Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Chris Argyris: Espoused Theory vs Theory in Action

with 6 comments

Via some combination of Christian Blunden, Pat Kua, David Joyce and Benjamin Mitchell I’ve been spending some time lately reading about the work of Chris Argyris.

I’ve previously come across his name while reading The Fifth Discipline but I didn’t realise how interesting his work actually is.

One of the interesting concepts I’ve come across so far is the difference between espoused theory and theory in use:

Espoused theory

The world view and values people believe their behaviour is based on.


The world view and values implied by their behaviour, or the maps they use to take action.

There are two areas that really stood out for me when I read these definitions.


In face to face interviews the candidate is likely to give an answer based on their espoused theory of the world and hence can come across as being very good if they know the type of answers you’re looking for.

I’ve interviewed a couple of people over the last few years where I couldn’t find fault with any of the answers being given but I was convinced that they weren’t giving me an accurate picture of the candidate. The answers were too perfect.

Luckily we have an opportunity to get a closer look at a candidate’s theory in action in the pair programming interview that we do.

I believe HashRocket take this even further by having candidates pair with their team for a week before they potentially get hired.

Knowledge vs Experience

In a recent conversation with Dave Cameron I was telling him about the difficulties I’d been having in applying the ideas I’d read in Crucial Confrontations, Agile Coaching and Fearless Change.

I understand the ideas that the books are suggesting but in a real life situation I nearly always make a mistake.

Dave pointed out that this is the difference between knowledge and experience – just because you know what to do doesn’t mean that you will do it unless you’ve had some experience of the situation before.

This sounds pretty similar to the difference between espoused theory and theory in action – I know what I want to do in a situation but at the moment that isn’t what I actually do.

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Written by Mark Needham

January 13th, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Systems Thinking

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  • Jason Yip

    You might be interested in Think Like a Commander:

    There’s more about this in Developing Professional Expertise, especially how novice physicists may perform well with equations but still have fundamental misconceptions.

  • Rixt

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for sharing, this is such great stuff, I love it.

    Doesn’t it remind you of the communication theory in NLP, how we all have our own model of the world and how our behaviour is based up that model.

    Exactly because people are likely to give an answer based on their espoused theory of the world, i tend to ask candidates to tell me about a situation in which they had to face challenge X instead of asking them to tell me what they would do if they would encounter challenge X.
    Our pair programming interview is another great tool to get an insight into the candidate’s Theory-in-use.

    Finally, i once heard some one say: “Don’t tell me what your values are, but instead tell me what you spend your time and money on and I will tell you what your values are.”

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  • Giri Fox

    Thanks for the reference, I was trying to remember the terms used in Fifth Discipline.