolman: “We stopped giving the award to the second group and it completely lost its motivation, ceasing to pass the labyrinth. But when we returned the award, the cognitive cards reentered the game and the rats “remembered” how to reach the end of the maze. ”

A reasonable question arises: “How can one prove that latent learning takes place?”. For this Tolman blocked the normal route, so that the rats had to look for a new way.

He suggested that they made a mental representation or cognitive map of the labyrinth during the first half of the experiment and demonstrated this knowledge as soon as they were rewarded.

The rats found the shortest path, reached the other end of the labyrinth and received their reward. But for this, they studied the labyrinth even without reinforcement.

Let’s consider an example with a human. Suppose you go home on the same route every day. Remember the names and location of various cafes and shops, even without making conscious attempts. This information may remain unused for many years. But someday, when you need to get to a certain cafe “X” on the street “Y”, you can easily find this place using the information you have acquired over the years. The cognitive map easily comes from the storage of memory and “lays down” on current knowledge.

The results of the experiment also showed that training can occur without any motivation for rewards, often by accident. What conclusions can we draw from this? Form your environment in such a way as to be trained subconsciously. The brain notices hundreds of signals per second, and attention can focus only on one of them. All this information remains in memory and, perhaps, for a long time.

Another conclusion: stop doing things that will not bring any benefit. Instead, absorb the information you need, even unconsciously. Sooner or later you will show your knowledge to the fullest.