Theories of Action and PCT

From [ Marc Abrams (2003.05.12.2040) ]


To end one, and hopefully begin a new thread on an aspect of Action Science vies a vies HPCT. My intent is to look at the potential Action Science might have with regard to helping us look at the upper levels of the HPCT hierarchy. If anyone is interested in this and wants a recommended list of lit, contact me. If you have something to say about it, now is the time. This will be my last post on the subject if I get no response or interest in it. If the response is small it might be better to take it off-line. I will review and summarize what I have said so far and hopefully bring up a topic of interest for some.

Action Science, Action Research, or Action Theory is a series of theories, and methods based on the Cog Sci behavioral model of Kurt Lewin. What makes it interesting from my perspective, is that HPCT “explains” his theories and methods better then the Cog Sci behavioral model he is currently uses AND, explains things in his theories and methods his current Cog sci behavioral model can’t. I believe we can help each other. At a minimum, I believe it will help ME look at the upper levels of the HPCT hierarchy. I’m pretty excited about it. I was exposed to Action Science about 10 years ago. I was beginning to get involved with Action Science and SD, through the systems thinking people & my consulting work. I was introduced to PCT by a gentleman/consultant named Jeff Dooley. In a discussion we were having he asked me if I knew about PCT. I told him no, and asked him what it had to do with Action Science?, he said; “Everything.” Off that recommendation I logged on to CSGnet in 1995. It has taken me 8 years to fully understand what Jeff Dooley told me . I now second that emotion.:-). The theories and methods developed over a 22 year period ( 1974 - 1996 ) and was largely the work of Chris Argyris (MIT) and Donald Schon (Harvard). Argyris has collaborated with others over the years, and has authored or co-authored 12 books. He has taken 4 research paths; one is the researcher/practitioner social-science collaboration model. Phil Runkel addressed this in his book Casting Nets. The others being personal and interpersonal learning. Interpersonal theories-in-use, Educating organizational consultants in the theory-in-action approach and its using it for organizational change, and finally, action research which he believed essential to his theory-in-action approach.

The Theory-in-action approach centers around a few key concepts.

Master Behavioral Model I & Model II.

Single and Double loop learning

Espoused theories


This forms the core. Everything revolves around these concepts. Lets take a look at each.

Master Behavioral Model I Theories-in-use

Argyris believes we all share this “behavioral” model. In 29 years of practice,research, and 5,000 people, he has not come across a disconfirming case. When looked at, we can see that this is not a Cog Sci behavioral model at all. He calls it that, but it hardly is. Key concepts of

Model I are;

It has 4 governing variables. Unlike Glasser, who has 5 or so intrinsic variables. Argyris’s “governing variables” are PCT principles. How do I know this? I don’t. I’m guessing. The 4 “governing variables” `or principles we walk around with;

  1. Define goals and try to achieve them

  2. Maximize winning and minimize losing.

  3. Minimize generating or expressing negative feelings

  4. Be rational ( Unilaterally protect yourself and others )

Argyris never says these is the only variables there are. He simply said these are what he has found consistently, over the years and across various populations. Each of these “variables” can, and does have many behaviors associated with it. We know that these variables have many perceptions associated with them as well. I am interested in the perceptions these “variables” produce.

Argyris believes Values ( principles) + Action Strategies (behavior and perceptions) + Assumptions ( programs ) = Purpose

Values bind Action strategies and Assumptions. An interesting idea. Is it true? Again, Argyris believes so. I don’t know.

Model II has 3 different principles, and together with Model I comprise our Theories-in-action

Model II principles;

  1. Valid Information, Design situations or environments where participants can be origins and can experience personal causation. That is, be involved in something meaningful.

  2. Free and informed choice: tasks are controlled jointly

  3. Protection of self is a joint enterprise and oriented toward growth.

Some important things to note. As you can see this is not a theory of individual behavior. This is a theory of human interaction. Model II principles apply only to more then 1 person. Yes, Argyris says that all of us walk around with at least the set of principles found in Model I. He has found Model ! “behavior” counter productive in “solving” Double-loop organizational learning problems (defined shortly). For that you need to have Model II principles. Model I principles are good for solving single-loop problems.

Single-loop problems are solved by changing Action Strategies ( behavior ). Double-loop problems need to use Model II principles to solve. How do I know this? I don’t. I am taking Argyris’s word for it. It sounds good. You will have to do a bit of reading to get more details on this.

It seems that most of the time Model I behavior and Single-loop learning are more then adequate to handle our needs. But every once in a while we need Model II and Double-loop learning. If you’re interested, read the literature for details.

Argyris defines an organization as an agency and describes it as group ( more then 1 person ) governed by a set of written or unwritten rules.

He talks about families to large corps.

He believes humans are purposeful and develop action strategies because of mistakes people make. He believes people are not always aware of the mistakes they make, or the mistakes have lag and do not produce immediate feedback. I analogue this to PCT error, although this is not literally true. Error signals do not currently exist in Argyris’s behavioral model.

Espoused theories, are theories we use to explain what we have done. Theories-in-use describe what we actually have done. Often the two are not the same.When someone asks someone else how they might act in a given situation. The answer is someone’s espoused theory. The theory that actually governs his actions is his theory-in-use.

Theories-in-use, however their assumptions may differ, do all include assumptions about self, others, the situation, and the connections among action, consequence, and situation. Or so Argyris says.

How can we help inform Argyris’s theories and practice?

Argyris believes; We cannot learn what someone’s theory-in-use is simply by asking him. We must construct his theory-in-use from observations of his behavior.

Sorry Dr. Argyris. I believe we can construct someone’s theory-in-use by looking at your data and seeing what principle perceptions people are controlling for and possibly what system level or program level variables might have been used, and that people’s words (actions) are “caused” by control, or the lack of it. Words represent ideas, thoughts, and can cause as much error ( mistakes) as any body movement.

That’s it folks. Any takers?


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