In this issue

Edward C. Tolman: Eminent learning theorist and outspoken supporter of academic freedom

Unlike prominent theorists of his era, Tolman extended learning beyond simple stimulus-response towards contextual related connections.

By John D. Hogan, PhD, and Nate Frishberg

Edward C. TolmanEdward C. Tolman was one of the most prominent learning theorists of the 1930s and beyond. Although he was a behaviorist, his theory incorporated some strikingly nonbehavioral elements. One of his most important creations was the notion of “intervening variables,” a concept that was immediately taken up by other learning researchers. As an educator, Tolman also became embroiled in a political brouhaha regarding academic freedom. His stand on the issue eventually earned him high marks and the praise of many of his contemporaries. Tolman was president of APA Div. 1 from 1947-48, and again from 1952-53, one of only two presidents in the division's 70- year history to serve two terms.

Early Life and Education

Tolman was born on April 14, 1886, in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of a well-to-do rope manufacturer and a Quaker mother. Although his father encouraged him to enter the family business, Tolman chose instead to become an academic. At first he studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but after reading works by William James, he found himself drawn to philosophy and psychology. Immediately following graduation from MIT in 1911 with a bachelor's degree in electrochemistry, he entered the psychology doctoral program at Harvard University, where he was exposed to the work of many prominent psychologists of his day, including Robert Yerkes, Hugo Münsterberg and Herbert Langfeld.

In the summer following his first year at Harvard, Tolman went to Germany to prepare for the language requirement of the doctoral degree. (For many years, one of the requirements for a U.S. doctoral degree was familiarity with French and/or German.) In Germany, he had his first encounter with Kurt Koffka, the Gestalt psychologist, who would later have such an influence on his learning theory. Indeed, in 1923, he would return to Germany for further study of Gestalt theory. Upon graduating from Harvard in 1915, he was hired as an instructor at Northwestern University where he taught for three years until he was dismissed — in part, he thought, due to his pacifist beliefs. Following that, he became a faculty member of the University of California, Berkeley, where he remained for the rest of his professional life.

Theory and Professional Accomplishments

Although Tolman was educated in the behaviorist tradition, he nonetheless remained interested in the concept of introspection. It was during his early years at Berkeley that he began to develop the learning theory for which he would become famous. He established an animal laboratory in which he and his students studied the ability of rats to learn mazes. Unlike prominent theorists of his era, most notably E. L. Thorndike and John B. Watson, Tolman extended learning beyond simple stimulus-response connections. He emphasized that stimuli and responses exist in a given context, that is, they relate to other stimuli and responses as opposed to being isolated phenomena. He also argued that learning is purposeful rather than consisting of simple repetition of stimulus-response pairings — that it can be conceived of as consisting of a series of “sign-gestalt-expectations.” (This term is exemplary of Tolman's fondness for constructing hyphenated neologisms.) In 1932, he published his theory in a book titled, “Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men.”

Expanding on these ideas, Tolman introduced a concept he called “intervening variables.” Intervening variables are hypothesized internal states of a human or animal that are proposed to link stimuli (or independent variables) with responses (or observable, behavioral outcomes). Although Tolman remained a behaviorist who believed that all of learning could be understood by studying a rat in a maze, his formulations were a departure from the strict behaviorist position so common then. Instead, his theory is seen as a precursor to the cognitive movement that would later come to dominate the field. Some commentators have characterized his theory as the best theory of learning to emerge in the 1930s. In 1936, at age 51, he was honored by his fellow psychologists by being elected the 46th president of the American Psychological Association.

For all his important contributions, Tolman's legacy is not solely the result of his achievements in psychology. In the late 1940s, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy drew great public attention when he charged that government institutions and academia were filled with Communists and other individuals disloyal to the country. As a result of his accusations, some state legislatures required loyalty oaths from their employees. In 1949, consistent with state law, Berkeley required its faculty members to sign such an oath.

Tolman's loyalty to the United States had never been in question and he had never given evidence of political beliefs that were considered “radical.” Nonetheless, he objected to the oath and refused to sign it. His resistance was based on both personal liberty and the idea of academic freedom — that external pressure on educators decreases their ability to learn and teach accurate, objective truth. Indeed, academic freedom carried particular significance for Tolman as well; throughout his life as an academic, he had felt a sense of personal release in being able to conduct research and publish his ideas freely and openly. In his defiance, he became a leader of those opposing the oath.

University officials threatened Tolman with dismissal. In response to this threat, he sued the university, taking the case to the Supreme Court of California. In the 1952 decision, Tolman v. Underhill, the requirement of the loyalty oath was removed. Tolman's courage in standing up against this rule cannot be understated. Indeed, the climate of McCarthyism made it very dangerous for anyone to take such a stance — even in the absence of Communist beliefs. In 1959, 10 years after his refusal to sign the oath, Tolman was awarded an honorary LLD degree from Berkeley. A few years later, a new psychology and education building at Berkeley was named Tolman Hall in his honor.

In Summary

Not all of Tolman's ideas have stood the test of time. In particular, his belief that laws of learning applied equally to all living creatures is dated. Still, his legacy is strong — found not only in his theory and its anticipation of cognitive psychology, but in his students, many of them distinguished, who benefitted from his kindness and from the intellectual stimulation he provided. Unlike other learning theorists, he did not demand loyalty to his system. He has been remembered as a gifted and passionate teacher who placed great value on his students. Moreover, as one of his students has pointed out (Gleitman, 1991), he was always open to new ideas and willing to draw from all parts of psychology as well as other disciplines — the least dogmatic of theorists. Perhaps this openness and commitment to the exchange of ideas is what gave him the courage to stand up against the impact of McCarthyism in academia. Edward Chace Tolman died in Berkeley, California, on Nov. 19, 1959, at the age of 73.


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Ritchie, B. F. (1964). Edward Chace Tolman: 1886-1959. In biographical memoirs. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

Tolman, E. C. (1952). Edward Chace Tolman. History of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 4, pp. 323-339). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

Tolman, E. C. (1954). Freedom and the cognitive mind. American Psychologist, 9(9) 536-538.