Edward C. Tolman

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Edward Chace Tolman (April 14, 1886 – November 19, 1959) was an American psychologist. He was most famous for his studies of learning in rats using mazes, and he published many experimental articles, of which his paper with Ritchie and Kalish in 1946 was the most influential. His major theoretical contributions came in his 1932 book, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men, and in a series of papers in the Psychological Review including "The determinants of behavior at a choice point" (1938) and "Cognitive maps in rats and men" (1948), and "Principles of performance" (1955). Tolman's goal was to understand human mental processes through experimental methods. Although he used rats in mazes as his technique, and was a behaviorist in his approach, he also incorporated significant ideas from Gestalt psychology. His theories, while not necessarily accepted at the time, laid the foundation for later work in cognitive psychology and theories of decision making. As such, he succeeded in making a significant contribution to our understanding of human thinking.


Edward Chace Tolman was born on April 14, 1886, in West Newton, Massachusetts. He was the brother of California Institute of Technology physicist Richard Chace Tolman. Edward Tolman’s original interest was in engineering. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received a degree from there. Then, Edward Tolman switched to psychology and finished his Ph.D. at Harvard University, in 1915.

After teaching at Northwestern University for three years, Tolman joined the University of California at Berkeley, where he contributed considerably to the developing reputation of that institution. In fact, most of his career was spent at UC Berkeley (from 1918 to 1954), where he taught psychology. Tolman became known as an excellent and warm teacher.

Tolman was one of the senior professors whom the University of California sought to dismiss in the McCarthyite era of the early 1950s, because he refused to sign a loyalty oath—not because of any lack of felt loyalty to the United States but because he believed it infringed on academic freedom. Tolman was a leader of the resistance of the oath, and when the Regents of the University of California sought to fire him, he sued. The resulting court case, Tolman v. Underhill, led to the California Supreme Court in 1955 overturning the oath and forcing the reinstatement of all those who had refused to sign it.

In 1963, at the insistence of the president of the University of California Clark Kerr, the University named its newly constructed education and psychology faculty building at Berkeley "Tolman Hall" in his honor; Tolman's widow was present at the dedication ceremony. His portrait hangs in the entrance hall of the building. The image of Tolman comes through as an open person welcoming liberal thinking as well as new trends and ideas in psychology.


Edward Tolman proposed a consideration of behavior that was "molar," as opposed to "molecular." Tolman viewed molar behavior as an act defining the proper level for psychological study, without regard to underlying molecular elements of neural, muscular, or glandular levels of study. For Tolman, the molar level of behavior is more than the sum of the molecular elements. By adhering to the molar level of human behavior, Tolman argued that reductionism results in the loss of the purely psychological level, and explanations based on molecular components were not adequate.

Cognitive Behaviorism

Although Edward Tolman was a firm behaviorist in his methodology, he was not a radical behaviorist like B. F. Skinner. On the one hand, Edward Tolman’s theory helped the scheme of Watsonian behaviorism evolve further. On the other hand, Tolman used Gestalt to describe the nature of holistic, insightful learning experiences, i.e., Tolman’s view of psychology heavily relies on premises of Gestalt psychologists.

As the title of his major book (Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men) indicated, Edward Tolman wanted to use behavioral methods to gain an understanding of the mental processes of humans and other animals. In his studies of learning in rats, Tolman sought to demonstrate that animals could learn facts about the world that they could subsequently use in a flexible manner, rather than simply learning automatic responses that were triggered off by environmental stimuli. In the language of the time, Tolman was an "S-S" (stimulus-stimulus), non-reinforcement theorist: he drew on Gestalt psychology to argue that animals could learn the connections between stimuli and did not need any explicit biologically significant event to make learning occur. The rival theory, the much more mechanistic "S-R" (stimulus-response) reinforcement-driven view, was taken up by Clark L. Hull.

Tolman’s theoretical orientation was not as systematic in approach as that of Hull. However, his criticism of the reduction of psychological events to the mechanical elements of stimulus and response, he caused many researchers of the Hullian orientation to pause and modify their views. Tolman’s laws of acquisition essentially focused on practice that builds up sign gestalts, or experiences, consistent with the goal object of learning.

