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Edward C. Tolman

Edward Chance Tolman was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to the studies of learning and motivation. Considered a cognitive behaviorist today, he developed his own behaviorism when the likes of Watson were dominating the field (Kimble et al, 1991). Tolman was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1886. He remained there as he grew up and was educated in the Newton Public Schools. He lived in a family of "upper middle" socioeconomic status and had a father who was the president of a manufacturing company. His brother, Richard, was five years older than he was and both he and Richard were expected to go into the family business.


He and his brother decided to seek academic careers, against their family's wishes. Both went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Richard pursued a career in academics, ultimately becoming a world-renowned theoretical chemist and physicist, and Edward initially sought a bachelor's degree in electrochemistry. Tolman changed the course of his career during his senior year after reading the works of William James. He decided to become a philosopher. After graduation in 1911, he attended summer school and took a course in philosophy and psychology. He concluded that he wasn't quite smart enough for philosophy and that psychology was more to his liking.

That coming fall, Tolman enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School as a philosophy and psychology graduate student. At that time, the disciplines were a combined department. A course in ethics, taught by Ralph Barton Perry, as well as readings of McDougall, eventually led to his interest in motivation. After his first year as a graduate student, he went to Giessen in Germany to study for his PhD examination in German (at that time all PhD examinations were conducted in French, German, or Russian). It was in Germany where he was introduced to Gestalt psychology through the teachings and readings of Koffka (Kimble et al, 1991).

Upon returning to Harvard from his summer in Germany, Tolman studied in the laboratory under Hugo Munsterberg and Langfeld researching nonsense syllable learning. His PhD dissertation was a study of retroactive inhibition (Hilgard, 1987). He received his doctorate in 1915. He later returned to Giessen to learn more about Gestalt psychology during the fall of 1923. Tolman became an instructor at Northwestern University and taught for three years after receiving his doctoral degree. He described himself as being self-conscious, inarticulate, and fearful of his classes. His pacifist views led him to lose his job when, during World War I, he was called to the Dean for anti-war statements reported in a pacifist student publication (Kimble et al, 1991).

Tolman went on to become an instructor at the University of California in Berkeley in the fall of 1918 where he remained for the rest of his life. Similar to his stand for academic freedom shown at Northwestern University, his passion for the pursuit of truth led to his refusal to sign the California loyalty oath. During the "Year of the Oath" (1949-50), the university attempted to impose loyalty oaths on their faculty, in compliance with state law. He advised his peers to sign and to leave the contest up to those like him, who were able to afford it. This act of courage gave him tremendous recognition. He credited his wisdom in psychology to his years at Berkeley and his happy marriage (Kimble et al, 1991)



Edward Tolman made several significant contributions to the field of psychology. It was at Berkeley where he created a cognitive theory of learning, which became his trademark to the field. He thought of learning as developing from bits of knowledge and cognitions about the environment and how the organism relates to it. This was in contrast to the theories of Thorndike and Hull who thought of learning as a strict stimulus-response connection. (Kimble et al, 1991).

To study learning, Tolman conducted several classical rat experiments. One of his most well known studies involved maze running. He examined the role that reinforcement plays in the way that rats learn their way through complex mazes. These experiments eventually led to the theory of latent learning which describes learning that occurs in the absence of an obvious reward (Barker, 1997).

Hugh Blodgett conducted the first experiment using the paradigm of learning without reward in 1929. Three groups of rats were trained to run a maze. The control group, Group 1, was fed upon reaching the goal. The first experimental group, Group 2, was not rewarded for the first six days of training, but found food in the goal on day seven and everyday thereafter. The second experimental group, Group 3, was not rewarded for the first two days, but found food in the goal on day three and everyday thereafter. Both of the experimental groups demonstrated fewer errors when running the maze the day after the transition from no reward to reward conditions. The marked performance continued throughout the rest of the experiment. This suggested that the rats had learned during the initial trials of no reward and were able to use a "cognitive map" of the maze when the rewards were introduced.

The initial learning that occurred during the no reward trials was what Tolman referred to as latent learning. He argued that humans engage in this type of learning everyday as we drive or walk the same route daily and learn the locations of various buildings and objects. Only when we need to find a building or object does learning become obvious. Controversy developed from Tolman's theory of latent learning, but several investigators demonstrated that rats do learn in the absence of rewards (Hothersall, 1995).

