Tolman was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to the studies of learning and motivation. Considered a cognitive behaviorist today, he developed his own behaviorism when the likes of Watson were dominating the field (Kimble et al, 1991). Tolman was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1886. He remained there as he grew up and was educated in the Newton Public Schools.
He lived in a family of "upper middle" socioeconomic status and had a father who was the president of a manufacturing company.
His brother, Richard, was five years older than he was and both he and Richard were expected to go into the family business. He and his brother decided to seek academic careers, against their family's wishes. Both went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Richard pursued a career in academics, ultimately becoming a world-renowned theoretical chemist and physicist, and Edward initially sought a bachelor's degree in electrochemistry. Tolman changed the course of his career during his senior year after reading the works of William James.
He decided to become a philosopher. After graduation in 1911, he attended summer school and took a course in philosophy and psychology. He concluded that he wasn't quite smart enough for philosophy and that psychology was more to his liking. That coming fall, Tolman enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School as a philosophy and psychology graduate student. At that time, the disciplines were a combined department. A course in ethics, taught by Ralph Barton Perry, as well as readings of McDougall, eventually led to his interest in motivation. After his first year as a graduate student, he went to Giessen in Germany to study for his PhD examination in German (at that time all PhD examinations were conducted in French, German, or Russian).
It was in Germany where he was introduced to Gestalt psychology through the teachings and readings of Koffka (Kimble et al, 1991).Upon returning to Harvard from his summer in Germany, Tolman studied in the laboratory under Hugo Munsterberg and Langfeld researching nonsense syllable learning. His PhD dissertation was a study of retroactive inhibition (Hilgard, 1987). He received his doctorate in 1915. He later returned to Giessen to learn more about Gestalt psychology during the fall of 1923.
Tolman became an instructor at Northwestern University and taught for three years after receiving his doctoral degree. He described himself as being self-conscious, inarticulate, and fearful of his classes. His pacifist views led him to lose his job when, during World War I, he was called to the Dean for anti-war statements reported in a pacifist student publication (Kimble et al, 1991).
Tolman went on to become an instructor at the University of California in Berkeley in the fall of 1918 where he remained for the rest of his life. Similar to his stand for academic freedom shown at Northwestern University, his passion for the pursuit of truth led to his refusal to sign the California loyalty oath. During the "Year of the Oath" (1949-50), the university attempted to impose loyalty oaths on their faculty, in compliance with state law. He advised his peers to sign and to leave the contest up to those like him, who were able to afford it. This act of courage gave him tremendous recognition. He credited his wisdom in psychology to his years at Berkeley and his happy marriage (Kimble et al, 1991)