Circumscription and Compromise Theory

Circumscription and CompromiseVocational choice is a search for a life career that fits one’s concept of self, both socially and psychologically. According to circumscription and compromise theory, four developmental processes guide this person-job matching process during the first two decades of life: cognitive growth, age-related growth in cognitive ability; self-creation, increasingly self-directed development; circumscription, progressive elimination of one’s least favored vocational alternatives; and compromise, accommodation to constraints on implementing one’s most favored alternatives.

Cognitive Development

Children progress from thinking intuitively in the preschool years to concretely in the elementary years to abstractly in adolescence. With age, they become able to take in, understand, and analyze larger bodies of information, make subtler distinctions among people and occupations, compare them along more dimensions, infer internal states, and discern patterns in their own behavior.

By adolescence, most young people perceive the same complex social structure of work that adults do, specifically, a cognitive map of occupations that arrays jobs according to sex type and prestige level and, within that array, according to field of work. Young people develop increasingly individualized self-concepts, however, as they become better able to discern who they are as unique psychological beings. This learning process is inherently complex. The challenge for counselors is to enhance learning by reducing the complexity of the information they provide and to accommodate counselees’ differences in ability to learn and comprehend.


Children are born into a preexisting occupational world that can be observed and explored, but none is born with an already-formed self. Our personalities, interests, and other enduring traits are not stamped in by either our genes or our environments. Rather, those traits develop and are revealed only via experience as we daily engage the world around us. Each self is unique because both the genotypes and personal environments that jointly shape the flow of personal experience are unique. An inner “genetic compass” is the core of our individuality, however, because it quietly but incessantly inclines us to take some paths rather than others, be attracted to or repelled by certain activities, seize different opportunities, respond differently to the same environments, and create different social niches for ourselves when given a choice. Children gain greater control over their lives as they mature, thus becoming—or having the potential to become— more active agents in their own self-creation.

Vocational interests represent constellations of genetically influenced personality traits and abilities. The activities that would activate, exercise, and consolidate these constellations as distinct vocational interests are not available to people of all ages or in all places, so many adolescents lack sufficient experience to know what their vocational interests and talents might be. They are thereby less able to recognize ill-fitting expectations and circumstances, break away from them, or fashion lives more compatible with their own interests, abilities, and goals. The counseling challenge is thus to optimize experience, by both providing broad menus of vocationally relevant activities for young people to sample and promoting self-agency in seeking out formative experiences.


Early vocational choice proceeds as a process of elimination. As children become aware of occupational differences in sex type, then prestige, and finally field of work, they successively rule out more sectors of work as unacceptable for someone like themselves.

Stage 1: Orientation to Size and Power (Age 3-5)

Children in the preschool and kindergarten years begin to classify people in the simplest of ways: as big and powerful versus little and weak. They also begin to recognize occupations as adult roles and cease reporting that they would like to be animals or fantasy characters when they grow up.

Stage 2: Orientation to Sex Roles (Age 6-8)

Children at this age have progressed to making simple distinctions among people and jobs, primarily because of their most concrete, visible attributes. The most obvious and salient distinction for them is sex role, which they see simplistically in terms of sex-appropriate clothing and behavior. They start to eliminate occupations that seem incompatible with their gender self-concepts.

Stage 3: Orientation to Social Valuation (Age 9-13)

Children have now become acutely aware of differences in social status: in particular, which occupations are higher up the social ladder, which personal attributes (especially academic ability) help individuals get higher-level jobs, and what the minimum threshold is for being thought successful in their social circles. They eliminate from further consideration all occupations that are too low in prestige for someone like themselves, as well as all that seem out of reach in terms of ability or effort required. These choices may not be wise, but they tend to be permanent unless challenged in some way.

Stage 4: Orientation to Unique, Internal Self (Age 14 and Older)

Children take their preferred social selves—their self-defined social space—for granted by adolescence. This social space is much circumscribed, but it becomes more densely populated with occupational alternatives as adolescents begin to recognize how diverse work is across different fields of work. They are now also better able to make out their own interests, values, and goals, and they struggle to determine which field of work best fits their emerging pattern of interests and talents. Circumscription at this stage thus involves rejecting incompatible fields of work (for example, Realistic or Investigative fields, from John Holland’s theory).

The challenge for counselors is to prevent or reverse inappropriate circumscription by promoting self-insight: specifically, by helping young people to inventory and integrate relevant information about themselves and promoting a sound conception of which career lives would best fit and satisfy the developing self.


Not all suitable choices are accessible, so individuals must often compromise. Theory predicts that individuals will opt for work in a different field within their social space rather than compromise either prestige or sex type of work. If no such work is accessible, they will opt for lower-level work before seeking jobs that conflict with their gender self-concept, because the latter is more central to one’s self-concept.

Accessibility is limited by labor market conditions, the availability of appropriate training, and many other factors over which the person has no control. It is also limited, however, by the cost and effort of locating current opportunities for education, training, and employment. Individuals increase the accessibility of their preferred options when they seek information more widely and in a timely manner, are more persistent and optimistic, and take steps to increase their competitiveness for available opportunities. The counseling challenge is to minimize unnecessary compromise by optimizing self-investment, specifically, by helping young people assess the accessibility of their preferred education, training, and employment and by promoting self-agency in improving their own opportunities, qualifications, and support network.

See also:


  1. Gottfredson, L. S. 1981. “Circumscription and Compromise: A Developmental Theory of Occupational Aspirations.” Monograph. Journal of Counseling Psychology 28:545-579.
  2. Gottfredson, L. S. “Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise.” Pp. 179-232 in Career Choice and Development, 3d ed., edited by D. Brown, L. Brooks and Associates. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Gottfredson, L. S. “The Nature and Nurture of Vocational Interests.” Pp. 57-85 in Vocational Interests: Their Meaning, Measurement, and Use in Counseling, edited by M. L. Savickas and A. R. Spokane. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
  4. Gottfredson, L. S. “Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription, Compromise, and Self-creation.” Pp. 85-148 in Career Choice and Development, 4th ed., edited by D. Brown. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Gottfredson, L. S. “Using Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise in Career Guidance and Counseling.” Pp. 71-100 in Career Development and Counseling: Putting Theory and Research to Work, edited by S. D. Brown and R. W. Lent. New York: Wiley.