Edward C. Tolman: Behavioral Psychologist

20 February, 2021
Edward C. Tolman was an important behavioral and cognitive psychologist. In fact, his research and experiments with rats led to the development of a significant number of theories. Today, he remains an extremely important influence in this particular field of psychology.

When we talk about psychology, we tend to think of cognition. Furthermore, when we talk about cognition we think of Edward C. Tolman. Whilst it’s true that there exist many great authors in the field of behavioral psychology, this branch wasn’t yet fully established during the transition period between the 19th and 20th century. Edward C. Tolman was one of the leading authors of this particular time. What’s more, he did indeed study cognition within the context of behavioral psychology.

Scientists conducted the first behavioral experiments with animals in laboratories, mainly rats. Tolman wanted to acquire methods to understand both human and animal behavior. He tried to demonstrate that animals could learn and adapt their behavior based on their environmental conditions. 

Edward C. Tolman
Edward C. Tolman

Edward C. Tolman: a scientific psychologist

Edward Chace Tolman was an American psychologist. He was born in Massachusetts in 1886. He attended the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as Harvard University and the University of California. In addition, he won awards from the American Psychological Association (APA) for his scientific contributions. He was also widely recognized throughout the whole of the science world.

An author who took two routes

Between 1920 and 1930, experimental psychology underwent a process of radicalization. Some researchers clung to cognitive theory, influenced by Gestalt psychology. However, others followed Watson and Thorndike’s path of behaviorism.

Tolman chose not to opt for one of these two routes. Instead, he tried to reconcile them both. Today, we recognize him as a cognitive-behavioral psychologist.


When Tolman was staying in Germany, he fed off the ideas of Gestalt psychology. This branch of psychology involved the development of general theories through precise questions in order to explain animal behavior.

Authors such as Skinner later revisited Tolman’s new ideas. They were based on the basics of behaviorism:

  • Environmentalism. It highlights the role of the environment in the development of capacities, faculties, and moods through learning.
  • Mechanization. Repetitive association is considered by classical conditioning as the basis of learning.
  • Conditioning. The process by which a stimulus that causes an organic response is associated with an event.

Edward C.Tolman’s theories

Tolman’s theories vary from those of Watson. Indeed, Watson adopted a more orthodox approach. However, Tolman studied phenomena that aren’t strictly observable, like love or empathy.

The well-recognized theory of cognitive mapping is based on the design of mazes used with rats. This theory explains the behavior of both animals and humans.

Mental maps

These maps, also called cognitive maps, are based on two fundamental ideas:

Purposes. The persistence or eagerness of an animal to find and organize certain behaviors based on a specific goal.

Cognition. The animal’s understanding of their environment and the relationship between the means and ends of things.

Tolman discovered that if a rat was put in a maze, after a trial and error process, it managed to find the exit. However, the rat also found its way out even if the maze was filled with water.

Tolman concluded that the rat hadn’t just learned a succession of muscle movements. In fact, the rat had made a map or a mental representation of the situation in order to get out.

A mind map.

Edward C.Tolman: discoveries and theories

Purposive behavior. It seems that animals tend to achieve goals. This is reflected in their constant need to interact with their environment and, more precisely, the objects that surround them.

The tendency to certain behaviors. Tolman suggested that animals tend to discover and choose the easiest and most effective solutions. This behavior derives from what the animal knows of the consequences. These findings were fundamental in later describing human reward systems.

Learning, the central axis of his theories

For Tolman, learning could occur in the absence of obvious rewards like food or drink. He demonstrated this theory of latent learning through experiments with rats. One group of rats had to complete a maze with a reward, and another group received no reward. Both groups learned to exit the maze. However, the group that received a reward completed the maze quicker and with fewer mistakes. With this experiment, Tolman proved that, even if rats received no reward, they still developed a cognitive map of the maze.

Edward C. Tolman influenced this field of psychology enormously. Furthermore, his legacy has continued to inspire many scientists and researchers. Indeed, many authors used his theories to formulate their own experiments and draw their own conclusions.

Tolman greatly influenced Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory concerning decision-making. In addition, the concept of the cognitive map remains in force in various fields of psychology and academic research.

Edward C. Tolman died on November 19, 1959. He was 73 years old. We consider him to be one of the most influential figures in behavioral psychology. His students and followers described him as a rational man with a tremendous interest in science.

As well as receiving so many accolades, Tolman also demonstrated the validity and importance of not taking up extreme positions in the field of science. Indeed, at a time when experts only considered behaviorism from a structuralist and orthodox perspective, Tolman integrated holistic concepts such as Gestalt theory into his thinking.

  • Tolman, E. C. (1938). The determinants of behavior at a choice point. Psychological Review, 45, 1-41.