Action Theory

Action theory represents a general model of work-related cognition and behavior with implications for a wide range of topics in industrial/organizational psychology. Inspired by Lewin’s field theory, American cybernetic models, and Russian and Polish approaches, German work psychologists initiated the development of action theory in the late 1960s. As the core concept of the theory, action is conceived of as goal-directed behavior. Actions are behavioral units oriented toward their own distinct goals, whereas operations (e.g., movement patterns) are subordinate action components. As anticipatory cognitive structures, goals guide the action process, because they function as relatively invariant set points for the interpretation of feedback. Action theory explains both the sequential ordering and the hierarchical structuring of action.

The Action Sequence

Action theory differentiates five phases of the action sequence: (a) goal development and choosing between competing goals; (b) orientation (i.e., collecting relevant information about the task and the conditions in one’s work environment) and prognosis of future events; (c) plan development and selection; (d) execution of the plan and monitoring; and (e) the processing of feedback, which in turn influences the development of subsequent goals. These action steps are not always taken in the same order (e.g., initial plans may be refined during action execution). The action sequence allows for an analysis of the interface between the objective work environment and subjective task representations, because employees’ specific redefinitions of tasks presented by the organization (e.g., to operate a machine) determine their individual goals and plans (e.g., whether and how to take action when the machine breaks down).

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

Four Levels of Action Regulation

From a structural point of view, actions are organized hierarchically, because higher-order goals are broken down into subgoals, and higher levels of conscious intellectual regulation are superordinate to lower levels of automatic operations. Recent versions of action theory distinguish four levels of action regulation, ordered from lowest to highest:

  1. Sensorimotor level. Stereotyped and automatic movement sequences are organized without conscious attention.
  2. Level of flexible action patterns. Ready-made action schemata that do not require conscious representation are tailored to situationally defined parameters.
  3. Intellectual level. New actions in a complex environment are consciously regulated.
  4. Heuristic level. Meta cognitive strategies such as general problem-solving approaches are pursued either consciously or automatically.

The Operative Image System

One’s accumulated knowledge of the relationships between specific conditions, actions, and results is stored in the so-called operative image system. This system reflects the cognitive base for action regulation and entails long-term representations of schemata or strategies applicable to action regulation at all four levels (e.g., movement-oriented schemata to be regulated at the sensorimotor level, and strategies to be implemented at the intellectual level). Originally, cyclical test-operate-test-exit (TOTE) units, which imply that action is taken until there is congruity between the current state and a criterion, were considered the basic units of action regulation. To reconcile this classic discrepancy reduction approach with the notion of discrepancy creation, action theorists have emphasized the role of goals as desired end states and the impact of active approaches on the environment.

Applications of Action Theory

Action theory has implications for several domains, including stress, training, job analysis, work design, error management, emotion regulation, competence development, and personality enhancement. Action theorists emphasize socialization processes by considering malleable facets of personality, motivation, and cognitive ability as dependent variables that may be affected by work action. For example, work environments encouraging forward thinking induce action styles such as planfulness (i.e., the detailed development and persistent implementation of long-range plans). New ideas on error management and the function of errors in the learning and training process were also derived from action theory. Research examining why so-called superworkers produce superior results without spending more time at work revealed that they engage more frequently in planning and have better operative image systems, reflected in greater knowledge of error frequencies, the signals indicating errors, and the duration and efficiency of different strategies of dealing with errors.

Conceptualizing stress as a disturbance of action regulation, action theory offers a theoretically grounded stressor taxonomy, composed of three categories: (a) regulation obstacles (i.e., interruptions and regulation difficulties such as poor visibility or lack of information); (b) regulation uncertainties (e.g., role ambiguity); and (c) overtaxing regulations (e.g., time pressure). Multiple job analysis tools have been developed based on action theory. These tools typically provide a structured assessment of regulatory requirements and difficulties (e.g., the degree to which the work requires a conscious development and coordination of new plans). The function of emotions for action regulation, particularly in service work, has also been analyzed within an action theory context. Emotions enable people to continue with the action process despite barriers and difficulties. Examples are the motivation derived from pride in anticipation of goal attainment and the role of negative affect in facilitating an objective assessment of environmental barriers.

The Value of Action Theory

As an integrative metatheory, action theory illuminates the implications of specific cognitive and social psychological theories for industrial/organizational issues. For example, studies based on the theories of action-state orientation and self-discrimination revealed that distractible state-oriented individuals are less likely to efficiently translate intentions into action and more likely to falsely redefine external demands as their own goals. Action theory also helps explain the impact of societal transformations on work activities. Longitudinal research based on action theory demonstrated that increases in the levels of complexity and control experienced by East German employees after the country’s reunification enhanced their personal initiative (i.e., organizationally functional forms of self-started, proactive, and persistent behavior).

In conclusion, action theory distinguishes itself from most micro industrial/organizational models because of its scope, its versatility, its theoretical foundation in cognitive science, its applicability to various facets of everyday work behavior, and its simultaneous consideration of objective environments, internal mental operations, and observable behavioral outcomes. By bridging the gaps between the environment and cognition (e.g., via task redefinitions in the action sequence) and between cognition and action (e.g., via plans as starting points for action), action theory integrates cognitivist and behavioral approaches. Action theory has been described as a way of thinking that leads to a sharper understanding of how our cognitive apparatus is used and shaped in the workplace and in relation to the world we inhabit.


  1. Frese, M., & Sabini, J. (1985). Goal-directed behavior: The concept of action in psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Frese, M., &Zapf, D. (1994). Action as the core of work psychology: A German approach. In M. D. Dunnette, J. M. Hough, & H. C. Triandis (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 271-340). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  3. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions— Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
  4. Hacker, W. (2003). Action regulation theory: A practical tool for the design of modern work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 12, 105-130.
  5. Zapf, D. (2002). Emotion work and psychological strain: A review of the literature and some conceptual considerations. Human Resource Management Review, 12, 237-268.

See also: