THEORIES and MODELS in Applied Behavioral Science

  1. William Pfeiffer, Ph.D. Editor Arlette C. Ballew Associate Editor

(I have heavily edited this document)

The Differences Between Theory and Models

A theory is an explanation of causal relationships. It generally starts from assumptions and proceeds to deductions or conclusions that conform to observations of the referent system. The term “model,” on the other hand, refers primarily to graphic depictions of systems or processes and the relationships among their elements. These are the types of models most often used in training and organization development work. (We are not concerned here with the development of computerized models or those used for scientific research.) Thus, the difference between models and theory is that models represent while theories explain.


Models Represent; Theories Explain

Although formal definitions of the word “model” may vary, in most professions it generally is agreed that a model is a symbolic representation of the functions or aspects of a system or complex event and their interrelationships. A model usually shows the relationships among elements of the system. Because a model is by nature a simplification, it does not include all the variables, but its value is that it can be used for analytical purposes.

Theory, on the other hand, is a set of causal relationships developed to provide a logically acceptable chain of reasoning starting from well-defined assumptions and proceeding to deductions or conclusions that conform to observation of the referent system. The test of a theory is validity; the test of a model is utility.


What Theory Is

A theory is a set of assumptions, propositions, or accepted facts that attempts to provide a plausible or rational explanation of cause-and-effect (causal) relationships among a group of observed phenomena. Theories incorporate known findings into a logically consistent framework; clarifying and simplifying complex events. In applied behavioral sciences, theories are generally developed inductively, through observation.

Good theory does not overcomplicate; rather, it clarifies. Good theory is clear, simple and readily understandable. Good theory provides guidelines and directions for the development of more and deeper understanding of our world and ourselves. It includes specific, practical, actionable applications.

Most people tend to be “theorizers,” either consciously or unconsciously. When we see things happen repeatedly in given situations, we predict things will always happen that way. An interesting phenomenon when making these kinds of predictions is that we put ourselves outside the event. Being an outsider limits thinking, distorts perceptions, leads to expectancy bias and results in heuristic and framing bias. OD practitioners need to keep an open mind and discuss their thoughts when developing models.


Theory and Hypothesis

In the behavioral sciences, what often is called theory is, in fact, merely a working hypothesis. Such a hypothesis frequently is based on a specific set of conditions and may fail when applied to a different set of conditions.

Observation is the best source for ideas upon which to develop one’s personal theories. Looking over a series of occurrences and generating tentative hypotheses about the behavior of individuals is helpful, if the theorizing does not become restrictive and force subsequent experiences to be seen in its framework. Sometimes, giving up trying to control or predict can allow space for new clarity to emerge.


Theory in OD

OD is an especially eclectic field. The activities are diverse and the phenomena that OD practitioners confront are quite complicated. Hard facts are scarce; even the most clearly stated theoretical relationships must be qualified by “it depends.” The practitioner is likely to be influenced by learning theory, personality theory, clinical psychology and psychiatry, social psychology, education, management theory, organizations, communications, political science, and perhaps a touch of Eastern mysticism. This diversity of sources is enriching and exciting, but it also makes comprehensiveness, integration, and synthesis difficult.

Furthermore, current theory is largely descriptive. It organizes and categorizes what is known and attempts to reduce complexity. In the effort to simplify and offer practical assistance, theorists may overlook the facts of individual differences and multiple motivations for human behavior.

There are two general categories of theory: stimulus-response and cognitive. Cognitive theories deal with the acquisition of knowledge and are humanistic in nature. They generally rely on individuals to learn through self-motivation. In OD, cognitive theories are presented primarily by means of models making it easier to “digest” and apply the concepts.


What Models Are

Models are the road maps of applied behavioral science. Many of the models we have are like the crude and inaccurate geographical maps of the fifteenth century, describing accurately and in detail some well-explored areas and also containing large areas of unexplored territory and some mythical regions. Sometimes, in our zeal to understand ourselves, we mistake the map for the reality and forget that the model is only a pattern, an analogy. When psychological models are used not only to describe but also to predict behavior, they begin to acquire the status of theory. As data are collected and the model is supported or confirmed, hypotheses are generated, and laws of interaction can be expressed in a systematic way. Models in the applied behavioral sciences are developed to:

  • explain various aspects of human behavior and interaction;
  • integrate what is known through research and observation;
  • simplify complex processes;
  • guide observation in dynamic situations such as group interaction;
  • teach relationships among concepts;
  • predict behavior in some situations;
  • control and evaluate in experimental designs;
  • invent new ideas and processes; and
  • plan interventions into human systems.

The purpose of a model is to communicate, in a simplified and effective way, complex information that generally includes statements about the causal relationships between and among specific variables or concepts.



  1. Conduct a Google search for “organization development models” and select “images.” You will find thousands of models. There are also tabs that allow you to view models for “organization structure,” “organizational process,” “organizational design,” and many more.
  2. Select a model that you like. It can be simple or complex. Learn as much as you can about the model.
  3. Create (draw on paper) your own model for one of the following: a) how work flows through your department, b) how decisions are made within your work group, or c) your own ideas about how people change their minds about something. Make it simple.
  4. Be prepared to discuss the model you selected and why AND present your model.