We often observe new things in the real world without the goal of learning about them. But a new study from the Ohio State University found that exposure to new things increases the curiosity to learn more about them. The study offer evidence that adults learn from incidental exposure to something that they know nothing about and aren’t even trying to understand.
Exposure to new things triggers an impression in our mind that makes us ‘ready to learn.’
The study involved five separate experiments with 438 adults, all of which yielded comparable results.
Participants in the research initially went through an “exposure phase” in which they played a basic computer game while seeing vivid images of strange creatures. The game provided little information about the monsters, yet some players were unaware that the creatures were divided into Category A and Category B.
Category A and Category B creatures, like dogs and cats in the real world, possessed various body parts, such as different-colored tails and hands. Participants in the control group were shown photographs of other strange creatures.
Later in the experiment, the participants were instructed that the creatures were divided into two categories (named “flurps” and “jalets”) and that they needed to determine which type each creature belonged to.
Scientists then quantified the time taken by participants to learn the difference between Category A and Category B in this explicit learning phase.
Layla Unger, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Ohio State, said, “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.”
“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. Then when the explicit learning came, it was easier to attach a label to those distributions and form the categories.”
Another experiment involved playing a simple computer game that participants played in the exposure phase involved hearing sounds while seeing the images of the creatures. Participants hit a key whenever the same sound was played two times.
Vladimir Sloutsky, the co-author of the study, said, “The images were randomly attached to the sounds, so they could not help participants learn the sounds. The participants could completely ignore the images, and it would not affect how well they did.”
Nonetheless, individuals who were shown photographs of Category A and B creatures remembered the differences between them more quickly during the explicit learning phase than those who were shown images of unrelated creatures.
Sloutsky said, “It was pure exposure to the creatures that was helping them learn faster later on.”
But was it possible they had already learned the difference between Category A and B creatures during the early exposure without needing explicit learning?
Unger said, “The answer is no.”
In some of the studies, the simple computer game in the exposure phase involved first seeing a creature in the center of the screen. Participants were then asked to hit one key if the animal jumped to the left side of the screen and a different key if it jumped to the right as quickly as possible.
Participants were not informed that one type of creature always leaped to the left and the other to the right. They could reply faster if they understood the differences between the two creature types.
Participants did not answer faster, implying that they did not learn the difference between Category A and Category B creatures throughout the exposure phase of the study.
But they still learned the difference between them more quickly in the explicit learning part of the experiment than those participants who were exposed to images of other creatures during the earlier exposure phase.
Unger 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.”
Sloutsky said this is one of the few studies showing evidence of latent learning.
“It has been very difficult to diagnose when latent learning is occurring. But this research was able to differentiate between latent learning and what people learn during explicit teaching.”
- Layla Unger, Vladimir M. Sloutsky. Ready to Learn: Incidental Exposure Fosters Category Learning. DOI: 10.1177/09567976211061470