An Action Science Primer for PCTer's

From [ Marc Abrams (2003.05.11.1033) ]

I hope everyone here in the states enjoys a nice mother’s day. Those around the rest of the world, I hope you have a good day as well.


With this post I hope to expose PCTer’s to the theories/methods of Action Science. ( at least to those of you who do not already know of it, or about it ). The intent here is not to provide either an in-depth view of the theories/methods or a critical review of the same. It is to show why I believe it might be important for PCTer’s to learn about this material. I can’t hope to convey to you, in one post, the depth and richness of the theories and methods any more then I could convey to you the richness and depth of PCT in one post. Argyris and an assortment of collaborators, including Donald Schon, Bob Putnam, and assorted others have over the years combined for some 12 books and many papers on the subject. It is with the hope and intent of collaboration and discovery that I present this material. A final note, when I speak of “Argyris” in this post I am speaking of Chris and his many collaborators.

Action Science:

The Action Science theories/methods have developed over the years. Argyris and Schon introduced the concept in a 1974 book called Theory in Practice. Argyris has been publishing since 1956, this being his first effort with schon on this subject. The theories/methods ( which I will simply refer to as “theory” for the rest of the post ) are mainly based on the work of three men. Kurt Lewin (1945, Conduct, Knowledge and Acceptance of New Values ), John Dewey ( 1939, Logic, The Theory of Inquiry ), and W. Ross Ashby (1960, Design for a Brain ), . Ah! where would we be without that little thermostat model:-).Btw, this conflicts with B:CP in that B:CP has the date of publication as 1952. A minor nit. Their were other influences, but these were the “main” ones.

Action Science is a multiple set of theories and methods. It is all based on one model of behavior. The model does an excellent job of describing the phenomena of what it is we do and a very poor job of explaining why this stuff is happening. Argyris uses a cognitive behavioral approach borrowed from Lewin for his behavior model. This my friends is about to change. :slight_smile:

I will let Argyris explain in his own words what “Action Science” “is”: ( Action Science, 1985, Pg. 4 )

“Action Science is an inquiry into how human beings design and implement action in relation to one another. Hence it is a science of practice, whether the professional practice of administrators, educators, and psychotherapists or of the everyday practice of people as members of families and organizations, Action science calls for basic research and theory building that are intimately related to social intervention”

The theory is based on several key concepts. The first and biggest, is the concept of what Argyris calls the Model I Master Program. This model is based on Cog Sci principles. Argyris explains the phenomena by us having “brain maps”. In using his Model I behavioral model he tries to explain what he calls his theories-in-action. These are the “theories” we use to “determine” what kind of behavior to use in any particular situation. He further breaks this down into 2 “modes”,espoused theories and *theories-in-use. Espoused theories are the “theories” we use to explain why we have done something. Theories-in-use are the “theories” we actually use. Very often, these are not the same. Again I will let Argyris explain this concept to you. I will hold off comment until the end of the quoted passage; ( Action Science, 1985, Pg 88-89 )

"Argyris and Schon developed a model, or an ideal type, that describes features of theories in use that inhibit double-loop [ It will be explained later ] learning. While espoused theories vary widely, research indicates that there is almost no variance in theory-in-use (Argyris, 1976, 1982). More precisely, the theories-in-use of virtually everyone we have studied are consistent with the master program called Model I. There is considerable difference within Model I in the weightings individuals give to particular governing variables, as well as in the particular strategies individuals favor, but these lower-order variations appear to be governed by the Model I master program (see Table 1).

The four governing variables of Model I are (1) achieve the purpose as the actor defines it; (2) win, do not lose; (3) suppress negative feelings; and (4) emphasize rationality.

The primary behavioral strategies in Model I are to control the relevant environment and tasks unilaterally and to protect oneself and others unilaterally. Thus, the underlying behavioral strategy is unilateral control over others. Characteristic ways of implementing this strategy include making unillustrated attributions and evaluations, advocating courses of action in ways that discourage inquiry, treating one’s own views as obviously correct, making covert attributions, evaluations, and face-saving moves such as leaving potentially embarrassing facts unstated.

The consequences of Model I strategies include defensive interpersonal and group relationships, low freedom of choice, and reduced production of valid information. There are negative consequences for learning, because there is little public testing of ideas. The hypotheses that people generate tend to become self-sealing. What learning does occur remains within the bounds of what is acceptable. Double-loop learning does not tend to occur. As a result, error escalates and effectiveness in problem solving and in execution of action tends to decrease.

