Can you learn about new things without even trying?

Is it possible to learn without trying? (Getty)
Is it possible to learn without trying? (Getty)

Can you learn about something just from having seen it – without sitting down to study?

The idea is called ‘latent learning’ and a new psychological experiment has suggested that it might be possible to ‘pick things up’ without really trying.

It turns out that simply being exposed to new things makes human beings ‘ready to learn’, says Vladimir Sloutsky, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

Sloutsky conducted experiments where people were shown images of fictional animals and then their ‘knowledge’ was measured later.

It’s similar to how children learn about commonplace objects such as dogs or chairs without any intent to learn about them.

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The new study shows that adults can ‘learn’ from incidental exposure to things, even if they are not trying to study or understand them.

Long before they enter a classroom, people learn to identify commonplace objects like a dog and a chair just by encountering them in everyday life, with no intent to learn about what they are.

A new study is one of the first to provide experimental evidence that adults learn from incidental exposure to things that they know nothing about and aren’t even trying to understand.

Exposure to new objects makes humans “ready to learn”, said

“We often observe new things out in the real world without a goal of learning about them,” Sloutsky said.

Sloutsky conducted the research with Layla Unger, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

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The study included five different experiments with 438 adults, with all experiments showing similar results.

In the studies, participants first took part in an “exposure phase” in which they played a simple computer game while seeing colorful images of unfamiliar creatures. The game did not provide any information about these creatures, but for some participants, unbeknownst to them, the creatures actually belonged to two categories – Category A and Category B.

Similar to real-world creatures such as dogs and cats, Category A and Category B creatures had body parts that looked somewhat different, such as different-colored tails and hands. Control group participants were shown images of other unfamiliar creatures.

Later in the experiment, the participants went through “explicit learning”, a process in which they were taught that the creatures belonged to two categories – called “flurps” and “jalets” – and to identify the category membership of each creature.

The researchers measured how long it took participants to learn the difference between Category A and Category B in this explicit learning phase.

“We found that learning was substantially faster for those who were exposed to the two categories of creatures earlier on than it was in the control group participants,” Unger said.

“Participants who received early exposure to Category A and B creatures could become familiar with their different distributions of characteristics, such as that creatures with blue tails tended to have brown hands, and creatures with orange tails tended to have green hands.

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“Then when the explicit learning came, it was easier to attach a label to those distributions and form the categories.”

In another experiment in the study, the simple computer game that participants played in the exposure phase involved hearing sounds while seeing the images of the creatures.

Participants simply hit a key whenever the same sound was played two times in a row.

“The images were randomly attached to the sounds, so they could not help participants learn the sounds,” Sloutsky said. “In fact, the participants could completely ignore the images and it would not affect how well they did.”

Participants who were shown the images of Category A and B creatures later learned the differences between them more quickly during the explicit learning phase than participants who were shown other unrelated images.

“It was pure exposure to the creatures that was helping them learn faster later on,” Sloutsky said.

“The exposure to the creatures left participants with some latent knowledge, but they weren’t ready to tell the difference between the two categories. They had not learned yet, but they were ready to learn,” Unger said.

Sloutsky said this is one of few studies that has shown evidence of latent learning.

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