Latent learning is a form of learning that is not immediately expressed in an overt response; it occurs without any obvious reinforcement of the behavior or associations that are learned.
Interest in latent learning arose largely because the phenomenon seemed to conflict with the widely held view that reinforcement was necessary for learning to occur.
In a classic study by Edward C. Tolman, three groups of rats were placed in mazes and their behavior observed each day for more than two weeks. The rats in Group 1 always found food at the end of the maze; the rats in Group 2 never found food; and the rats in Group 3 found no food for 10 days, but then received food on the eleventh. The Group 1 rats quickly learned to rush to the end of the maze; Group 2 rats wandered in the maze but did not preferentially go to the end. Group 3 acted the same as the Group 2 rats until food was introduced on Day 11; then they quickly learned to run to the end of the maze and did as well as the Group 1 rats by the next day. This showed that the Group 3 rats had learned about the organisation of the maze, but without the reinforcement of food. Until this study, it was largely believed that reinforcement was necessary for animals to learn such tasks. Other experiments showed that latent learning can happen in shorter durations of time, e.g. 3–7 days.Among other early studies, it was also found that animals allowed to explore the maze and then detained for one minute in the empty goal box learned the maze much more rapidly than groups not given such goal orientation