Latent Learning in Psychology and How It Works

Latent learning is a type of learning which is not apparent in the learner’s behavior at the time of learning, but which manifests later when a suitable motivation and circumstances appear. This shows that learning can occur without any reinforcement of a behavior. .

The idea of latent learning was not original to Tolman, but he developed it further. Edward Tolman argued that humans engage in this type of learning everyday as we drive or walk the same route daily and learn the locations of various buildings and objects.
Only when we need to find a building or object does learning become obvious

Tolman conducted experiments with rats and mazes to examine the role that reinforcement plays in the way that rats learn their way through complex mazes.
These experiments eventually led to the theory of latent learning

Cognitive maps as an example of latent learning in rats

Tolman coined the term cognitive map, which is an internal representation (or image) of an external environmental feature or landmark. He thought that individuals acquire large numbers of cues (i.e. signals) from the environment and could use these to build a mental image of an environment (i.e. a cognitive map).

By using this internal representation of physical space they could get to the goal by knowing where it is in a complex of environmental features. Shortcuts and changeable routes are possible with this model.

In their famous experiments Tolman and Honzik (1930) built a maze to investigate latent learning in rats. The study also shows that rats actively process information rather than operating on a stimulus response relationship.

cognitive map


To demonstrate that rats could make navigational decisions based on knowledge of the environment, rather than their directional choices simply being dictated by the effects of rewards.


In their study 3 groups of rats had to find their way around a complex maze. At the end of the maze, there was a food box. Some groups of rats got to eat the food, some did not, and for some rats the food was only available after 10 days.

Group 1: Rewarded

  • Day 1 – 17: Every time they got to end, given food (i.e. reinforced).

Group 2: Delayed Reward

  • Day 1 – 10: Every time they got to end, taken out.
  • Day 11 -17: Every time they got to end, given food (i.e. reinforced).

Group 3: No reward

  • Day 1 – 17: Every time they got to end, taken out.


The delayed reward group learned the route on days 1 to 10 and formed a cognitive map of the maze. They took longer to reach the end of the maze because there was no motivation for them to perform.

From day 11 onwards they had the motivation to perform (i.e. food) and reached the end before the reward group.

graph showing Tolman

This shows that between stimulus (the maze) and response (reaching the end of the maze) a mediational process was occurring the rats were actively processing information in their brains by mentally using their cognitive map (which they had latently learned).

Critical Evaluation

The behaviorists stated that psychology should study actual observable behavior, and that nothing happens between stimulus and response (i.e. no cognitive processes take place).

Edward Tolman (1948) challenged these assumptions by proposing that people and animals are active information processes and not passive learners as Behaviorism had suggested. Tolman developed a cognitive view of learning that has become popular in modern psychology.

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 behaviorists who found the stimulus-response theory unacceptable, because reinforcement was not necessary for learning to occur. He felt behavior was mainly cognitive.


Tolman, E. C., & Honzik, C. H. (1930). Introduction and removal of reward, and maze performance in rats. University of California Publications in Psychology.

Tolman, E. C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological review, 55(4), 189.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.