Biography of Edward C. Tolman

Therapy session.

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Edward C. Tolman is best-known for cognitive behaviorism, his research on cognitive maps, the theory of latent learning and the concept of an intervening variable. Tolman was born on April 14, 1886, and died on November 19, 1959.

What Is Cognitive Behaviorism?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of talk therapy (psychotherapy). You work with a mental health counselor (psychotherapist or therapist) in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions. CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.

CBT can be a very helpful tool in treating mental health disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an eating disorder. But not everyone who benefits from CBT has a mental health condition. It can be an effective tool to help anyone learn how to better manage stressful life situations.

Early Life of Edward C. Tolman

Tolman originally started his academic life studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After reading William James' Principles of Psychology, he decided to shift his focus to the study of psychology. He enrolled at Harvard where he worked in Hugo Munsterberg's lab. In addition to being influenced by James, he also later said that his work was heavily influenced by Kurt Koffka and Kurt Lewin. He graduated with a Ph.D. in 1915.

Tolman's Career and Contributions to Psychology

Tolman is perhaps best-known for his work with rats and mazes. Tolman's work challenged the behaviorist notion that all behavior and learning is a result of the basic stimulus-response pattern.

In a classic experiment, rats practiced a maze for several days. Then, the familiar path they normally took was blocked. According to the behaviorist view, the rats had simply formed associations about which behaviors were reinforced and which were not. Instead, Tolman discovered that the rats had formed a mental map of the maze, allowing them to choose a novel path to lead them to the reward.

His theory of latent learning suggests that learning occurs even if no reinforcement is offered. Latent learning is not necessarily apparent at the time, but that appears later in situations where it is needed.

Tolman's concepts of latent learning and cognitive maps helped pave the way for the rise of cognitive psychology.

Tolman's Awards and Distinctions

  • In 1937, Tolman was named President of the American Psychological Association.
  • In 1940, he became President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.
  • In 1949, he was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • In 1957, he received the APA Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.
2 Sources
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  1. Linardon J, Wade TD, de la Piedad Garcia X, Brennan L. The efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy for eating disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2017;85(11):1080–1094. doi:10.1037/ccp0000245

  2. American Psychological Association. APA Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions: Past recipients.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."