Helping Clients Think Clearly When Making Career Decisions
By Shékina Rochat
In his bestseller “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” Rolf Dobelli (2014) lists 99 common thinking errors that are likely to influence the way we make decisions. This article presents 10 of these cognitive errors that may hinder clients’ career decision-making process, along with recommendations to assist career counselors in addressing them. Spotting such thinking errors can provide opportunities to have a meaningful discussion with clients in order to better understand and overcome such biases.
1. “I want to become a movie star (or professional athlete).”
This client may fall prey to the survivorship bias, that is, the tendency to focus on those who have succeeded, while involuntarily missing the much larger but less visible number of those who failed in following the same career path.
- To prevent clients from being misled by groundless optimism, career counselors may encourage them to research success/failure statistics and then seek advice from those who failed in their desired path, so as not to make the same mistakes.
2. “I want to go to Harvard, because those who do end up being successful.”
This statement may be related to the swimmer’s body illusion. It consists of mistaking the selection criteria for the results—that is, assuming that having a swimmer’s body (or having success) is solely the result of training when it is also a prerequisite. Similarly, basketball players aren’t tall because they chose to play basketball; height is something of a precondition.
- It is important for clients to understand the foundational requirements of success in a given field, rather than assuming success is based on a particular choice. Challenging this illusion may consist of questioning the client about the features that they identify with. Then label those features as characteristics resulting from the path versus those which are the selection criteria.
3. “I’m not sure I want to become doctor or lawyer.”
This kind of dilemma may reveal an alternative blindness: the tendency to falsely believe that we only have a determined set of existing choices while systematically overlooking the other possible alternatives.
- Choices always offer a broader set of alternatives than ‘either/or’ options and counselors can help clients think creatively in order to identify options and alternatives, in part by providing clues to these complementary options.
4. “I need more options to make a decision.”
This statement emphasizes the need to inform clients about the paradox of choice: Beyond a certain limit, expanding opportunities can lead to poorer decisions and higher dissatisfaction with choices.
- Clients may need to be aware that having more options can contribute to making the choice harder; this can, in turn, make them less sure of having made the right decision. Career counselors may help clients define a suitable number of career alternatives, as well as exploring hidden barriers to career decision-making outside of choice.
5. “I want to keep my career options as open as possible”
Such statements may reveal inability to close doors, that is, missing considering that keeping open the maximum options is time and energy consuming, and that some of them are important to close.
- Career counselors may help clients to decide what not to pursue in their life – what Linda Gottfredson (1981) calls Circumscription – in order to devote that time and energy to the realization of worthy projects, while again exploring reluctance to commit to a path.
6. “I choose or refuse this career because of this particular aspect.”
This kind of statement may indicate the presence of the halo effect: the phenomenon whereby our entire opinion regarding something is affected by a single feature that overrides every other aspect.
- Career counselors may want to provide more information regarding the considered option in order to offer a broader view of it, beyond its most salient features.
7. “I need more information to make a decision.”
The information bias consists of wrongly assuming that the more information we have the better the decision. In fact, beyond a certain threshold, too much information may cloud the crucial facts and thus lead to poorer choices.
- Counselors may help clients give the proper weight to the different pieces of information and focus on the most important ones, in part by asking what additional information would do for them.
8. “I have invested too much in this major or career to change my path now.”
The sunk cost fallacy is the bias that leads clients to continue on a path due to the investment that has already been put into it, despite the fact that it would be better to stop.
- Changing direction is not an indication of failure. Career counselors may invite such clients to count the cost of continuing down a dead-end or unsatisfying path.
9. “I prefer to make a choice, even a bad one, than to remain uncertain.”
An action bias is the propensity of a client to take action at whatever cost when facing a new or unclear situation because doing something will make them feel better.
- “When in doubt, don’t!” could be a sign on the counselor’s wall. In this situation, the career counselor may invite the client to pause and carefully consider all the possible alternatives, instead of rushing to alleviate the anxiety of ambiguity.
10. “Tell me which are the most promising jobs for the future.”
The forecast illusion involves forgetting the very limited accuracy of the experts’ predictions regarding future conditions or occurrence.
- Clients may thus benefit from remembering that twenty years ago, no one could have predicted the positions that exist today.
As John Elster (2007) said, “knowing that one may be subject to bias is one thing; being able to correct it is another” (p. 128). The counselor should aim to both increase the client’s awareness of the cognitive biases that can impede the career decision-making process, as well as engage in discussions to help clients overcome them. This develops the art of thinking clearly.
Dobelli, R. (2014). The art of thinking clearly. London, UK: Sceptre.
Elster, J. (2007). Explaining social behavior: More nuts and bolts for the social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Gottfredson, L. S. (1981). Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of
occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 545–579.
Shékina Rochat is a career counselor psychologist completing a PhD in psychology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org