Psychology Of Vocational Interests Research Paper

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This research paper describes how interests, values, and preferences are conceptualized in vocational psychology, how they are measured, and what reliable findings have been established by research using these measures. Such findings are the scientific basis for career counseling and career development.

Research in applied psychology has focused on two types of variables: ability and motivation. Psychologists succeeded early in developing measures of ability (e.g., g, verbal, numerical, spatial), drawing on the psychology of individual differences (DuBois 1970). Ability tests, g in particular, have been shown to be useful in a variety of school and work contexts (e.g., predicting grade-point average, job performance ratings).

Developing measures of motivation constructs proved to be more difficult. Many constructs were tried out and among the more successful ones were interests, values, and preferences. Research has since shown that interests, values, and preferences can contribute to the prediction of performance independently of the contribution of ability (Dawis 1991).

1. Definitions

Interest, value, and preference (and ability as well) belong to the class of constructs called ‘dispositions.’ Such constructs denote (typically stable) states of persons that indicate their behavioral tendencies. Thus, knowing the interests (or the values or preferences) of a person can indicate the likelihood that the person will engage in a particular activity given the opportunity.

Preference is the fundamental construct, interest and value at bottom involving preference. Preference means a more positive attitude (‘leaning’) toward one alternative over another (or other) alternative(s) expressed as the choice of the alternative over the other(s). Preference implies discrimination among the alternatives and judgment (or evaluation) of the alternatives. Preference implies comparative judgment, but it can also mean absolute judgment (requiring an absolute threshold for choice).

Interest and value are more complex constructs. Interest is manifested as sustained (long-term) attention involving cognition of the interest object and accompanying positive affect (pleasure). Interest can move beyond affective cognition to motor response (approach behavior or sustained activity), that is, interest can influence behaviour. Value is a similar construct, also involving cognition of the value-object and accompanying affect. It is manifested as affective valuation, and can also influence behavior. Both constructs are expressed as preferences, but they differ in their judgment basis.

When judgment in preference is based on liking (i.e., attraction), it is an interest. When the basis is importance (i.e., significance or meaning), the preference is a value. Liking and importance are differing dimensions of affective response as shown by the absence of empty cells in a two-way cross-classification (liked/important, not-liked/important, liked/not-important, not-liked/not-important).

The scaling of liking extends to its opposite, disliking; likewise, scaling importance extends to unimportance. Importance is readily conceptualized as one dimension, with unimportance as zero point. Liking can be conceptualized as one dimension (with disliking as the negative side of the scale) or as two dimensions (with disliking as a separate dimension, each dimension having ‘indifference’ as its zero point).

The remainder of this research paper will focus on liking preferences and importance preferences, that is, on interests and values. As described earlier, interests and values have a cognitive component (content, direction) as well as an affective component (intensity). Cognitive content can refer to persons, data, things, activities, events, environmental conditions, and even internal conditions and events. In vocational psychology, measures of interests typically have work activities as their cognitive content. For values, the cognitive content is ends (goals or consequences of work) and means (instrumentalities) that have become ends in themselves. Such ends and means-ends are ‘reinforcers’ because, as behavioral consequences, they maintain behavior.

Besides having content, interests and values can be more, or less, intense. Measures of these constructs have to incorporate both direction (content) and intensity.

2. Measurement

Much of the research on vocational interests and values has been devoted to their measurement. Interests and values are commonly measured through self-report instruments (inventories, questionnaires). A typical self-report instrument consists of many items of varied content, with instructions on how to respond to the items. Response can take the form of a check-off (indicating what is liked or is important), a ranking of alternatives (sometimes in sets of pairs or triads), or a rating on a point scale (usually three or five points). All three types of response can be quantified by using any of several scaling methods (Dawis 2000).

Two kinds of scales are commonly used in interest and value instruments. Internally consistent scales are composed of highly intercorrelated items that measure the same principal component. Externally relevant scales consist of items that correlate with a variable external to the scale (the ‘criterion variable’). The same interest or value instrument may include both internally consistent and externally relevant scales. Typically, many scales are included in an instrument in order to increase its usefulness.

Internally consistent scales are semantically comprehensible and thus are favored in theory-driven research. Scores on such scales are interpreted as reflecting intensity of interest or value. Externally relevant scales, by contrast, are often composed of items of heterogeneous content and may not ‘make sense’ theoretically, but are robust in their correlation with the criterion variables and hence are useful in professional practice. Scores on such scales are best interpreted as reflecting the similarity of the respondent to the ‘criterion group’ (representing the high pole on the criterion variable).

2.1 Sample Measures

Arguably the best-researched measure of vocational interests is the Strong Interest Inventory (SII; Harmon et al. 1994). It contains 320 items requiring response on a three-point, like–indifferent–dislike scale. The SII is scored on five sets of scales: general theme, basic interest, occupational, personal style, and administrative. Scores on the (externally relevant) occupational scales indicate the likelihood of a respondent’s choosing an occupation (given the opportunity), and of remaining in the occupation (if entered). Such prediction is based solidly on numerous validity studies that demonstrate the occupational scales’ usefulness in vocational counseling. Scores on the other sets of scales are useful in elaborating on and providing context for interpretation of the occupational scale scores.

The Kuder Occupational Interest Survey (KOIS; Kuder and Zytowski 1991) is another well-researched measure of vocational interests. It is composed of 100 items, each consisting of triads (three different activities) requiring a choice of ‘most preferred’ and ‘least preferred.’ The KOIS is scored on four sets of scales: dependability indices, vocational interest area estimates, occupational scales, and college major scales. Scores on the occupational and college major scales indicate similarity of interests with the corresponding referent group, which can then be the basis for career counseling.

