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Tolman - Latent Learning

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The behaviorists stated that psychology should study actual observable behavior, and that nothing happens between stimulus and response (i.e. no cognitive processes take place).

Edward Tolman (1948) challenged these assumptions by proposing that people and animals are active information processes and not passive learners as behaviorism had suggested. Tolman developed a cognitive view of learning that has become popular in modern psychology.

Tolman believed individuals do more than merely respond to stimuli; they act on beliefs, attitudes, changing conditions, and they strive toward goals. Tolman is virtually the only behaviorists who found the stimulus-response theory unacceptable, because reinforcement was not necessary for learning to occur. He felt behavior was mainly cognitive.

information processing

Tolman coined the term cognitive map, which is an internal representation (or image) of external environmental feature or landmark. He thought that individuals acquire large numbers of cues (i.e. signals) from the environment and could use these to build a mental image of an environment (i.e. a cognitive map).

By using this internal representation of a physical space they could get to the goal by knowing where it is in a complex of environmental features. Short cuts and changeable routes are possible with this model.

Tolman also worked on latent learning, defined as learning which is not apparent in the learner's behavior at the time of learning, but which manifests later when a suitable motivation and circumstances appear. The idea of latent learning was not original to Tolman, but he developed it further.

Tolman and Honzik (1930)

In their famous experiments Tolman and Honzik (1930) built a maze to investigate latent learning in rats. The study also shows that rats actively process information rather than operating on a stimulus response relationship.

cognitive map


In their study 3 groups of rats had to find their way around a complex maze. At the end of the maze there was a food box. Some groups of rats got to eat the food, some did not.

Group 1: Rewarded

  • Day 1 – 17: Every time they got to end, given food (i.e. reinforced).

Group 2: Delayed Reward

  • Day 1 - 10: Every time they got to end, taken out.
  • Day 11 -17: Every time they got to end, given food (i.e. reinforced).

Group 3: No reward

  • Day 1 – 17: Every time they got to end, taken out.


The delayed reward group learned the route on days 1 to 10 and formed a cognitive map of the maze. They took longer to reach the end of the maze because there was no motivation for them to perform. From day 11 onwards they had a motivation to perform (i.e. food) and reached the end before the reward group.

This shows that between stimulus (the maze) and response (reaching the end of the maze) a mediational process was occurring the rats were actively processing information in their brains by mentally using their cognitive map.

graph showing Tolman's experimental results

Further Information

Information Processing


Tolman, E. C., & Honzik, C. H. (1930). Introduction and removal of reward, and maze performance in rats. University of California Publications in Psychology.

Tolman, E. C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological review, 55(4), 189.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Tolman - latent learning. Retrieved from

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