John Holland

John Holland is primarily identified as a counseling psychologist whose main theoretical and practical contributions have been focused in the field of career choice and adjustment. He has been concerned with the choice and processes involved in selecting, adapting to, and changing occupations. His theory and practical contributions apply most directly to people throughout their working years, but are also relevant to school-age persons who are choosing colleges and selecting major areas of concentration.

Empirical and Theoretical Research Themes

Holland’s most impressive contribution to psychology was the combining of two important theoretical traditions, namely vocational psychology and personality.

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In 1959, Holland published his article, “A Theory of Vocational Choice,” in which he presented a theory that gave importance to personality as well as to the reinforcement value that specific environmental events could hold for an individual. He was one of the first major theorists to emphasize the critical importance of the interaction between vocational environments and individual differences and personality. He drew upon basic learning theory and modeling theories of personality development to inform others of these issues. In fact, his work anticipated by about 10 years the interest in personality psychology on the interaction between personality and situation in deter-mining behavior.

To operationalize the personality types and model environments, Holland developed a number of inventories that represent a major applied contribution to the field. All of the Holland assessment techniques are practical and useful assessment devices. Initially he developed the Vocational Preference Inventory to define the personality types that he has studied over the years. The self-scoring and self-interpreted Self-Directed Search served to more comprehensively assess the personality types. Self-Directed Search is now the most widely used interest inventory in the world. To assess environments, Holland and Alexander Astin developed the Environmental Assessment Technique, and more recently Gary Gottfredson and Holland constructed the Position Classification Inventory. The theoretical person-environment framework has further been used to restructure the Strong Vocational Interest Blank, now called the Strong Interest Inventory. Related inventories developed to further define the personality types and model occupational environments include the Vocational Identity Scale and My Vocational Situation. More recently, Holland along with Gottfredson has developed the Career Attitudes and Strategies Inventory, another practical inventory to assess clients’ internal and external barriers that may limit their career development.

A third major theme and contribution involves the use of his theory of personality types and work environments as a taxonomy for classifying people and jobs. Data from longitudinal studies, job analysis data, and vocational interest data have resulted in an extensive empirical classification of 13,000 occupations in the U.S. economy. All occupations now listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (1991) may be classified using the Holland taxonomy. This has been accomplished in the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes published by Gottfredson, Holland, and Deborah Ogawa in 1982 and revised in 1989 and 1996.

In summary, his theory, constructs, and operational definitions are extroverted, tough, practical, and compact. As Henry Murray noted some years ago, any assessment of the person is incomplete without some assessment of the environment. We cannot take the person out of personality, but at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that environments, like people, have personalities and influence behavior. Holland’s theoretical framework links the person, the environment, and behavior in a data-based framework to help people understand and cope with problems.

Important Research Findings

At the heart of Holland’s research has been the testing of his theory of personality types and work environments. Probably the most profound outcome of this research program is that his theory of personality types and work environments clearly works. For example, an overwhelming amount of evidence clearly indicates that individuals tend to choose, enter, and remain in occupational environments consistent with their interests and personality. He has shown that work satisfaction, and to some extent success in vocational settings, tend to be a function of person-environment fit.

Secondly, instrumentation development has been a very significant research contribution. Over the years, in testing his theory, he has developed the Vocational Preference Inventory, the Self-Directed Search, the Environmental Assessment Technique, the Position Classification Inventory, the Vocational Identity Scale, My Vocational Situation, and the Career Attitudes and Strategies Inventory. These inventories not only have operationalized the concepts of the theory, but also have further served in effectively assessing individuals throughout the world in vocational development and vocational decision making. In sum, Holland’s theory, instruments, and research have served to explain vocational constructs in a straightforward way that is meaningful to a variety of people in a number of different environments.

A third important research finding is that his theoretical taxonomy may be used to describe every title in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. This finding is demonstrated in the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes (1996), which is an extensive empirical classification of 13,000 occupations in the U.S. economy according to job analysis data accumulated by the U.S. Employment Service.

Significant and Enduring Influences

Holland is one of the most productive researchers in contemporary psychology. His research has had a staggering influence on vocational psychology, personality, and organizational psychology. The enormity of his research findings are best presented in his book Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments published by Prentice Hall in 1973, revised in 1985, and republished by Psychological Assessment Resources in 1992 and 1997.

One significant and enduring influence of Holland’s research is the finding that the choice of an occupation is an expression of personality. His research stream clearly indicates that individuals enter occupational environments because of their interests and personalities and remain in those occupations because of the reinforcements and satisfactions obtained through the interactions in that environment.

A second significant and enduring influence of his work is that the theory and inventories have greatly changed the face of vocational assistance. In other words, the theory and inventories have markedly improved the process of vocational assessment, the classification and interpretation of personal and environmental data, and the conduct of vocational counseling. Psychologists and counselors now have a theoretical framework to organize information about persons, work, and their interaction. The theory and research go a long way in organizing human behavior and occupational environments. This is further demonstrated by the fact that nearly all major interest inventories either use Holland’s theoretical framework or are in some way linked to it.

A third significant influence of Holland’s work is a function of self-directedness. His self-directed techniques afford individuals the opportunity to make their own choices. This is demonstrated in the self-administering and self-scoring Self-Directed Search assessment technique that has become popular throughout the world. Very few theoretical frameworks facilitate this kind of self-assessment strategy.


Holland has received a number of accolades for his contributions to the field. Within 10 years of his Ph.D. he received a research award from the American Personnel and Guidance Association (now the American Counseling Association). He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association for his contributions to both counseling psychology and educational psychology. He has received the E. K. Strong Gold Medal for contributions to interest measurement and the Eminent Career Award from the National Vocational Guidance Association. The esteem with which he is held is also indicated by his election as President of the Division of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association and also by his appointment for one year as a Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. In 1980, he was honored by an entire symposium dealing with his contributions to psychology that was held at the national meetings of the American Psychological Association. A Festschrift volume was also prepared in his honor. More recently, Psychology Assessment Resources established an Outstanding Achievement Award in honor of Holland. This is titled the John Holland Award for Outstanding Achievement in Career or Personality Research and is awarded through Division 17 (Counseling Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. Finally, in 1995 Holland received the Distinguished Professional Contributions to Knowledge Award from the American Psychological Association. The award recognized his distinguished professional contributions to applied psychology and professional practice.

Holland is clearly world famous among counseling and vocational psychologists. His theory, concepts, inventories, insights, empirical research, and application have significantly changed the field of vocational psychology. Few professional people have been able to bring the innovative theoretical and applied under-standings of human behavior to psychology in the way that Holland has. He is without question one of the two or three most important people in the history of the field.


  1. Holland, J. L. (1959). A theory of vocational choice. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 6, 35-15.
  2. Holland, J. L. (1996). Exploring careers with a typology. American Psychologist, 51, 397-106.
  3. Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  4. Walsh, W. B., & Holland, J. L. (1992). A theory of personality types and work environments. In W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik, & R. H. Price (Eds.), Person-environment psychology: Models and perspectives (pp. 35-70). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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