Edward C. Tolman
Researched and written by:  Eric Geary
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

“I believe that everything important in psychology (except perhaps such matters as the building up of a super-ego, that is everything save such matters as involved society and words) can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determiners of rat behavior at a choice point in the maze.” ( Edward Tolman, 1938)

"The stimuli which are allowed in are not connected by just simple one-to-one switches to the outgoing responses. Rather the incoming impulses are usually worked over and elaborated in the central control room into a tentative cognitive-like map of the environment. And it is this tentative map, indicating routes and paths and environmental relationships, which finally determines what responses, if any, the animal will finally make." (Tolman, 1948, p192)


Childhood/Family Life

   Edward Chace Tolman was born in Newton, Massachusetts on April, 14th, 1886.  He had one brother who was 5 years older then him named Richard. His mother was a housewife and his Father was the president of a manufacturing company. Tolman’s childhood was not discussed much in the articles and books. Other than that, he attended public schools in Newton and although he and his brother were expected to follow in their father’s foot steps and continue on the family business, they both chose to do otherwise. Edward and his brother Richard attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Edward first decided his major, he declared it as electrochemistry. This didn’t change until his senior year in college when he decided he wanted to be a philosopher after graduation. It is said that he decided to change because of the great impact William James’s readings had on him. He graduated form MIT in 1911 with a B.S. in electrochemistry. Although that summer he took courses in philosophy, he also took a course in psychology. He decided that philosophy was going to be too hard and he wasn’t cut out for it, so he chose psychology instead. (, 2003)
Adult Life


In the fall of 1911, Tolman was in enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School as a philosophy and psychology student. He was influenced that year by his ethics class professor and readings from McDougall to study motivation. Soon after the first year was over, he went to Germany in the summer of 1912 to study under Kurt Koffka. Tolman was introduced to Gestalt psychology by Koffka. Once he returned from Germany, he studied the concept of nonsense syllables under Hugo Munsterberg and Langfeld, in their laboratory. He wrote his dissertation on retroactive inhibition. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1915. (, 2002)


            During his adult life he worked at two major schools. The first was Northern University, where he taught for only three years before he was dismissed for his anti-war statements that a student published. He then was hired at the University of California, Berkeley. He taught psychology there from 1918 until 1954 when he retired. He was also married, but again not much could be found on this subject other then it was a “happy” marriage.

Professional Accomplishments


Tolman had numerous accomplishments. Of course, his Ph.D. from Harvard would be on top of the list. He also wrote the book “Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men” in 1932. In 1937, he became the American Psychological Association’s 46th president. In 1940, he was the Chairman of Lewin's Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. He published another book in 1942 called “Drives Toward War”. In 1949, he wrote a paper titled "There is More than One Kind of Learning". In1957, he received the APA award for “distinguished scientific contributions”. Finally, in 1959, he was given a LL.D. Degree from the University of California. (Schultz & Schultz, Chapter 11)


Contributions to Psychology


His contributions, like his accomplishments, are numerous. Tolman had four main contributions to psychology. The first was showing cognitive maps in rats. The second was latent learning in which he also used the rats to back up his findings. The third was the concept of the intervening variable, and lastly was his support of rats for subject use.

            To successfully show that rats used cognitive maps rather than just running and turning right, he used his rats as examples. He would run them through a maze similar to the one pictured below.

A was the starting point for the rats. B was the goal at which he wanted them to reach. He ran several experiments in which one would have the rats start at A and learn to run to B to get the food. In doing so, they would have to turn right to get the food. Once the rats learned, this he tried a different method. He would start them at point C; if the rat turned right and went to section D, then they were not using cognitive maps, but instead he found they turned left and went to section B proving the use of cognitive maps. (, 2002)


This idea that rats don’t just learn movements for only rewards but instead learn even when there are no rewards suggests a latent learning theory. Again, by using a rat to run a maze, he could show how this latent learning was possible. The setup would be three different groups with as a control that would start with food automatically. Another second experimental group would not get food until the 7th day. Finally, another third experimental group would not get the food until the 3rd day. Surprisingly, in the two experimental groups, once food was given at the goal point, the rats began to improve their routes after the reward was introduced. After they were fed, the rat began to run the maze better on the next trial, showing that even though there was no reward the rat was still making a cognitive map of the maze. This was evident when the reward was introduced. Tolman coined this phenomenon, “latent learning” and said that this experiment could be extended to humans and that we too use latent learning everyday. (, 2002)


From this latent learning theory, he also found “intervening variables”. These were variables that could not be observed and. For example, hunger was an intervening variable. He showed that these variables were the actual determinants of a behavior. It forced behaviorists to think in a new light. They could no longer only use the model S-R (stimulus to response), but now had to add the organism in to become S-O-R (stimulus to organism to response). (, 2002)


Finally, Tolman was the psychologist who helped make white rats to be used as the subject as widely as they are today for experiments.  He was quoted in 1945 that “let it be noted that rats live in cages; they do not go on binges the night before one has planned an experiment; they do not kill each other off in wars; they do not invent engines of destruction, and, if they did, they would not be so inept about controlling such engines; they do not go in for either class conflicts or race conflicts; they avoid politics, economics, and papers in psychology. They are marvelous, pure and delightful. And, as soon as I possibly can, I am going to climb back again out on that good old phylogenic limb and sit there, this time right side up and unashamed, wiggling my whiskers at all the silly, yet at the same time far too complicated, specimens of homo sapiens, whom I shall see strutting and fighting and messing things up, down there on the ground below me." (Tolman, 1945, He wasn’t always so happy with rats; early on in his career he was quoted to say “I don’t like them. They make me feel creepy.” Tolman’s need for control changed his mind on rats. He loved to use rats because he had to be in control of everything. He felt ordinary people were far too unreliable, especially when he had rats at his disposal.

All in all, Tolman can be considered the pioneer to today’s cognitive psychology. He was a man who believed in change. Unlike many others, when information came to show something was wrong, he wasn’t afraid to change the way he thought about it and adapt. His contributions were all very important, especially the concept of intervening variables. Intervening variables made it possible for unseen behaviors to now be considered important and to be measured.



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