Edward Tolman: biography and study of cognitive maps

Edward C. Tolman was the initiator of propositional behaviorism and a key figure for the introduction of cognitive variables in behavioral models.

Again the study of cognitive maps is Tolman’s best-known contributionThis author’s theory is much broader and was a real turning point in scientific psychology.

    Biography of Edward Tolman

    Edward Chace Tolman was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1886. Although his father wanted him to continue the family business, Tolman decided to study electrochemistry; nevertheless, after having read William James he discovered his vocation through philosophy and psychology, discipline to which he would end up dedicating himself.

    He graduated in psychology and philosophy from Harvard. Soon after, he moved to Germany to continue his training for his doctorate. There he studied with Kurt Koffka; through it, he became familiar with Gestalt psychology, which analyzed perception by focusing on the overall experience rather than on the elements separately.

    Returning to Harvard, Tolman studied the learning of meaningless syllables under the leadership of Hugo Münsterberg, a pioneer of applied and organizational psychology. He obtained his doctorate with a thesis on retroactive inhibition, A phenomenon which consists of the interference of the new material in the recovery of previously learned memories.

    After being expelled from Northwestern University, where he worked as a professor for three years, for publicly opposing American intervention in World War I, Tolman began teaching at the University of Berkeley in California. . He spent the rest of his career there, from 1918 until his death in 1959.

    Theoretical contributions to psychology

    Tolman was one of the first authors to study the cognitive processes of the behaviorism framework; although it was based on a behavioral methodology, he wanted to demonstrate that animals could learn more about the world and use it in a flexible way, and not just automatic responses to certain environmental stimuli.

    Tolman conceptualized cognitions and other mental contents (expectations, goals …) as intermediate variables between stimulus and response. The organism is not understood as passive, in the manner of classical behaviorism, but actively manages information.

    This author has been particularly interested in the intentional aspect of behavior, that is, goal-oriented behavior; for that his proposals are classified in the category “intentional behaviorism”.

      EE and RE learning models

      By the mid-twentieth century, there was a deep debate within behaviorist orientation around the nature of conditioning and the role of reinforcement. Thus, the Stimulus-Response (ER) model, personified by authors such as Thorndike, Guthrie or Hull, and the Stimulus-Stimulus (EE) paradigm, of which Tolman was the most prominent representative, were opposed.

      According to the EE model, learning occurs through the association between a conditioned stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, which evokes the same conditioned response in the presence of reinforcement; instead, from an emergency perspective, it has been argued that learning consists of association between a conditioned stimulus and a conditioned response.

      Thus, Tolman and related authors considered that learning depends on the subject detecting the relationship between two stimuli, which will allow him to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment, in front of the representatives of the ER model, which define the learning as the acquisition of a conditioned response. on the appearance of a previously unconditioned stimulus.

      From the ER paradigm, a mechanistic and passive view of the behavior of living things has been proposed, while the EE model stated that the role of the learner is active because it involves a component of voluntary cognitive processing, with a specific objective.

      Latent learning experiences

      Hugh Blodgett had studied latent learning (which does not manifest as an immediately observable response) through experiments with rats and mazes. Tolman developed his famous proposition on cognitive maps and much of the rest of his work from this concept and from Blodgett’s work.

      In Tolman’s initial experiment three groups of rats were trained to go through a maze. In the control group, the animals obtained food (reinforcement) when they reached the end; on the other hand, the rats of the first experimental group did not obtain the reward until the seventh day of training, and those of the second experimental group from the third day.

      Tolman found that rats in the control group had their error rate dropped from day one, while those in the experimental groups fell sharply from the time the food was introduced. These results suggest that the rats learned the route in all cases, but only reached the end of the maze if they hoped to gain reinforcement.

      So this author theorize that the execution of a behavior depends on the expectation of obtaining reinforcementHeBut that nevertheless the learning of this behavior can take place without the need for a reinforcement process.

        The study of cognitive maps

        Tolman proposed the concept of cognitive maps to explain the results of his experiments and those of Blodgett. According to this hypothesis, rats built mental representations of the labyrinth during training without the need for reinforcement, and so they knew how to reach the finish line when they had felt it.

        The same would happen to people in everyday life: When we repeat a route frequently, we learn the location of a large number of buildings and places; however, we will only address these issues in case it is necessary to achieve a certain goal.

        To prove the existence of cognitive maps, Tolman performed another experiment similar to the previous one, but in which, after the rats learned the way to the maze, it was filled with water. Still, the animals managed to get to where they knew they would find food.

        In this way he confirmed that the rats they haven’t learned to perform a chain of muscle movementsAs theorists of the RE paradigm argued, cognitive, or at least unobservable, variables were needed to explain the learning they had acquired, and the response used to achieve the goal could vary.

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