Your Espoused Theory vs. Your Theory-In-Use

When was the last time you questioned the underlying “rules” of the game you’re playing, be it at school, in the workplace or in your chosen arena of expertise? When did you last take a genuinely holistic view of the choices you made and accepted responsibility for them? When did you accurately detect an error in the way you were seeing things, and have the courage to adapt?

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You may be entirely unconscious of the inner theory you have about the world—i.e., what Argyris called an “espoused theory of action.” He, along with his fellow researchers, found that our espoused theory of certain actions is often different from our “theory-in-use,” which is the theory based on which we actually act.

Let’s consider an example from Argyris’s research. A management consultant is asked how he would deal with a disagreement involving a certain client. The consultant responds that he would start by stating the way he understood the disagreement, and then negotiate how they could come to an agreement based on relevant data. However, a tape of the consultant when faced with such a predicament revealed that he simply dismissed his client’s opinion and advocated for his own views. The former was his espoused theory, while the later was his theory-in-use.

Any decision, reaction or challenge that we face can be passed through this theory and interpreted accordingly with single loop learning.

The trouble is when you don’t allow yourself to solve a problem or learn something new any other way. “Thinking out of the box” is something that sounds great, but is actually seldom done. When we feel powerless to change the way something works, like if we have a fixed mindset, it can feel comfortable to simply assume that things are the way they are and that nothing you do will impact that arrangement in any significant way. According to that view, our problems aren’t necessarily the result of our own actions, but merely a consequence of the way things are.

When was the last time you questioned the underlying “rules” of the game you’re playing, be it at school, in the workplace or in your chosen arena of expertise? When did you last take a genuinely holistic view of the choices you made and accepted responsibility for them? When did you accurately detect an error in the way you were seeing things, and have the courage to adapt?

This last question is perhaps the most pertinent. A perfectionist or someone dominated by fear, control, or ego will look at a pristine track record and see the absence of “errors” as a good sign. Isn’t it great to be right? However, the opposite is likely true.

Deep learning happens when a person is capable of accurately detecting errors, inefficiencies or weaknesses in their own process, and is capable of making the relevant changes. When you think about it, how else could learning possibly be? In the same way as you cannot imagine a person all of a sudden speaking fluently in a brand-new language, you cannot picture a learning process that lacks mistakes, and the detection of those mistakes.

We should be striving not to avoid mistakes, but to continually make higher level ones. As the author Jules Verne once said, “Science is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make because little by little they lead us to the truth.” The same applies to our lives as well. We may be disappointed by errors, but ultimately those errors facilitate improvement if they are properly addressed and rectified.

Again, double loop learning does not entail adjustment at a merely superficial level, i.e. how to run your current single loop more quickly. Rather, it’s about taking a step back to look at the loops themselves. Instead of blindly and uncritically following our normal protocol, we take charge and responsibility for managing our own protocols for ourselves. Ironically, it’s this attitude that offers the prospect of real control!

Let’s look at an example. A history teacher is struggling to engage his class on a chapter about the Industrial Revolution. He has his teacher’s toolkit (“The way things are done”) and tries it all: disciplining students who chat during class, issuing punishments for those who don’t submit homework, yelling, lecturing, and so on.

None of these methods work, and his students still aren’t interested in the subject. After a while, the teacher realizes he’s been engaging in single loop thinking, merely doubling down on his efforts using the same old tactics over and over.

He takes a broader view. His first question—why are the students so uninterested in this topic? He chats to some other teachers who all weigh in and give their advice, and reads up a little about student motivation.

And then it hits him—he’s still working within the old educational framework that governs how teachers and students relate, and how classroom problems are solved. He understands what he needs to do next: talk to the students.

He realizes, with some surprise, that the students themselves are reflecting back the same problem he’s dealing with: they are bored in class because the curriculum is forcing a kind of uninspired single loop learning.

By reflecting on his own process in the classroom, the teacher simultaneously understands what’s missing in the material for the students, as well—critical thinking and reflection (i.e. double loop learning). He sees that when single loops are running, people don’t really learn—they just go round and round.

He changes his approach entirely. The class has a long and lively debate about not only the topic, but about the learning experience itself. He decides to work with the students to look back at all the ways the previous study plan failed. The students step in and engage, feeling inspired and encouraged to design their own curriculum to adapt to changes and new developments.

Far from what it appeared at first, the students are actually intensely interested in the topic and enjoy learning about it and engaging with one another. The teacher finds himself encountering completely new and fresh perspectives that he hadn’t considered before. In this case, the single loop itself was preventing deeper and more insightful learning, and the students responded well when fear, hierarchies and stale old assumptions were questioned and updated.

This simple example makes it all seem pretty easy, but of course the quality of your double loop thinking will depend very much on the mental models you’re able to use, your decision-making process, your values, your willingness to change and a lot more. It sounds simple enough to modify your learning based on new evidence and experimentation, but this is seldom a very clear-cut process. When you zoom out far enough, almost everything that resembles a learning process, every idea, action, decision, thought, and even feeling can be seen as a part of a particular mental model or perspective.

Whatever it is that you’re trying to learn (including the skill of being better at learning), you’ll need some kind of framework to help you assess frameworks. You’ll need a way to build loops that are dynamic and can grow. You’ll need to have ways to identify and remove mistakes, so you don’t end up making them again and again.

This is not a merely objective phenomenon—you’ll have to be quite honest and discerning enough to weigh up your process and outcomes against your own deeper values. Reflection is a rich and insightful process; it’s not merely scanning your code for bugs.