Decision Making

Decision making refers to the process by which an individual comes to choose between two (or more) alternative courses of action. For career decisions, this process might lead to the choice of a major, a more general occupational direction, or a particular job. Decision making might also lead individuals to explore some career directions and not others or to abandon choices previously made. Regardless of the specific context, career decision making reflects the process through which individuals take in, weigh, and make judgments about themselves in relation to the world of work.

Decision making has been studied both as a process and as a source of individual variation. In turn, the process of decision making has been framed in both descriptive and prescriptive ways, and models of individual variation have been advanced that reflect both individual styles and the context of the decision-making environment. Each of these major perspectives is described here.

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Decision-Making Process

Tracing back to the earliest study of human cognition, theorists have sought to describe how it is that people arrive at a single course of action as well as how decisions should be made optimally.

Descriptive Models of Decision Making

Descriptive models of decision making are those that simply describe or detail the steps involved in the process of making a decision without advocating for how the process should proceed. In one of the first efforts to describe career decision making, David V. Tiedeman provided a comprehensive model that portrayed the process as a sequence of stages leading up to and following the point of choice. Prior to choice is a stage of anticipation in which individuals explore, crystallize alternatives, make a choice, and clarify how the choice will be put into action. Following this is a stage involving implementation in which the individual adjusts after the chosen alternative is enacted. Tiedeman also noted that the process was not necessarily linear and irreversible, arguing that one might recycle through these stages at any point. Such recycling might occur when, for instance, alternatives failed to crystallize (leading one back to exploration) or the selected alternative failed to lead to a satisfactorily implementation plan (leading one back to choice making or exploration). Vincent A. Harren further expanded this model to focus specifically on the decision making of college students and to include attention to elements of individual and contextual variability in the decision-making process. His model included four phases of awareness: needing to decide, planning, making a commitment to a particular course of action, and implementation of the chosen alternative.

Other descriptive models of decision making have focused on selected segments of the decision-making process. Seeking to understand what starts the decision-making process, one model suggested that discrepancy between one’s beliefs about the world and one’s plans for entering it leads to a dissonance that is reduced by initiating a decision-making process. Focusing on how individuals weigh and evaluate assembled information and alternatives, other theorists offered mathematical models in which alternatives are weighted by combinations of valence, expected outcome, and probability.

Prescriptive Models of Decision Making

In contrast to the models of decision making that simply detail how a decision is made, there has been considerable effort directed to understanding how decisions should be made. In one of the earliest prescriptive models in the vocational domain, Frank Parsons argued in 1909 that the central task of career decision making was one of assembling information about oneself and about the world of work and using true reasoning to arrive at a match between the two sets of information. This model of a scientific, methodical, rational approach to decision making has been echoed and elaborated in a variety of prescriptive models of decision making.

John D. Krumboltz and his colleagues also offered a prescriptive model to help youth make decisions in a rational, logical manner. Their model both describes the steps in the process and also advocates for a systematic progress through those steps. Known by the acronym DECIDES, this models includes defining the problem, establishing a plan of action, clarifying values, identifying alternatives, discovering probable outcomes, eliminating alternatives systematically, and starting action. This model has similarities to several more generic models of effective problem solving proposed by P. Paul Heppner and others.

Other advocates of the methodical, rational model of the decision-making process focused on classical expected utility approaches. These approaches describe the best decision on which the decider gathers comprehensive information about alternatives, assigns utility or desirability weightings to each alternative, considers the probability of the outcomes of each alternative in a systematic manner, and selects the course of action associated with the highest expected utility.

While many prescriptive models offer a view of the best decision making as undertaken by thoroughly methodical, highly efficient, information processors, others have argued that this does not match well the experiences of most deciders. Itamar Gati, for example, offered a modification of the expected utility approach that better reflected how people manage and process the voluminous information involved in the decision-making process. His sequential elimination model highlights how deciders can progress through a methodical, sequential process in which they identify the most critical elements of the decision situation, rank alternatives according to those elements, and use the results to narrow down the number of alternatives considered. Accompanying this model is a recommended strategy for helping individuals through the prescreening, exploration, and choice stages of the decision-making process.

Finally, it should be noted that although a variety of models have been offered about what the decision-making process should look like, much remains unknown about the process actually used by high-quality decision makers and about how the limitations of human information processing and judgment can be accurately represented in prescriptions about the decision-making process.

Variations in the Decision-Making Process

In its most basic form, the career decision-making process entails the identification of alternatives, the gathering of information, the weighing of options, and ultimately the choosing and implementing of one course of action. Although this process may appear fairly straightforward, it has been noted that there is considerable individual variation how and how effectively this process unfolds in a given decisional situation. Efforts to understand this variability has led to a number of taxonomies of decision-making strategies or styles.

Decision-Making Styles

Decision-making styles refer to the characteristic ways in which different people behave in decision-making situations. The earliest efforts to identify these differences proposed trait-like categories of deciders who appeared to be planners, agonizers, delayers, impulsives, intuitives, fatalists, or compliant. From this perspective, it is expected that a decider who showed, for instance, impulsivity in choosing the first available alternative would display that same decisional behavior across all decision-making situations. The most widely used taxonomy in this tradition is that of Harren, who argued that decision making varies in the extent to which the individual assumes personal responsibility (versus assigning responsibility to fate, peers, and authorities) as well as in the extent to which the decider is logical (versus emotional) in the decision-making process.

