Tolman’s theory of learning

The main focus of  Tolman’s intentional behaviorism  was on the problem of learning. Tolman  rejected Thorndike’s law of effect, saying that reward or reinforcement had little influence on learning.

In its place, he proposed a cognitive explanation for learning , suggesting that the repetition of the performance of a task reinforces the learned relationship between environmental cues and the organism’s expectations. Thus, the organism ends up knowing its environment.  Tolman  called these learned relationships “sign Gestalts”, and claimed to be established by repeating a task.

Imagine a hungry rat in a maze. He walks through it, exploring both the correct and dead-end paths, and finally ends up reaching for the food.

In subsequent attempts within the maze, the objective (finding the food) gives the rat the intention and the direction. At each point of intersection where the animal has to make an option of going one way or the other, an expectation is created that certain tips associated with the point of intersection will or will not lead to food.

When the rat’s expectation is confirmed and it receives the food, the Gestalt sign (the expectation of signaling associated with a given option) is reinforced. Thus, for all attempts made in the maze, the animal establishes a cognitive map , which consists of a pattern of Gestalts sign.

This pattern is what the animal learns, that is, the maze map, and not just a set of motor habits. The mouse brain creates a complete view of the labyrinth or any familiar environment, which allows it to move from one place to another without being restricted to a series of fixed physical movements.

Testing Tolman’s theory of learning

The classic experiment to test the  theory of  learning  of  Tolman  investigated the mouse that ran through the maze of paths learned a cognitive map or series of motor responses.

In a cross-shaped maze, a group of rats always found the food in the same place, although, using different starting points, they sometimes had to turn right and sometimes left to reach the food. The motor responses were different, but the food was always in the same place.

The second group of rats showed the same responses regardless of the starting point, but with food in different places.

Starting from the exit of the maze, the rats found the food only when they turned to the right at the point of intersection; starting from the other exit, they also found the food turning to the right.

The results showed that the rats that learned the way (the first group) performed much better than those that learned the movement (second group).

Tolman  concluded that the same phenomenon occurs with the individual familiar with the city or the neighborhood. He is able to move from one point to another using different paths due to the cognitive map he has developed for the entire area.

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