Maier wins psychology award for connecting behavioral control, resilience

Steven Maier wins Grawemeyer Award in Psychology

Strength through adversity: Scientist connects resilience, control

A scientist who discovered a brain mechanism that not only produces resilience to trauma but also aids in coping with future adversity has won the 2016 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

Steven Maier, distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience and Center for Neuroscience director at University of Colorado-Boulder, was selected for the 16th prize.

His award-winning work concerns what makes one resistant or vulnerable to stress when bad things happen. Maier showed if test subjects had behavioral control over some element of the adverse event, they were less negatively impacted and also essentially “immunized” against some harmful effects of future bad events, even if those events were uncontrollable. Through laboratory research studies, he uncovered in animal subjects the neural mechanism that provides such resilience in the face of trauma.

The idea that behavioral control induces resilience has become important in psychology, neuroscience and other academic disciplines, as well as clinical research and therapies for depression and anxiety disorders. Maier laid the groundwork for understanding the brain mechanism involved in how one assesses and deals with adverse events. His findings have been replicated in humans using neuroimaging techniques.

“Outside the scientific community, Dr. Maier’s idea of control and its positive effects has become part of popular thinking,” said award director Woody Petry. “His work has applications in many areas, including aging, military training, the workplace and stress-reduction practices such as mindfulness.”

Maier’s early research with colleague Martin Seligman in the late 1960s and early 1970s led them to develop the concept of learned helplessness, which suggested that when stressors are uncontrollable, that lack of control over them is learned and reduces motivation to cope with later traumas.

However, resuming the work in the 1990s, Maier used new tools to identify the neural structures involved and continued experiments that led to determining that the feeling of control was what provided protection in the future.

The 2016 Grawemeyer Award winners will be announced this week, pending formal approval by the university’s board of trustees. UofL presents the prizes annually for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education and gives a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The winners will present free lectures about their award-winning ideas when they visit Louisville in April to accept their $100,000 prizes.