His model includes a rational style in which the decider takes individual responsibility; a systematic, logical approach (i.e., an intuitive style) in which the decider also takes individual responsibility, but primarily considers emotional factors often impulsively; and a dependent style in which responsibility is deferred to others and a passive posture is assumed.

Similar categorizations have been advanced that suggest that the noted differences in approaching and behaving in decision making were likely to emerge depending on particular situations. According to this perspective, a decider might be hesitant (procrastinates or postpones decision making) in one situation, while being intuitive (choices based on an inner feeling of rightness or inevitability) or logical (objective appraisal and selection) or compliant (passive; choice basis is expectations of others or self-imposed expectations) in another. Still other taxonomies have suggested that deciders vary in the way in which they gather information (systematically or spontaneously) and process information (internally or externally).

With these noted variations in individual decision making, there has also been a strong endorsement of a decision-making process that includes considerable autonomy and independence and that is approached in a rational, systematic manner. Research has provided some support for this endorsement: the rational decision-making style has been linked with better approaches to problem solving, to greater knowledge about self, to better progress in the overall decision-making process, and to greater progress in implementing selected alternatives. There is also some evidence to suggest that the systematic decider is more likely to have a solid sense of personal identity and less likely to experience career indecision.

Along with the endorsement of the rational style, the prevailing recommendation from the literature discourages use of a dependent or intuitive style. Indeed, the dependent or compliant decision-making strategy has been linked with less favorable or adaptive functioning: individuals with a dependent style have been shown more likely to commit to alternatives without adequate exploration, to show less progress in the decision-making process, to avoid problem solving, and to lack confidence in their problem-solving abilities.

Although the available knowledge indicates that a rational, nondependent decision-making style can be expected to be effective, there is also growing evidence that such a style is not the only adaptive decision-making strategy. For example, in studies of interventions designed to help deciders, it has been shown that other decision-making strategies can prove helpful.

In a related vein, recent efforts have been made to highlight the possible adaptiveness of styles other than rational. Exploring the research on decision making and human judgment beyond the vocational domain, it has been noted that the rational, autonomous approach to decision making that is advocated may be neither possible nor desirable. From the perspective of information processing, there is considerable evidence that ordinary people and even high-quality decision makers simply do not engage in a comprehensive, dispassionate, systematic, isolated decision-making process. In addition, where emotion or intuition is regarded in the vocational domain as something to be minimized, these qualities can also be viewed as highly relevant sources of information about available alternatives. Furthermore, where reliance on others is seen in the career decision-making literature as a dangerous departure from necessary autonomy, studies of expert judges suggest that making use of the expertise, wisdom, and perspective of others is highly valuable in the decision-making process. Taken together, there is growing evidence that decision-making styles that are different from the traditionally advocated rational style may also have distinct benefits in the decision-making process.

Variations from the Context of Decision Making

Although early study of variation in decision making focused on qualities of the individual decider, there is also a growing recognition that the context in which decision making occurs is likely to play a major role in how and how effectively an individual proceeds. This recognition has arisen from the growing evidence that cultural and interpersonal factors are as influential as individual differences in shaping behavior. From a cultural perspective, it has been suggested that in contexts where individualistic values prevail, the role and value of others in the decision-making process might be minimal. However, in cultures where collectivist values prevail, the role played by others may be quite pronounced and the value of the role of others emphasized, even within a traditionally rational process. These differences have been observed in studies in which the more confident deciders from individualistic cultures were those who did not use a dependent style, while the deciders from collectivist cultures were more confident only if they did use a rational style.

From the perspective of the interpersonal context of decision making, other emerging perspectives have focused on the role of others in the decisional situation. These perspectives portray the decider as embedded in a social context that shapes perceptions, defines behavioral options, and influences courses of action. Drawing from knowledge about the powerful relational contexts of human experience, it has been argued that it is too limiting to consider the role of others only from the perspective of dependency or compliance. Rather, a view of an individual’s decision-making process experience would be far more complete if it included all of the ways in which the relational context aided, supported, hindered, impinged, and/or ignored the decider’s task. Toward this goal, a number of scholars have begun to articulate the variety of ways in which perceptions, alternatives, and experiences in choice making situations are influenced by the decider’s relationships. For example, an initial taxonomy has been offered to detail two important dimensions: how deciders use others in decision-making situations in more or less self-directed ways and how others involve themselves in the decision-making process. Efforts such as these are providing increasing confidence that the role of others in decision making may be quite valuable in an individual’s decision making.

Future Directions

Theory and research on career decision making to date has yielded a clear view of the basic steps of the decision-making process and has identified some of the effective ways in which decisions can best be made. Although this knowledge has been advanced based on what may be an unrealistic view of human information processing, newer models are emerging that will capture the best decision-making processes within the capacity of everyday deciders. Similarly, although many extant models of decision-making styles or strategies have placed priority on autonomy and rationality, newer perspectives are incorporating the importance of culture and context, and there is a growing recognition that there may be multiple “good” ways to proceed in decision-making situations.


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