A Thermostat Metaphor

 Double Loop Learning


Double loop learning is learning about the assumptions behind  your programmed way of seeing.  Chris Argyris

I believe making personal decisions is often side-tracked by standard operating procedures and untested assumptions. In this blog I am suggesting a remedy using a thermostat metaphor and the strategy of questioning the questioner.  My suggestion is borrowed from Chris Argyris, who many years ago introduced the concept of double loop learning. He explained the concept with a household thermostat.

He suggests that our way of seeing is often a programmed way of seeing, like a thermostat. A thermostat measures room temperature against a standard setting and turns the heat source on or off accordingly. This whole transaction is programmed; it is binary, single loop learning. It asks a one-dimensional question to elicit a one-dimensional answer.

Double loop learning turns the questions back on the questioner and seeks a two-dimensional answer, questioning the programmed way of seeing things. In the case of the thermostat for example, double loop learning would wonder whether the current setting was actually the most effective temperature at which to keep the room and, if so, whether the present heat source was the most effective means of achieving it.  A double-loop process might also ask why the current setting was chosen in the first place. In other words, double loop learning asks questions about the reasons, beliefs, and assumptions behind one’s programmed way of seeing and doing.

It is well known that we run on auto pilot, following standard procedures, not asking questions ourselves. This is single loop learning.  Are you aware of your programmed way of seeing? Try this double-loop, metaphorical strategy:

Imagine you are the metaphoric thermostat. Pick out a recent decision or mental perception, then ask double-loop learning questions of yourself.

  • Why am I seeing this way? Why am I doing this? What is another/better way?
  • What assumptions are behind my programmed way of seeing and doing?
  • Is my view an asset or a liability?  Why? What behaviors does it lead to?
  • Is it an erroneous perception, an unrealistic perception, a creative perception?
  • Why would someone else see it differently? Why would they agree?
  • Having an “honest” partner to give you feedback about your answers might help.

Auto-pilot, a programmed way of seeing, is full of untested assumptions. Testing assumptions requires paying attention to the way you see things. Your personal “learning thermostat” needs to be double loop.

Out of necessity we learn to run on auto pilot, paying attention mechanically and passively most of the time. This underscores the need to pay attention deliberately and voluntarily, thereby liberating our awareness from robotic activity.  Daniel Goleman



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2 Responses to A Thermostat Metaphor

  1. Eugene Unger says:

    This type of learning is what we must do when driving in fast traffic . Single loop will eventually end in accidents 😜 or worse 😱 distracted driving is no loops used?! Rest in peace for someone ! Morning H 😉 g



  2. Marianne says:

    Good method. However, I have hard enough time sometimes making decisions, that I might never complete the process if I question each one. This is good for those decisions that have critical consequences, for sure.

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