It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT)

Hackett & Betz, 1981; Lent, Brown, & Hackett 1994

 
 

Introduction

Social Cognitive Career Theory or SCCT is different to, but at the same time complements both Person – Environment or trait and factor theories as well as developmental theories (Lent, 2013, pp. 116-117). However, SCCT is closely linked to Krumboltz’ Learning Theory of Career Development. It incorporates Bandura’s triadic reciprocal model of causality. Self-efficacy is a mediating variable in the model and is also an important concept in SCCT. Bandura defines self-efficacy as a personal judgment of how well someone can execute a course or courses of action required to deal with prospective situations.The aim of SCCT is to trace links between individuals and their career related contexts and attempts to take into account the entire environment in which they make career related decisions. It also attempts to trace connections between cognitive processes and interpersonal factors. For instance, it attempts to explain how individuals’ self-concept is influenced by external factors – which influences in my environment influence who I feel and think I am. Within that, it attempts to find the links between self-imposed influences and externally imposed influences such as the limitations people put upon themselves because of external influences. In this, SCCT is very close to Bandura’s theory.

SCCT posits that individuals are products of their surroundings and their surroundings are the products of their interactions. The different elements within an individual’s context influence each other bi-directionally.

SCCT originally consisted of three overlapping and interacting models aimed at explaining the processes through which people (Lent, et al., 1994, p. 79):

  • Developing career interests
  • Making, forging, enacting and revising occupational choices
  • Achieving career success

“[Their] framework emphasises learning and cognitive phenomena that may complement, and foster, conceptual linkages with, existing career models.” (Lent, et al., 1994, p. 79).  As stated, they drew primarily from Bandura’s social cognitive theory.

The basic building blocks of their model are:

  • Self-efficacy beliefs: people’s beliefs about their own capabilities to plan and execute steps to attain certain personal goals – also central to Bandura’s theory. These self beliefs are dynamic and relate to the environment linked to a task or the nature of the task itself (eg.: playing piano in front of an audience) and are not self-esteem, which is more universal. According to Bandura, self-efficacy beliefs are acquired through 4 primary informational sources (Lent, 2013, p. 118):
    1. personal performance accomplishments
    2. vicarious learning – learning derived from independent sources such as through hearing or observation, rather than doing and experimenting.
    3. social persuasion
    4. physiological and affective states – eg.: depression can surpress our belief in our abilities
  • Outcome expectations: refers to the perceived outcomes ,effects or consequences of certain behaviours. People tend to favour positive outcome expectations and tend to avoid those that are expected to have a negative outcome, even if their self-efficacy about the action required is high.

Both self-efficacy and outcomes expectations are closely linked. If someone has high confidence in their ability to do something, then they may expect a positive outcome. Equally, if people expect a positive outcome, they are more likely to feel more confident and try the particular behaviour that leads to the postive outcome.

  • Goals, or personal goals address the question about how much and how well a person wants to do something (Lent, 2013, p. 119). They help organise, direct and sustain certain behaviours through the amount of progress people believe they are making towards achieving that goal. Goals are affected by a person’s self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations. A perception of strong or weak progress can have an effect on a person’s self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations and vice-versa.

Let’s see how this works within their model in how these building blocks were used in exploring how basic career interests are developed within individuals.


The 4 models of SCCT

SCCT consistes of 4 distinct but overlapping models (Lent, 2013, p. 120):

  1. The development of interests or the interests model – a child’s environment offers an array of activities – children are encouraged to do well in certain selective activities – they practise these and receive feedback – generating interest or the opposite depending on the nature of the feedback and their response in the 3 basic building blocks above. 
  2. The making of choices or the choice model – making a career choices is not a one off event but an ongoing developmental set of processes. As illustrated in the interest model, certain choices may over time become more interesting and viable and others less attractive and open to a successful outcome. Choices are open to future reconsideration and change.
  3. The influences on, and results of performance – the performance model
  4. The experience of satisfaction and well-being in education or occupation – the satisfaction model

In each of these 4 models, the 3 basic building blocks above are seen to interact with other aspects of a person (gender, ethnicity etc…) and their environment as well as learning experiences they have.

