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Chris Argyris’ Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Human actions are designed to achieve intended consequences and governed by a set of environment variables. How those governing variables are treated in designing actions are the key differences between single loop learning and double loop learning. When actions are designed to achieve the intended consequences and to suppress conflict about the governing variables, a single loop learning cycle usually ensues. On the other hand, when actions are taken, not only to achieve the intended consequences, but also to openly inquire about conflict and to possibly transform the governing variables, both single loop and double loop learning cycles usually ensue. (Argyris applies single loop and double loop learning concepts not only to personal behaviors but also to organizational behaviors in his models.)

Model 1 illustrates how single loop learning affect human actions. Model 2 describes how double loop learning affects human actions. The following Model 1 and Model 2 tables introduce these ideas (tables are from Argyris, Putnam & Smith, 1985, Action Science, Ch. 3.) Other key books conveying Argyris’ approach include Argyris & Schon, 1974 and Argyris, 1970, 1980, 1994).

Table 1 Model 1 Theory-In-Use

Governing Variables Action Strategies Consequences for the Behavioral World Consequences for Learning Effectiveness
Define goals and try to achieve them Design and manage the environment unilaterally (be persuasive, appeal to larger goals) Actor seen as defensive, inconsistent, incongruent, competitive, controlling, fearful of being vulnerable3, manipulative, withholding of feelings, overly concerned about self and others or under concerned about others Self-sealing Decreased effectiveness
Maximize wining and minimize losing Own and control the task (claim ownership of the task, be guardian of definition and execution of task) Defensive interpersonal and group relationship (dependence upon actor, little additivity, little helping of others) Single-loop learning
Minimize generating or expressing negative feelings Unilterally protect your self (speak with infeered categories accompanied by little or no directly observable behavior, be blink to impact on others and to the incongruity between rhetoric and behavior, reduce incongruity by defensive actions such as blaming, stereotyping, suppressing feelings, intellectualizing) Defensive norms (mistrust, lack of risk taking, conformitment, emphasis on diplomacy, power-centered competition, and rivalry) Little testing of theories publicly, much testing of theories privately
Be rational Unilaterally protest others from being hurt (withhold information, create rules to censor information and behavior, hold private meetings) Little freedom of choice, internal commitment, or risk taking

Table 2 Model 2 Theory-In-Use

Governing Variables Action Strategies Consequences for the Behavioral World Consequences for Learning Consequences for Quality of Life Effectiveness
Valid information Design situations or environments where participants can be origins and can experience high personal causation (psychological success, confirmation, essentiality) Actor experienced as minimally defensive (facilitator, collaborator, choice creator) Disconfirmable processes Quality of life will be more positive than negative (high authenticity and high freedom of choice)
Free and informed choice tasks are controlled jointly Minimally defensive interpersonal relations and group dynamics Double-loop learning effectiveness of problem solving and decision making will be great, especially for difficult problems Increase long-run effectiveness
Internal commitment to the choice and constrant monitoring of its implementation Protection of self is a joint enterprise and oriented toward growth (speck in directly observable categoies, seek to reduce blindness about own inconsistency and incongruity) Learning-oriented norms (trust, individuality, open confrontation on difficult issues) Public testing of theories
Bilateral protection of others


  • Argyris, C. Putnam, R. & Smith, D. 1985. Action Science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Argyris, C. 1970. Intervention Theory and Method. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Argyris, C. 1980. Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research. San Diego CA: Academic Press.
  • Argyris, C. 1994. Knowledge for Action. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Reason & Bradbury, Handbook of Action Research. London: Sage, 2001.

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