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Social Cognitive Approaches

Nelica La Gro

Centre for Training in Career Guidance, School of Psychology, University of East London

Cognitive approaches view people as active shapers of their lives, able to reflect, observe, think about their feelings and cognitions and to monitor the impact of their own actions on their environments. There is a strong emphasis on thinking processes as compared to behaviours, suggesting it is individual's belief systems that affect their behaviours while at the same time there is an acknowledgement of the powerful mediating impact of contextual factors. The contribution of cognitive approaches in providing relevant theoretical frameworks for understanding career development of socially diverse populations and changing contextual influences affecting career opportunities, is well documented and many studies have contributed an empirical base to support this approach (Hackett,1995; Lent & Maddux, 1997; Tang 1999).

Social Cognitive career theory (SCCT) was developed by Lent, Brown & Hackett (1994), building on Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory.  SCCT suggests that career behaviour is a result of interaction between self-efficacy, outcome expectation and goals. Self efficacy is defined by Bandura as ‘people’s judgements of their capabilities to organise and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance ‘ (1986:391). Thus the focus is on the strength of the individual's belief that they can successfully accomplish something and this belief is more powerful than interests, values or abilities. For example Fassinger (2002) suggested that women’s tendency to underestimate ‘their competencies, talents & capabilities is perhaps the ‘most pervasive and intractable internal barrier’ to their career success’ ( Walsh & Savikas, 2005:105).
The variable that interacts with self-efficacy expectations is outcome expectations. Bandura defines this as ‘a person’s estimate that a given behaviour will lead to certain outcomes’ (1997:193). For example, a young man may believe he is able to perform as well as a woman for the post of midwife, but does not expect that he would be selected for the job if he applied. Environmental factors are perceived as controlling or influencing the outcome rather than the level or quality of your own behaviour, although sometimes distinguishing outcome expectations from self-efficacy expectations can be difficult.

One other variable influencing whether behaviour will be initiated are goals (Bandura, 1977:193). Individuals set goals to organise behaviour and guide their actions. If a person feels confident and efficacious in a task, this may lead to more interest, rewards and confidence about desired goals. Goals are self-motivating and a source of personal satisfaction.

Walsh & Heppner (2006) suggest SCCT is particularly concerned with ‘  specific cognitive factors that mediate the learning experiences guiding career behaviour; the interrelationships of interest, abilities and values ; the paths by which contextual and individual factors influence career choice and behaviours and the processes by which individuals exercise personal agency ( p112)

Studies investigating application of the main hypotheses of Social Cognitive Career Theory show how, for example,  (1) self efficacy affects career choice of men and women differently (Betz & Hackett 1981, Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987); (2) perceptions of barriers, social and economic disadvantage can limit and even exclude individuals' consideration of careers (Albert & Luzzo,1999) and low self efficiacy is associated with avoidance of particular academic areas and related careers (Betz, 2004); (3) beliefs about personal agency and capabilities can affect the initiation and sustainment of action to achieve goals and (4) environmentally situated factors such as familial dysfunction can account for variations in self efficacy functions (Ryan et al,1996).

Authors such as Chartrand & Rose (1996), Harmon (1994), have argued the need for career theories to take account of the career histories of  'at risk' groups, and  proposed that SCCT offers a more plausible account of the career and life histories, and imperatives for helping these groups. The approach resonates with the emphasis of UK government policy over the last decade on social inclusion, focusing attention on the needs of marginalised groups, and directs careers services resources to meet them

Application of SCCT to practice issues in general, and career counselling in particular, has emphasised how social and cultural difference can restrict opportunities for some clients to pursue the full range of interests, with the consequent effects on self efficacy beliefs and perceived barriers to entering certain careers (Bandura 1997).  ‘Contextual factors influence all stages of vocational development in the SSCT model’ ( Walsh & Heppner, 2006: 250). These are generally outside the control of the individual and include ‘barriers such as real or perceived discrimination, social expectation, persistence  of expected gender roles.. ( Walsh & Heppner, 2006: 250). Such factors are often very salient for groups such as ethnic minorities, women or particular client groups such as refugees, people with HIV.

Chen (2006) teases out the development of Bandura’s (1986, 2001) social cognitive theory & discusses the notion of human agency which he describes as ‘a combination of human intention and action and results in making things happen’ (2006:131). The two constructs of what one thinks and how one acts is of critical importance in relation to career thinking and development.  Social cognitive approaches which focus on clients’ decision-making can translate to practical ways in which practitioners attend to resources (inner and external) that can potentially assist clients to  ‘take ownership of his or her own life-career choice ( Chen, 2006:134).  These could include providing access to role models, positive work experiences, addressing possible barriers and the impact of anxiety or low self esteem by cognitive behaviour techniques such as positive self talk, re-framing, incremental success experiences or encouragement.

While SCCT focuses on the individual’s cognitive processes and the impact on career-related behaviours and beliefs, social constructionist theories take as their starting point an interest in how the individual uniquely construes events. This focus on how the individual shapes their reality has led to the use of techniques such as narrative to assist clients to explore and make sense of their experiences and perspectives.  Both approaches in different ways have given importance to the social and cultural contexts of clients and the significance they have for understanding clients' career decisions and development beyond the locus of the individual.

 SCCT can be applied both to understanding of clients' situations and to the development of the counsellor role (Larson, 1998). The responsibility of counsellors to develop 'explicit awareness' of how, consciously or unconsciously, their own belief systems and world view can intrude in the interview has been identified by Constantine and Erickson (1998). Intrusion of counsellor beliefs can reveal 'how biases and values can determine the questions asked of clients' and can undermine clients' self efficacy beliefs and sense of self agency (p.193). Betz( 2004) suggests that one of the first tasks to be addressed by a career counsellor is to investigate client self efficacy and to understand how the individual approaches career decision making and their self beliefs. Constantine & Erickson (1998) discuss multicultural counselling and their view of how 'counsellors attempt to understand clients from the clients' own world views, paying particular attention to the contexts in which clients operate' (p190) is germane to social cognitive approaches to counselling. Citing Rockwell (1987) they raise concerns about how more traditional approaches to career counselling may limit opportunities for clients to discuss the range of factors that affect the career options being considered.

Evidence that supports the relevance of SCCT is ‘strong and growing’ (Swanson & Gore, 2002: 247). In summary SCCT can serve as a valuable framework for understanding career development, as well as providing basis for powerful strategies that support clients to achieve their potential in a very changing external environment.

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