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What is a Latent Variable?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 21, 2024
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A latent variable is one that may not be specifically recorded, declared, or otherwise manifested. In statistical analysis, computer science, and other areas, latent variables represent items that, for one reason or another, are not concretely defined within the scope of a program. There are many different reasons why a variable would be considered a latent variable.

One type of latent variable is an item that is not specified because of practical considerations. These are often called ‘hidden variables’. A hidden variable may represent something that is seen as either redundant, or a constant that does not need to be observed.

Other kinds of latent variables include hypothetical variables that are tied to less concrete aspects of what is being studied. Latent variables are often defined as the opposite of ‘observable variables,’ which are those items that are being directly modeled in a program.

In many computer science languages, variables are something that programmers ‘declare’ for the purposes of making them observable or functional. In some cases, variables also need to be dimensioned, a process some call “dimming,” so that the program will recognize them when they are used. Latent variables can refer to other variables that are not declared or dimensioned, and therefore not used by a computer program.

In more general research, latent variables would be any kind of irrelevant or non measurable point that researchers feel is reasonable to leave out of their constructs. Some experts point to “unknowables” in socioeconomic research, such as general happiness or morale, either for the general public or for a specific group. In some fields, an excess of possible variable data makes latent variables a constant necessity.

Some researchers have developed a latent variable model, where observed or manifest variables are compared to patent variables. Different latent variable models have differing methods of distribution. In many of these studies, workers are trying to show a link between an underlying condition and an observed one, or to figure out whether a given condition affects an experimental induced condition represented by the manifest variable.

Although the mathematics of models involving these variable types can get pretty complicated, many scientific minds see the latent variable as a general designation for something that research treats as a ‘given,’ but may ultimately consider in order to get effective results. Some researchers or programmers may try to label these as ‘given’ variables, or they may just refer to them in a footnote. Either way, they can be an important part of what’s going on in a study.

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