 
Model 1: The development of interests – SCCT’s Interest Model:

Development of Basic Career Interests over Time (Lent, et al., 1994, p. 88): Using the same colour coding, the model below highlights cognitive and behavioural influences during childhood and adolescence. The grey arrows represent influence.

On the basis of their research and represented model above, Lent et al. posit two predictions (Lent, et al., 1994, pp. 91, 92):

  1. “Proposition 1: An individual’s occupational or academic interests at any point in time are reflective of his or her concurrent self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations”
  2. “Proposition 2: An individual’s occupational interests also are influenced by his or her occupationally relevant abilities, but this relation is mediated by one’s self-efficacy beliefs.”

The underlying premise to the theory is that we are interested in doing something that we perceive we’re good at and that we’re more likely to practice and become good at something we’re really interested in. This means that self-efficacy and outcome expectations play a central role in this theory.

  • In practice, this means that if an individual engages in an activity they feel they are good at and they expect positive outcomes from, they are more likely to set higher level goals for participating more in this activity.
  • These goals in turn increase the likelihood of increased participation in that activity.
  • As the individual participates more, their achievements will increase and they will receive both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
  • These attainments and rewards will them become influencers on the individual’s self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations in a dynamic process.
  • Perceived abilities are key influences on an individual’s self-efficacy beliefs, which in turn influences interests.
  • Values, such as money and status, are integrated in outcome expectations and we expect these to happen when we engage in activities we are interested in.  
Model 2: The making of choices – SCCT’s Choice Model:

Builds on the Interest model and is represented in the green blocks in the illustration below. Over time, the processes preceding the making of choices make certain choices more or less likely to be pursued. Individuals have a tendency to pursue those outcome they perceive as achievable and interesting. For simplicity, there are 3 components to choice making (Lent, 2013, p. 123):

  1. The expression of a primary choice to enter a field of work or study
  2. Taking actions to implement one’s goal (eg.: enrolling on a course)
  3. Subsequent performance experiences such as feedback in the form of success or failur, which in turn forms a feedback look as a learning experience influencing future choices, self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations. 

The choice process is in turn influenced by the individual’s environment. Individuals don’t make value-free, influence-free choices (see blue box on the right below). Environments choose people as well, for instance through local availability, success at a job interview out of a random pool of other people, etc…  This model is close to person-environment fit theories and Holland’s theory. People with similar beliefs, outcome expectations, backgrounds and interests tend to choose similar outcomes.

Model of person, contextual and experiential factors affecting career related choice behaviour. (Lent, et al., 1994, p. 93)

In their developed model below, activity goals and selection variables specifically represent career/academic choice goals and their enactment. It’s in that sense a developmental extension (developmental in the sense of developmental theory with its life stages) of the basic model above that concentrates on interest formation. (Lent, et al., 1994).

Interpretation of the model: Cultural influences

Whether you’re an advocate of nature, nurture or a combination of both, Lent et al. use the header of ‘cultural influences’ to group these together. These consist of 2 areas:

  1. Person inputs or influences coming from ‘within’ as it were. Something like ethnicity or gender, which is culturally defined, will influence the social learning experience an individual has. If you’re a woman or a man, your experience is defined by the culture you live in and ‘coloured’ by how your biological sex affects your interaction with the learning experience in both the nature of the learning experiences you may get and how they are absorbed. 
  2. Affordances: “each person derives certain ‘‘affordances’’ from the environment—for instance, social and material resources or deficits—that help to shape his or her career development” (Lent, 2013, p. 124). Affordances are divided up in two different types represented in the illustration above:
    1. Distal or background contextual influences (blue box bottom left) – is active as an influence on learning experiences and therefore self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations
    2. Proximal environmental influences (blue box top right) – comes into play during the active phases of choice making

Following interests into career choice – the career choice phase is divided into several component processes (Lent, et al., 1994, p. 94):

  1. Choice goals: the expression of a primary choice goal from among one’s major career interests
  2. Choice actions: actions designed to implement the choice (eg.: enrolling in a particular training programme or academic course)
  3. Subsequent performance attainments (eg.: academic failures, admission acceptances) that create a feedback loop, affecting the shape of future career behaviour.

According to SCCT, individual choice is often, but not always linked to interests. Other factors, environmental and personal, prompt compromise. This puts SCCT in closer proximity to Gottfredson’s Circumscription and Compromise theory.