In claiming that human beings are programmed with Model I theory-in-use, we are making predictions about the kinds of strategies they will and will not use, and the kinds of consequences that will and will not occur. These predictions have been tested in dozens of client groups that included thousands of individuals, and to date they have not been disconfirmed (see Argyris, 1982, chap. 3). Most people hold espoused theories inconsistent with Model I; and, when confronted with our predictions about the strategies they will use, seek to demonstrate that our predictions are not valid"

Here it is folks. Does anyone see what I see? Are we talking control here? I believe so. I also believe that the only model of behavior that utilizes a control model is PCT. Am I crazy in thinking this way? there are many, many_, other instances in the Action Science literature that show control processes and the phenomena it produces.

Did anyone think that “good” control can lead to bad consequences. It does. Argyris goes on to show how his Model II “behavioral model” ( it really isn’t a behavioral model), it is strategies and assumptions useful for what Argyris calls his Model II theory-in-use. I will not at this time get into this, suffice to say, Argyris has created a method he calls single-loop and double-loop learning ( based on the work of Ashby, and negative feedback ) to describe how one might change/learn something. Which in Action Science partly means being able to utilize Model II rather then the normative Model I “behavioral” model.

What do you think?, Has this been helpful?, Any interest? Comments please.


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[From Bill Powers (2003.05.11.1328 MDT)]

Marc Abrams (2003.05.11.1033)--

>With this post I hope to expose PCTer's to the theories/methods of Action
Science. ( at >least to those of you who do not already know of it, or
about it ).

Could be very interesting, though it doesn't seem to be "science" yet. To
make it into science, as I think of it, you have to go beyond empirical
generalizations and try to explain how it works. The "Model I Master
Program" seems to be a collection of principles (not programs) but it needs
further testing to see if it's real or simply an interpretation by an
observer. For each principle, you have to set up an experiment in which you
apply disturbances that would tend to alter the person's experiences away
from fitting the principle, and then you'd have to observe actions
specifically organized to counteract the (hypothetical) effects of the

I don't know if you've played the Coin Game as described in B:CP, but it's
relevant to what I'm saying here. In the Coin Game, the experimenter forms
a hypothesis about what aspect of the four coins the other person is
controlling. Then the experimenter alters the pattern of coins so that
aspect is changed. On the other person's turn, if an error in the (secret)
pattern perception occurs, the person must correct it by rearranging the
coins, not necessary back to the original pattern but to any pattern that
still fits the person's reference pattern. If there were two coins and I
were controlling the distance between them at 2 inches, you could disturb
the controlled variable by moving one coin, and I could correct the error
by moving _either_ or _both_ coins so the distance between them again was
the amount I wanted. Guessing the pattern amounts to predicting when
disturbances will be corrected by the subject and when they will be ignored.

Simply showing that behavior fits a pattern that an experimenter can
recognize is not enough. Anyone who has played the coin game knows that the
subject can be controlling something quite different from what the
experimenter at first sees as the controlled variable. It's necessary to go
beyond observing patterns and introduce changes to see if they will be
resisted and corrected. And you have to be able to say what changes _will_
be resisted, and which _will not_ be resisted. If you move both coins in
parallel directions by the same amount, I will do nothing to correct the
pattern because you have not disturbed the distance between the coins.

The Model I Master Program is not acceptable as a scientific fact until it
has been demonstrated to be under control by the subject. Until then, it is
only a pattern that the observer has noticed repeatedly, which tells us
only that the observer is organized to see this pattern whenever possible.
The observer may see this pattern 5000 times, but it's still just his own
perception until he can prove that subjects also perceive and control it.

The hypothesis is worth looking into, however. Discovering the principles
under which people actually operate would be an extremely valuable piece of
work -- if you could prove you had it right.


Bill P.

from [ Marc Abrams (2003.05.11.1638) ]

Purpose: Clarification. I am going to do this point by point so there will
be hopefully little misunderstanding.

[From Bill Powers (2003.05.11.1328 MDT)]

1. I never said "Action Science" was in fact a science. What I said was
Action Science was a set of theories and methods based on Cog Sci.

2. I am suggesting that "Action Science" is in fact explained by the science
of PCT.

3. That "Action Science" provides PCT with _several_ methods that _MIGHT_
provide useful data to explore the upper levels of the hierarchy and
learning with.

4. I agree with you. Read my other posts.

5. I am suggesting it _MIGHT_ be worthwhile looking into.