Department of Management

Forget Unlearning?: How an empirically unwarranted concept from psychology was imported to flourish in management and organisation studies

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal article



We provide a critique of the development in organisation studies of the idea of ‘unlearning’ as allegedly imported from the psychology literature by Hedberg (1981) and understood to mean the manageable discard of knowledge precedent to and aiding later learning. We re-review the psychology literature and in contrast to Hedberg, find that this definition of unlearning is not empirically warranted. We re-examine a selection of highly-cited articles in the organisational literature that claim to have conducted empirical research into it or with the Hedberg model of unlearning. We find none provide evidence of its existence. Typically, under the label ‘unlearning’ evidence is provided of a conventional process of theory-change; the setting aside (not deletion) of an established understanding in favour of new understanding when presented with perceived new facts. In all cases we examine, clear alternative and less problematic concepts would provide a better conceptual framework for the research, such as learning, theory-change, discard of practice and extinction. It follows that the ‘unlearning literature’ is not in fact the independent, scholarly and scientific literature that many of its adherents believe it to be. We recommend that for concepts allegedly imported from other disciplines more frequent commissioning of cross-disciplinary reviews may encourage the critical works so obviously lacking in the ‘unlearning literature’.
Original languageEnglish
JournalManagement Learning
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)443-463
Number of pages21
StatePublished - 2016

    Research areas

  • Organisational unlearning, unlearning, Learning, discard of practice, routines , organisational learning

See relations at Aarhus University Citationformats

Download statistics

No data available

ID: 94967010