Latent learning is a theory in psychology that describes learning without a reward. An organism learns a new concept simply from observation and without any obvious reinforcement. The organism may not be consciously aware of its new skill until it suddenly expresses that skill when it becomes useful at a later date. For instance, a person can casually observe other people using chopsticks to eat and discover much later that he or she can use them correctly without ever being taught.
A classic experiment in psychology illustrates how latent learning works. Edward C. Tolman and C.H. Honzik famously placed three groups of rats inside a maze, where the rats were allowed to wander around. One rat group always received a food reward when reaching the end of the maze, while the second group found no food at the end. The third group found no food at the end of the maze for ten days but discovered food on the 11th day.
The first group of rats learned to reach the end of the maze quickly to reach the food. The second group continued to wonder around the maze. The third group acted similarly to the second group until food was placed at the end of the maze on the last day. One day after food was placed, the third group had already learned to reach the end of the maze as quickly as the first group.
This experiment illustrates latent learning because it showed that reinforcement or a reward is not always necessary to learn. It is possible for a person — or a rat — to learn from the environment around him, without any specific incentive to do so. Once there is a reason to use that knowledge, it may be called upon and put into practice.
The latent learning theory stands in contrast to other learning theories in psychology. Proponents of the stimulus–response (S-R) association theory believed that an organism learns due to some stimulus in the environment which elicits a specific response from the organism. This viewpoint was directly influenced by Ivan Pavlov's classical conditioning theory. Pavlov famously discovered that dogs did not simply salivate to the presence of food, but eventually salivated to the sound of the bell indicating food is coming, or to the presence of the person who fed them.