Sign Learning (E. Tolman)


Tolman's theorizing has been called purposive behaviorism and is often considered the bridge between behaviorism and cognitive theory. According to Tolman's theory of sign learning, an organism learns by pursuing signs to a goal, i.e., learning is acquire d through meaningful behavior. Tolman emphasized the organized aspect of learning: "The stimuli which are allowed in are not connected by just simple one-to-one switches to the outgoing responses. Rather the incoming impulses are usually worked over and e laborated in the central control room into a tentative cognitive-like map of the environment. And it is this tentative map, indicating routes and paths and environmental relationships, which finally determines what responses, if any, the animal will final ly make." (Tolman, 1948, p192)

Tolman (1932) proposed five types of learning: (1) approach learning, (2) escape learning, (3) avoidance learning, (4) choice-point learning, and (5) latent learning. All forms of learning depend upon means-end readiness, i.e., goal-oriented behavior, med iated by expectations, perceptions, representations, and other internal or environmental variables.

Tolman's version of behaviorism emphasized the relationships between stimuli rather than stimulus-response. According to Tolman, a new stimulus (the sign) becomes associated with already meaningful stimuli (the significate) through a series of pairings; t here was no need for reinforcement in order to establish learning. For this reason, Tolman's theory was closer to the connectionist framework of Thorndike than the drive reduction theory of Hull or other behaviorists.


Although Tolman intended his theory to apply to human learning, almost all of his research was done with rats and mazes. Tolman (1942) examines motivation towards war, but this work is not directly related to his learning theory.


Much of Tolman's research was done in the context of place learning. In the most famous experiments, one group of rats was placed at random starting locations in a maze but the food was always in the same location. Another group of rats had the food placed in different locations which always required exactly the same pattern of turns from their starting location. The group that had the food in the same location performed much better than the other group, supposedly demonstrating that they had learned the location rather than a specific sequence of turns.


1. Learning is always purposive and goal-directed.

2. Learning often involves the use of environmental factors to achieve a goal (e.g., means-ends-analysis)

3. Organisms will select the shortest or easiest path to achieve a goal.


Tolman, E.C. (1932). Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Tolman, E.C. (1942). Drives Towards War. New York: Appleton-Century- Crofts.

Tolman, E.C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review, 55, 189-208.