A key paper by Tolman, Ritchie and Kalish in 1946 demonstrated that rats that had explored a maze that contained food while they were not hungry were able to run it correctly on the first trial when they entered it having now been made hungry, supporting Tolman's view that learning did not require reward. However, Hull and his followers were able to produce alternative explanations of Tolman's findings, and the debate between S-S and S-R learning theories became increasingly convoluted and sterile. Skinner's iconoclastic paper of 1950, entitled "Are theories of learning necessary?" persuaded many psychologists interested in animal learning that it was more productive to focus on the behavior itself rather than using it to make hypotheses about mental states.

The influence of Tolman's ideas declined rapidly in the later 1950s and 1960s. However, his achievements had been considerable. His 1938 and 1955 papers, produced to answer Hull's charge that he left the rat "buried in thought" in the maze, unable to respond, anticipated and prepared the ground for much later work in cognitive psychology, as psychologists began to discover and apply decision theory—a stream of work that was recognized by the award of a Nobel prize to Daniel Kahneman in 2002. And his 1948 paper introduced the concept of the cognitive map, which has found extensive application in almost every field of psychology, frequently among scientists who have no idea that they are using ideas first formulated to explain the behavior of rats in mazes.

Cognitive Maps

"Cognitive maps," mental maps, mind maps, cognitive models, or mental models are a type of mental processing, or cognition, composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual can acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment. Tolman (1948) is generally credited with the introduction of the term "cognitive map." Here, cognition can be used to refer to the mental models, or belief systems, that people use to perceive, contextualize, simplify, and make sense of otherwise complex problems. Cognitive maps have been studied in various fields of science, such as psychology, planning, geography, and management. As a consequence, these mental models are often referred to, variously, as cognitive maps, scripts, schemata, and frames of reference.

Put more simply, according to Tolman, cognitive maps are a way we use to structure and store spatial knowledge, allowing the "mind's eye" to visualize images in order to reduce cognitive load, and enhance recall and learning of information. This type of spatial thinking can also be used as a metaphor for non-spatial tasks, where people performing non-spatial tasks involving memory and imaging use spatial knowledge to aid in processing the task.


Tolman was often criticized for lack of specific explanations of the central mediation of cognitive learning. Howerver, he assimilated into behaviorism a new perspective that departed from the sterile reductionism of the molecular Watsonian approach. Moreover, his repeated demonstration of performance versus learning differences clearly showed that the latter intervening variable was not reducible simply to stimulus-response-reinforcement elements. If he failed to offer a more comprehensive explanation, he nevertheless succeeded in justifying the integrity of the molar behavioral level and stimulated inquiry.


When in the last quarter of the twentieth century animal psychologists took a cue from the success of human cognitive psychology, and began to renew the study of animal cognition, many of them turned to Tolman's ideas and to his maze techniques. Of the three great figures of animal psychology of the middle twentieth century, Tolman, Hull, and Skinner, it can reasonably be claimed that it is Tolman's legacy that became the liveliest, certainly in terms of academic research.

Edward Tolman could anticipate the entire research theme of cognitive learning prevalent in later psychology. Tolman was also much concerned that psychology should be applied to try and solve human problems, and in addition to his technical publications, he wrote a book called Drives Toward War (1942). This book surveyed studies of animal behavior in search of an explanation of the motives that drive men to war and also discussed the social controls that would have to be enforced in a warless society.


  • Tolman, E.C. 1920. "Instinct and purpose" In Psychological Review. 27, p. 217-233.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1922. "A new formula for behaviorism" In Psychological Review. 29, 44-53.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1923. "A behavioristic account of the emotions." Psychological Review, 30, p. 217-227.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1926. "A behavioristic theory of ideas" In Psychological Review. 33, p. 252-369.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1932. Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. New York: Century.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1938. "The determinants of behavior at a choice point" In Psychological Review. 45, 1-41.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1942. Drives towards War. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Tolman, E.C., Ritchie, B. F., and D. Kalish. 1946. "Studies in spatial learning: II. Place learning versus response learning" In Journal of Experimental Psychology. 37, p. 385-392.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1948. "Cognitive maps in rats and men." Psychological Review. 55, 189-208.
  • Tolman, E.C. [1951] 1966. Behavior and psychological man. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Tolman, E.C. 1955. "Principles of performance" In Psychological Review. 62, p. 315-326.

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