I'm not an English native speaker and I tend to use "latent" and "underlying" as if they were synonyms.

Are they actually synonyms, or is there a difference between them ?

For example, in a scientific context, what would be the difference between a "latent variable" and an "underlying variable", a "latent metric" and an "underlying metric" ...

1 Answer 1


Generally speaking, "underlying" means it's there, causing an effect on other variables, but you may not be able see it directly, while "latent" usually means that it is present in an inactive form and may become active at some point.

However, in the domain of statistical analysis it seems like the two words may be closer in meaning:

Latent variable - "... not directly observed but rather inferred ... from other variables that are observed"

This seems like my definition of "underlying", and this is borne out by this page which lists types of variables:


"Latent variable - An underlying variable that cannot be observed"

So, it seems that underlying variables can be visible or not visible, and if they're not visible then we can call them a "latent variable".

  • I agree. In Physics too, the latent heat of vaporization is the heat required to vaporise the liquid and that heat is hidden in the sense that it doesn't cause an increase in the temperature of the liquid. Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 9:13

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