Probabilities and Possibilities: The Strategic Counseling Implications of the Chaos Theory of Careers

By Pryor, Robert G. L.; Amundson, Norman E. et al. | Career Development Quarterly, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Probabilities and Possibilities: The Strategic Counseling Implications of the Chaos Theory of Careers


Pryor, Robert G. L., Amundson, Norman E., Bright, Jim E. H., Career Development Quarterly


The chaos theory of careers emphasizes both stability and change in its account of career development. This article outlines counseling strategies derived from this emphasis in terms of convergent or probability thinking and emergent or possibility thinking. These 2 perspectives are characterized, and practical counseling strategy implications are provided. In addition, an illustrative technique example is described. The authors conclude that the challenges of modern career development demand the complementary and the interactive use of both probability and possibility thinking strategies.

Historically, career development theory and counseling practice have focused on the stable aspects of both individuals and occupations. For example, the matching models of Dawis and Lofquist ( 1984) or Holland (1997) are predicated on the assumption that there is sufficient stability within the characteristics of both individuals and their working environments to make such matching coherent and reasonable. More recendy, however, both theorists and counselors have had to acknowledge the importance of change (Hesketh, 2001) and the reality of chance {Krumboltz & Levin, 2004) as also fundamental to the ways in which career development plays out in human experience. In this article, we endeavor to show how the application of the chaos theory perspective can be used to develop career counseling strategies to address these issues, and we provide a specific example of a technique derived from such strategies for counselors to use with clients.

The Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC)

Chaos theory emphasizes the need to consider the interactive and emergent properties of wholes or systems as a new focus for theory and research in science (Kellert, 1993). From the perspective of CTC, the objective world is understood in terms of complex dynamic systems that have a number of distinctive characteristics (Pryor & Bright, 2003a, 2003b). To acknowledge complexity is to recognize that reality, including human experience, has to be comprehended in its totality. Although there is some value in examining the parts of a complex whole, there is also the danger that the emergent properties of complex systems will be overlooked. As systems become more complex, the more likely it is that unpredicted events will begin to appear in the course of the functioning of the system. With respect to human experience, this means that what happens is necessarily only one of the possibilities that could have occurred. Concisely expressed, all history is contingent. The dynamic nature of chaotic systems is a consequence of the sensitivity of complex systems to change. Such initial change can result in quite disproportionate subsequent effects on the system. Chaos theorists call this nonlinear change. Thus, for example, a single bite from one mosquito may give people a virus that could influence their health for the rest of their life. The systemic component of chaos theory emphasizes the interconnectedness of elements that, when functioning as a system, begin to display characteristics of pattern and order (Kauffman, 1995). Chaos theory recognizes order and stability as the emergent and often synergistic properties of systems' functioning (Morowitz, 2002).

When chaos theory is applied to career development, individuals are understood as complex dynamic systems, and career can be understood as an emergent property of the interaction of individuals as systems with the rest of the world, which is also understood in terms of being multiple embedded systems (for a taxonomy of such systems refer to Patton & McMahon, 1999). The defining characteristic of chaotic systems is sensitivity to change (Lorenz, 1993)-the famous butterfly effect, which has seeped into popular consciousness through films such as Sliding Doors (Braithwaite, Horburg, Pollack, & Howitt, 1998) and The Butterfly Effect (Bender et al., 2004). The implication of this sensitivity to change is that complex dynamic systems are subject to phase shifts, points at which the system can transform, as when water freezes and becomes ice. …

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