Model 3: SCCT’s Performance Model

Focuses on two primary aspects of performance (Lent, 2013, p. 126):

  1. The level of success an individual achieves in their educational or occupational activities
  2. The level of determination and persistence they display in the face of adversity, which is where the performance model overlaps with the choice model

The performance model and choice model overlap as they are both focused on persistance.

  • In the choice model it’s seen in terms of choice stability – endurance to stick with a certain choice
  • In the performance model it’s perceived in terms of performance adequacy

Educational and professional/vocational performance is the result of the interplay between a person’s ability, their self-efficacy and outcome expectations and performance goals. Self-efficacy and outcome expectations are influenced by past performance, which in turn is influenced by performance assessments of goals achieved in the present. In other words: how we perform now has an influence on our perception of past performance, which in turn influences not only our sense of self-efficacy and the expectations we have of future performance but also how we regard future performance. Self-efficacy is complementing and not substituting objectively assessed performance and ability.

So what people perceive as possibilities for what they can accomplish is influenced by past and present performance, but also what they believe they can do, all of which influences what they are aiming for in the future.

Model 4: Satisfaction model

Focuses on people’s perception of satisfaction or well-being in education and/or occupation (Lent, 2013, p. 128). The elements that are providing satisfaction, according to SCCT, overlap with those of the other models.

Lent (2013) argues that people are likely to be happy relative to the extent of:

  • their involvement in activities they value
  • their perception of themselves making progress in their goals
  • the possession of strong self-efficacy – a strong view of what they can do and in achieving their goals
  • their access to the means and environment that help promote their self-efficacy and achievement of their goals

Lent (2013) adds that it is also affected by:

  • aspects of an individual’s personality
  • work conditions at the place of occupation or study

He goes on to state that there are many indirect paths by which personality and invironment can influence or affect work satisfaction. This is an interesting observation and addition for us career practitioners because it draws satisfaction down to a more personal and individualised level and that these are changeable. Lent recognises that these add complexity to the model, but that they are essential.

 

Social Cognitive Career Theory in practice

When learning about this theory, it struck me that this would an excellent model for research into the details of what drives specific groups of individuals to make the occupational and career decisions they make. Tang (2009) in her research in the gender implications of SCCT is an example of this which made me at the same time realise that this model alows research into, or exploration of gender bias and cultural bias. When it comes to indvidual support (as opposed to career education), Tang argues in favour of a more individualised approach and awareness (as opposed to letting cultural, social or gender influences to influence the process) where thje SCCT model can provide a model for exploring invidualised barriers to career and occupational goals Tang (2009). She suggest that after exploring these personal barriers, environmental elements or barriers can be brought in and explore to find out how the client can overcome these.

I feel that this theory can be useful in two different ways:

  1. It can help practitioners explore client assumptions and perceptions of blockages for achieving certain goals and where they come from or where they fit in.
  2. Linked to this, it can help with exploring ways of getting around these blocks preventing the client from achieving their goals

This in turn will help the client have the broadest possible perception of their options and awareness of blocks and how and where they affect their thinking.

Lent (2013) recognises that SCCT has been used in a practical way to:

  • Conceptualise and evaluate career education programmes – amongst many other things, these programmes can help re-adjust young people’s self efficacy beliefs and preserve discarded occupational or educational choices as future options. This reminds me strongly of the work of Gottfredson.
  • Individuals can encounter problems in all facets of occupational choice and educational choice making. In individual work, SCCT can help:
    • expand choice options by exploring social cognitive processes that are at the basis of choice problems. The model can offer a framework for discovering and exploring these with the client.
    • SCCT can also help open up routes of blocked off opportunities because of a client’s inaccurate perceptions of their self-efficacy and outcome expectations. A client may not feel they have the skills or resources to achieve a certain goal while those resources are clearly there or can be built up. Revisiting discarded options and exploring these with the help of one of the SCCT models, these may be opened up again.
    • When a client’s aptitudes are excellent for a certain path but the client shows little interest, outcome expectations may be at the basis of this which may be resolved by exploring with the client.
    • In this respect, Lent also proposes a card sorting excercise where the client sorts different careers in a ‘would not choose’, ‘maybe’ and ‘would choose’ pile after which they are further filtered along questions linked to self-efficacy and outcome expectations (Lent, 2013, p. 138).
  • SCCT can help coping and exploring barriers and building support – where support may come from and what form it will take. Individuals are more likely to set and pursue their goals if they encounter minimal barriers and maximum support. Lent proposes the use of a ‘decisional balance sheet’ where negative aspects of a choice are balanced against positive ones, which can then be contexutalised for the client (what is really going to happen if…) rather than idealised (this is not possible).
  • Support with goal setting and self-regulation, especially for clients with low levels of conscientiousness or by helping clients frame their goals.

