Image theory

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Image theory is a psychological theory about decision-making.


  • To begin, image theory assumes that decision makers use three different schematic knowledge structures to organize their thinking about decisions. These structures are called images, in deference to Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (1960), whose work inspired image theory. The first of the three is the value image, the constituents of which are the decision maker's principles. These are the imperatives for his or her behavior or the behavior of the organization of which he or she is a member and serve as rigid criteria for the rightness or wrongness of any particular decision about a goal or plan. Principles serve to internally generate candidate goals and plans for possible adoption, and they guide decisions about externally generated candidate goals and plans.
The second image is the trajectory image, the constituents of which are previously adopted goals. This image represents what the decision maker hopes he, she or the organization will become and achieve. Goals can be concrete, specific events (getting the money to buy a new Honda Accord DX) or abstract states (achieving a successful career). The goal agendum is called the trajectory image to convey the idea of extension, the decision maker's vision of the ideal future.
The third image is the strategic image, the constituents of which are the various plans that have been adopted for achieving the goals on the trajectory image. Each plan is an abstract sequence of potential activities beginning with goal adoption and ending with goal attainment...
  • Lee Roy Beach. "Image theory: An alternative to normative decision theory." NA-Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 (1993).
  • Briefly stated, image theory assumes that people "adopt and implement plans to reach goals in order to satisfy principles" (Mitchell & Beach, 1990, p. 16)
    • Jack E. Edwards, ‎John C. Scott, ‎Nambury S. Raju (2003), The Human Resources Program-Evaluation Handbook. p. 73
  • Images are defined to be information structures, with different kind of images representing different kind of information about what the actor is doing, why and how, and what kind of progress is being made.
    • Terence R. Mitchell and Lee Roy Beach in: Universidade da Coruña (1990), Organizational behavior and human decision processes. p. 7
  • Image theory is an attempt to describe decision making as it actually occurs... The theory recognises that decisions occur in steps such as screening out unacceptable options followed by choosing the best option from the survivors... The interesting point being that screening focuses on what is wrong with options and choosing focuses on what is right, which are two quite different activities. Once adoption choices have been made, decision makers routinely revisit the progress of the implementations of their decisions to test if they remain compatible with the achievement of their goal. Image theory has been adapted to describe both individual decision making and organisational decision making.
The concept of images is central to the theory. They represent visions held by individuals and organisations that constitute how they believe the world should exist. When considering individuals, the theory refers to these images as the value image, trajectory image and strategic image. The value image is based on an individual’s ethics, morals and beliefs. The trajectory images encompass the decision maker’s goals and aspirations. Finally, for each trajectory image, a decision maker may have one or more strategic images that contain their plans, tactics and forecasts for their goals... In an organisational decision-making setting, these images are referred to as culture, vision and strategy...
  • Christopher Bernard Stephenson (2012), 'What causes top management teams to make poor strategic decisions?', DBA thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.
  • Within image theory (e.g., Beach, 1990; Mitchell & Beach, 1990), it is suggested that important components of decision-making processes are the different “images” that a person may use to evaluate choice options. Images may represent a person's principles, goals, or plans. Decision options may then match or not match these images and be adopted, rejected, considered further, depending on circumstances.
    • Deborah J. Terry, Michael A. Hogg. Attitudes, Behavior, and Social Context: The Role of Norms and Group Membership. 1999

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