The most researched measure of work values is the Minnesota Importance Questionnaire (MIQ; Rounds et al. 1981). The MIQ is a paired comparison questionnaire in which 20 ‘work needs’ are compared, each with every other. Work needs are workers’ requirements for work reinforcers (e.g., ability utilization, compensation, recognition), identified in studies of job satisfaction. Responses to the MIQ are scored for the 20 work needs and six work values. The MIQ is also scored by comparing a person’s MIQ profile with commensurate measures for occupations (occupational reinforcer patterns, or ORPs). Where the MIQ indexes what work reinforcers are important to the person, the ORP indexes what work reinforcers are important to the occupation. How well the MIQ and ORP profiles match is predictive of occupational satisfaction.

Another measure of work values is the Work Values Inventory (WVI; Super 1970), which consists of 45 items, each requiring a response on a five-point importance scale. It is scored on 15 values (e.g., altruism, creativity, prestige, economic returns).

Two widely used measures of personal values are the Study of Values (Allport et al. 1960) and the Value Survey (Rokeach 1973). Both are used largely in descriptive studies.

2.2 Structure Of Content Domains

The content domain of interests is best represented by the well-corroborated Holland (1997) model that uses a circular structure to organize six basic categories of interests: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. Numerous studies have shown the circular order to be robust, with people’s interests tending to be located in adjacent categories. This circular structure can be simplified by referring to two orthogonal axes: people vs. things, and ideas vs. data.

The content domain of values has not been studied as thoroughly as that of interests. One structure (Dawis and Lofquist 1984) proposes six categories organized by three bipolar orthogonal axes: achievement vs. comfort, status vs. altruism, and safety vs. autonomy.

2.3 Relations Among Interests, Values, And Other Disposition Variables

Interest and value scale scores correlate only marginally with each other, the largest correlations rarely exceeding 0.30. The highest correlations are between enterprising interests and status values, and between social interests and altruism values. Factor analysis yields separate interest and value factors.

Interest and value scales scores correlate slightly more with scores on personality trait scales. Correlations with personality trait scores reach and occasionally exceed 0.40. However, factor analysis shows that the three domains are relatively independent, with separate interest, value, and personality trait factors.

Even less related are abilities. Correlations of interest and value scores with ability scores rarely exceed 0.20. Interests correlate with abilities more than values do, but factor analysis shows separate ability, interest, and value factors. As currently measured, the content domains of ability and motivation are quite independent.

3. Research Findings

The reliable findings of research on vocational interests and values (as measured above) are reported below. More detail can be obtained from Dawis (1991).

3.1 Stability Of Interests And Values

For most people, interests are relatively stable over long periods after age 25. Interests are unstable before adulthood (with notable exceptions), but they increase in stability after age 18. The exceptions are early childhood interests in mechanics, science, mathematics, art, and music, which tend to be rather stable. Twin studies show that interests have a significant heritable component—a likely determinant in the stability of interests.

Values are stable during adulthood, although not as much as interests. Little is known about the stability of values during the developmental years. However, twin studies also show that values have a significant heritable component.

3.2 Predicting Satisfaction And Satisfactoriness

Job satisfaction is best predicted by the degree to which the work reinforcers of the job match the incumbent’s values. Close behind as a predictor is the degree to which the interests characteristic of the occupational group match the incumbent’s interests. At a gross level, the higher the social status or intelligence status of an occupation, the higher is the job satisfaction of its incumbents—but also, the more likely its incumbents will have the appropriately matching values and interests.

The best predictor of worker satisfactoriness is still the degree to which the worker’s abilities match the ability requirements of the job. Such prediction can be improved modestly by adding as predictors the degree to which the worker has the interests and values appropriate to the job.

3.3 Predicting Occupational Membership And Occupational Change

Follow-up studies (over 3to 21-year intervals) of adults with interest measures have found that about half of them had appropriate interests, another fifth had nearly appropriate interests, and the remainder had inappropriate interests. This is the most reliable finding in research on interests, justifying the use of interest measurement in career counseling and career development. Similar results, though not as well documented, have been reported for values.

Studies of people who have changed their occupation have found that their interests and values tend to be more appropriate for the occupations to which they changed than the occupations from which they changed.

4. Problems And Future Directions

4.1 Research Problems

Practically all of the research on interests and values has used self-report instruments. The extent of bias in the findings that result from such use of a single method is unknown. Findings such as those reported above need validation by other methods.

Another problem with self-report measures is the assumption that scores on such measures index intensity of interests or values. By themselves, scores (number of items endorsed) index not intensity but rather, coverage of content domain. Often, intensity is ‘built into’ the rating scale anchors (e.g., ‘Not Important,’ ‘Important,’ ‘Very Important’). The assumption that intensity is thereby measured requires validation.

Problems arise when an instrument has scales with the same names constructed by different methods (e.g., the SII). Studies of same-named scales in the same instrument, one internally consistent and the other externally relevant, have found low correlations (median of 0.30) between the two. Examination of item overlap shows less than 50 percent commonality. Differing inferences from the two kinds of scales are therefore possible.

A similar problem arises for same-named scales in two different instruments. Studies show low correlations and loadings on separate factors in factor analyses even for scales constructed by the same method. Again, these can lead to differing, even contradictory, inferences. Items of such scales should be compared to see how similar they are in content.

4.2 Future Research Directions

The most important problem for future research is to examine how vocational interests, values, and preferences originate and develop. Such development is likely linked to emotional development (as well as cognitive development), involving both biological and cultural aspects. It is clear that vocational interests, values, and preferences are learned, but a more detailed account of how such learning takes place is needed.

However, in the near term, research will probably continue to focus on predictive validation studies using available or improved instruments as current professional practice requires more such research.


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