 

Critique of SCCT

Did you find this an easy and straightforward model to get your head around? Or did it take some work before it clicked? Or didn’t it click at all – by which I mean, didn’t it appeal enough?

This is not a straightforward and simple model as it consists of at least 4 different areas within it, in the 4 different models it contains. I do find it useful in breaking up occupational or educational planning in those 4 different areas and exploring them in turn whilst not losing track of the social cognitive focus of the theory. If you found Bandura difficult to get your head around, this takes it a step further. In any case, exploring Bandura first before tackling SCCT is a good idea I think. Once it ‘clicks’ in your mind it’s not too difficult to understand I think.

Apart from thinking about SCCTs performance against Brown’s criteria, have a look at and think about the following questions:

  • How do you feel it links up with other theories, especially Bandura’s work and the narrative approach, but also developmental approaches and environmental theory? What strengths does it offer over and above these and what aspects are part of SCCT that are not part of the other theories I listed?
  • How would you personally be able to use SCCT in your day to day work, either as a reflective tool for work with individual clients, your work generally or within interventions?
  • To help you get to grips with SCCT, have a look at the illustrations of the models again and relate them to your own career and educational choices. How well does it ‘fit’ your (life) experiences?
  • Is occupational planning always goal orientated? If not, what else could its focus be?
  • Are our perception of our self-efficacy and our outcome expectation always the driver of our career? Some may say that hobbies and interests can be a driver, but are they in turn influenced by our social environment, outcome expectations and self-efficacy perception? 
  • What kinds of different goals are there and is the model always applicable? For example, there are small, daily goals to achieve (finishing an essay by tomorrow) and there are possibly life-long goals (becoming the proverbial rocket scientist)
  • How well would this model perform for people who have health conditions or mental health conditions, or disabilities?
  • What about different cultures? Can you think of cultural groups that wouldn’t fit in with SCCT or for whom this model has less or little to offer?
  • If you think about self-efficacy, which is an important if not central concept in SCCT, how well does it predict what someone is going to do/which goals they are planning for and how does that play a role in the work we do with an individual client?

There are also good sources for a critique of SCCT in some of the links below.

 

Useful links

Slideshare type resources:

References and proposed further reading

  • Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D. & Hackett, G., 1994. Toward a Unifying Social Cognitive Theory of Career and Academic Intererst, Choice and Performance. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, Volume 45, pp. 79 – 112.
  • Lent, R.W (2013), Social Cognitive Career Theory. In: Brown, S.D. and Lent, R.W. (2013). Career development and counseling : putting theory and research to work. 2nd Edition. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley. pp. 115 – 146.
  • Chapter Author Surname, Initials., (Year). Title of chapter. In: Editor(s) Initial. Editor(s) Surname, ed(s). Title of book. Edition (if not first). Place of publication: Publisher. Page numbers.
  • Mueller, C., Hall, A. and Miro, D., 2020. Testing An Adapted Model Of Social Cognitive Career Theory: Findings And Implications For A Self-Selected, Diverse Middle-School Sample. [online] J-stem.net. Available at: https://j-stem.net/index.php/jstem/article/view/17 [Accessed 20 May 2020].
  • Lent, R.W. & Brown, S.D. & Hackett, Gail. (2002). Social cognitive career theory. Career Choice and Development (4th Ed.. 255-311).
  • Tang, M., (2009), Intervention Implications for School Counselors from a SCCT Perspective on Ncda.org. 2020. [online] Available at: https://ncda.org/aws/NCDA/page_template/show_detail/22524?model_name=news_article [Accessed 31 May 2020].

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