Academic journal article Career Development Quarterly

Toward an Expanded Definition of Adaptive Decision Making

Academic journal article Career Development Quarterly

Toward an Expanded Definition of Adaptive Decision Making

Article excerpt

This article draws from the life-span, life-space model (Super, 1980, 1990) of career development to examine the definition of adaptive decision making. First, the existing definition of adaptive decision making as "rational" decision making is reviewed. Next, alternate perspectives on decision making are offered with an emphasis on the implications for deciding in a life-span, life-space context. Finally, suggestions are made for future directions in theory, research, and practice.

In shifting the focus of career theory, research, and practice from the occupational sphere to multiple life roles, Donald Super (1980) presented the profession with a challenging agenda for considering the nature of individual development and for assisting with individual coping. Coinciding with dramatic shifts in the workplace, this agenda heralds a new generation of career development theory in which individuals seek satisfaction in multiple areas and must be mindful of the complex interplay of life roles over time.

As a consequence, consideration of the nature of adaptive coping has also required expansion. Whereas notions about adaptive coping were once confined to the vocational realm, they must now embrace both vocational and avocational roles. Whereas adaptive coping was once tailored around the predictable choice points of youth, it must now expand to the less clearly defined segments of growth and exploration, and to the unique and ever-varying circumstances of adulthood. And, whereas it was once enough to prepare for the choice points of entry into the world of work, it is now necessary to define how one negotiates a constellation of roles over a lifetime.

In brief, adaptive coping in the new age of career development theory entails planning, exploring, and deciding in a substantially more complex field. Although others have suggested expanded conceptualizations of planning and exploring (e.g., Blustein, 1997; Savickas, Silling, & Schwartz, 1984), my focus in this article is on what needs to be understood about adaptive decision making in this broadened context. As with planning and exploring, the nature of deciding has become substantially more complex. How do individuals proceed-or how they should proceed-with respect to decisionmaking tasks when their decisional "fields" shift both with time and with opportunity, and span multiple life roles?

I would like to address these questions in the true Super tradition: by considering and integrating the thinking and the findings of those in different fields. First, I outline the definition of adaptive decision making as it was initially conceptualized in the occupational sphere. Next, I offer some alternate perspectives on decision making, with an emphasis on implications for deciding in a life-span, life-space context. Finally, I suggest some promising directions for continued theory, research, and practice for adaptive decision making.


For most of the nearly century-long history of career development, the adaptive decider has been considered to be the one who is an objective scientist, that is, one who has consistent preferences, who is free of cognitive distortions and emotional distractions, and who can obtain and use accurate information about the self, the alternatives, and the future. The adaptive decider is methodical, systematic, independent, and unimpulsive throughout the decisionmaking process, and maintains as an ultimate goal the maximization of personal gain. You will, no doubt, recognize this characterization as that of rational decision making.

With few exceptions, theorizing about vocational behavior and career development has recommended-or assumed-a rational posture toward individual career decision making. Beginning with Parsons' (1909) classic prescription, true reasoning has been advocated as the basis for choice: a choice is rational (or truly reasoned) if the process is one in which the decider carefully gathers information about the self and the array of alternatives that is accurate and thorough, and if the chosen alternative is one that matches the individual's own unique characteristics and priorities. …

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