Monday, 22 December 2014

Theories: patterns of behaviour

The OED defines a theory as being "A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained" (2014).

That's a pretty complex sentence. I prefer a much simpler approach: I think of a theory as being an observed pattern of behaviour.

We use theories as a guide to be able to measure our behaviour against, once we know the components. Like considering a recipe's ingredients as a ratio in cooking: once we know the ratio, we can upscale without losing the relationship between the ingredients. If a recipe calls for 10g of baking powder for each 250g of flour, we can quadruple to 1 kilo of flour and 40g of baking powder, or halve to 5g and 125g.

Theories work the same way: once we know the steps or stages or specifications, we can be deliberate about making changes. We can become more aware of our actions and aware of the relationship between components. We can find that there are some portions of the theory that we don't do so well at, and so make improvements to that area until we develop a strength.

Having a number of theories - possible patterns of behaviour - in our tool-kit means we can try different approaches in differing circumstances. By knowing how all the theories break down into their component parts, we can seek a match to use when something that used to work for us no longer does.

Theories allow us to adapt.

We are unable to change our approach if we don't know the pattern we are following, or if we are unaware of the other patterns that there are to chose from.

When we think about theories in this way, it becomes obvious why they are so useful.


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