Tolman, Edward Chace

Tolman, Edward Chace (1886-1959) was an American psychologist who revolutionized the field of behavioral psychology. He developed the theory that learning is a systematic process guided by goals and expectations, rather than by random trial and error.

Tolman was born in 1886 in Newton, Massachusetts. He received a B.S. degree in electrochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1911. He studied psychology at Harvard University, earning an M.A. degree in 1912 and a Ph.D. degree in 1915.

Tolman became well acquainted with both Gestalt and early behaviorism. He ultimately combined elements from both to establish his own theories of learning behavior. From Gestalt he incorporated the idea that patterns of stimulation and reaction can be identified through the processes of perception, motivation, and cognition. From behaviorism he employed the concept that such mental processes must be objectively defined in terms of behavioral properties that can be objectively recorded.

From 1915 to 1918, Tolman was a psychology instructor at Northwestern University. In 1918, he was appointed instructor at the University of California, Berkeley. He eventually became full professor, and remained there until he retired in 1954. At Berkeley, most of his research focused on animal behavior. Working primarily with white rats, he conducted a series of experiments that demonstrated that behavior could be directed by what was termed “cognitive maps.” If a rat found a food reward within or at the end of a maze, it soon learned the most direct way to get to it, rather than moving randomly. Thus, rather than achieving its goal by trial and error, the behavior was purposive, guided by goals and expectations. Tolman detailed his theory in his book, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men (1932).

Tolman was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as president of the American Psychological Association in 1937, and received its Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1957.