Applying Decision Theory to Career Counseling Practice: The Sequential Elimination Approach

Article excerpt

In this article, we present a practical procedure for career decision making that may help counselors and their clients improve the quality and outcomes of the career decision-making process. This procedure relies on decision and information processing theories, because in career decision making, as in other cases of decision making, the individual has to choose one alternative from among a number of possible alternatives and compare the various alternatives using relevant criteria and information.

One essential component in career decision making is career exploration, which refers to behaviors directed toward the acquisition of information about the individual and the external environment (Blustein, 1992). On the one hand, the knowledge required about the self concerns only a single object, the individual himself or herself; hence, the expectation that this knowledge will be relatively comprehensive is not only desirable but also realistic. The external environment (i.e., the world of work), on the other hand, includes a practically infinite number of alternatives. Hence, contrary to traditional expectations (e.g., Parsons, 1909), we believe that, due to individuals' limited mental, material, and time resources, it is impractical for them to acquire comprehensive knowledge about all possible career options. One way to deal with this problem is to identify a limited-size set of promising career options (Montgomery, 1989) for in-depth exploration.

The question is, then, How can one identify those promising alternatives that deserve further exploration? Traditionally, following Parsons' (1909) notion of "true reasoning," it was implicitly assumed that once individuals have the information about themselves, and about the world of work, they can, without too much difficulty, combine this information to reach a decision (e.g., Holland, 1966; Roe, 1956). Later researchers, recognizing the need for a framework to guide the individual in combining the information, proposed relying on decision theory (e.g., Gelatt, 1962; Jepsen & Dilley, 1974; Pitz & Harren, 1980). Specifically, some researchers (e.g., Kaldor & Zytowski, 1969; Katz, 1966; Mitchell & Beach, 1976) proposed adopting the expected utility model, which is based on a compensatory evaluation of the alternatives, and suggested that this model be applied to the case of career decision making. Gati (1986) claimed, however, that the application of this model to career decision making is difficult. First, it is based on assumptions that are invalid in the context of career decisions (e.g., independence of the aspects). Second, because of cognitive and time limitations, it is unrealistic to assume that the individual will be able to carry out the necessary computations required to assess the expected utility of each career alternative. Taking these problems into account, Gati (1986) suggested adopting an alternative model of decision making, namely, elimination-by-aspects (Tversky, 1972). The adaptation of this model to the context of career decisions resulted in the sequential elimination approach. A comprehensive theoretical discussion of the sequential elimination approach and a comparison of it with alternative approaches may be found in Gati (1986, 1990). In the following section, we describe a simple but effective procedure based on this approach.


In this section, we describe the nine steps that constitute the proposed procedure. The entire sequence of steps is summarized in Appendix A. These nine steps are not intended to capture the entire counseling process but rather to provide a general framework for career decision making. Each step involves three phases. First, the counselor presents the goal and the expected role of the client. Second, the client actively participates by providing answers to the questions presented by the counselor. Third, the counselor provides the client with feedback concerning his or her responses. …


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