Tolman identified himself as a behaviorist and eschewed the type of introspection that was practiced by Wundt and Titchener. However, he was also opposed to the behaviorism of Watson. He was known for initiating his own kind of behaviorism which he referred to as "purposive behaviorism (Kimble et al, 1991)." His idea of purposive, or molar, behaviorism, as illustrated in his book Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men (1932), sought to demonstrate that insight (the cognitive control of learning) was not restricted to the evolutionary capabilities of the apes (Hilgard, 1987). He strongly advocated to theorizing at the molar level, which was demonstrated by several studies showing that rats learn the place where they have been rewarded rather than the particular movements required to get there (a demonstration of place learning). These studies also supported Tolman's stance that learning did not involve the strengthening of connections between stimulus and response, or conditioned learning (Kimble et al, 1991).

In one of Tolman's experiments used to illustrate purposive behavior in rats, Tolman used the apparatus shown in Figure 1.

Fig. 1

A was the starting box and B was the goal. A hungry rat learned to run to B very quickly and without hesitation. Tolman wondered what was learned when this occurred. One explanation was that the rat had learned the response "turning right" which led to food. However, Tolman preferred the explanation that the rat had developed a cognitive map of the maze and where the place of the reward was located. Those who followed Tolman, known as "Tolmaniacs", developed a test to determine the right answer. Once a rat had learned how to run from A to B, it was started at C. The stimulus-response explanation predicted that the rat would turn right and reach D. The cognitive map explanation predicted that the rat would reach the reward in B. The test demonstrated that most of the rats reached B, thereby leading Tolman to conclude that a cognitive map was most likely developed by rats in maze running (Hothersall, 1995).

Tolman is best remembered for being a pioneer in cognitive psychology during a time when behaviorists dominated the field. He is classified as a cognitive behaviorist today and the originator of the cognitive theory. His idea of cognitive maps is one of his theories that is still used today. Cognitive maps were the precursor to concepts of spatial memory and spatial thinking. He extended most of his contributions to the credit of others including his students, his teachers at Harvard, and Kurt Lewin.

Kimble et. al. (1991) states that Tolman also conjured up theories of behavior and motivation. He felt that a motive drives an organism's behavior until some internal state is rectified and until that happens, the organism continues to behave. He also believed, like most psychologists at that time, that behavior could be generalized across species and explained by the behavior of the rat. Those who admired Edward Tolman most considered him a sane and sensible man. He was not an imperialist and never believed that one view was all encompassing. He was broad-minded and was always willing to change his views and revise his ideas should new evidence arise. He never believed that psychology should be set in its ways and theories; it is ever-changing and should always remain that way.

Time Line of Tolman's Life

1886 Born in Newton, Massachusetts
1911 Earned Bachelor's Degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in electrochemistry
1911 Enrolled in Harvard Graduate School as a philosophy and psychology student
1912 Went to Giessen in Germany to study for his PhD examination; was introduced to Gestalt psychology
1912 Studied nonsense syllable learning under Hugo Munsterberg and Langfeld
1915 Earned Doctorate from Harvard after his dissertation studying retroactive inhibition
1915 Began teaching at Northwestern University
1918 Dismissed from Northwestern for a pacifist contribution to a student publication
1918 Began teaching at University of California Berkeley
1923 Returned to Giessen in Germany to study Gestalt psychology
1930 Studied the role of reward in experiments of maze running with rats
1932 Wrote the book Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men
1937 Presented his Presidential address to the American Psychological Association
1940 Chairman of Lewin's Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
1942 Published Drives Toward War in an effort to understand human drives that lead to war
1946 Tolman's latent learning experiments and other aspects of his theory were criticized by Spence and Lippitt
1949 Wrote "There is More than One Kind of Learning," a paper where he argued that learning motor skills and solving problems are governed by different laws
1949 Refused to sign the loyalty oath as imposed by the University of California Berkeley
1957 Received an APA award for distinguished scientific contributions
1959 Received an honorary LL.D. degree from the University of California
1959 Died November 19th


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