Homing Pigeon By Andreas Trepte (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Latent learning is a fascinating learning style that does not produce an immeditate response in organisms.  Another way to describe latent learning is learning without performing until there is motivation to do so (Latent Learning), which may seem like a confusing concept but is something that acutally occurs in our everyday lives.  At the time, it was well believed that to learn a form of reinforcement was needed as a form of motivation, but an experiment performed by Edward Tolman in 1930 showed otherwise.

Maze Learning in Rats by UCB Prof. Donald Riley

Tolman’s experiment used 3 groups of rats and one maze that remained the same throughout the trials that occured throughout 17 days.  The three groups of rats each ran the maze but were all “motivated” differently.  Group 1 (blue on graph) was rewarded each time they reached the end of the maze every day, group 2 (blue) was was not rewarded for reaching the end of the maze for the first 10 days but the final 7 days they were rewarded, and group 3 (red) was not rewarded for reaching the end on every day.  The average time needed to complete the maze for each group was recorded (left axis of graph below).  The results for the first 10 days showed group 1 steadily decreased the amount of time needed to complete the maze until the group plateaued around day 8.  Group 3 did decrease the amount of time needed to complete the maze steadily, but it wasn’t significant enough to show the rats were actually motivated to complete the maze.  Group 2, for the first 10 days, maintained a steady pace with group 3, but substantially decreased the amount of time needed to finish the maze on days 11 and 12 finishing even faster than group 1 (McLeod, 2013).

Spatial Learning in Rats by Saul McLeod

So what does this data tell us?  With group1 and group 3 the expected occured, the rats with motivation to finish the maze finished faster and the rats that were not given motivation didn’t drastically improve their time.  As expected with group 2, they didn’t show drastic improvement until motivated and improved once motivated, but the most important piece of data is how quickly they improved compared to group 1 rats.  Because of this, Tolman explained the drastic improments with a term he created called a cognitive map (Denis, D.J.).  At it’s core, a cognitive map is a mental representation of someone’s physical environment (Golledge, 1999).  Anytime you give directions without looking at a map, or when you drive somewhere you been to but weren’t the one driving, you’re using a cognitive map.  The rats in all trial groups formed cognitive maps which allowed for them all to finish the maze faster in some manner, and when motivation was introduced to the non motivated group they finished significantly faster.

From an evolutionary perspective, cognitive maps and latent learning are critical for many mammals, birds and even intvertebrates.  Homing pigeons are one of the best examples of birds that use cognitive maps, as they are taken to many “unknown” locations and manage to find their way back to where they started (Jacobs, 2003).  Other organisms that have been studied are goldfish, bees, and even octopus which all showed the ability to form cognitive maps in some way.  Cognitive maps are stored in the hippocampal, which was critical in the evolution of many animals, as hunting, migrating, and even finding a water source would be much more difficult without being able to remember how to get there and back to your territory.  I’d be very curious to see cognitive map testing done on non territorial organisms and even organisms which don’t use sight as a primary sense organ, such as snails which use chemoreceptors to detect their environment and use eyes as only light or dark detectors.  Latent learning is a very critical learning style and without it cognitive mapping wouldn’t be possible, who knows where we’d be then?  Well.. no one ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Tolman, E. C., and Honzik, C. H. (1930). Introduction and Removal of Reward and Maze Performance in Rats. University of California Press. Berkeley (Original paper, sited by McLeod and Latent learning: learning before doing)

McLeod, S. (1970, January 01). Tolman – Latent Learning. Retrieved March, 2018, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/tolman.html

Jacobs, L. F. (2003). The Evolution of the Cognitive Map. Brain, Behavior and Evolution, 62(2), 128-139. doi:10.1159/000072443

Denis, D. J. (n.d.). Classics in the History of Psychology. Retrieved March, 2018, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Tolman/Maps/maps.htm

Golledge, R. G. (1999). Wayfinding behavior: Cognitive mapping and other spatial processes.

Latent Learning: Learning Before Doing. (n.d.). Retrieved March, 2018, from https://oli.cmu.edu/jcourse/workbook/activity/page?context=df3e71c60a0001dc051db622d622b3f7

Riley, Donald, Berkley.edu. (n.d.). Learning. Retrieved from https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~jfkihlstrom/MemoryWeb/learning/images/MazeLearningTolman.JPG