Cognitive Information Processing in Career Counseling

Cognitive Information Processing in Career CounselingThere is an old adage, “Give people a fish and they eat for a day, but teach them how to fish and they eat for a lifetime.” This wise maxim succinctly captures the ultimate aim in using the cognitive information processing (CIP) approach to career counseling: to enable individuals to become skillful career problem solvers and decision makers. Through the cognitive information processing approach, individuals learn not only how to solve the problem at hand but also how to generalize this experience to future career problems.

In the early 1970s, a line of inquiry emerged from the field of cognitive science that offered a new way of thinking about human problem solving and decision making. This paradigm, referred to as “cognitive information processing,” was initially formulated in the works of Earl Hunt, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon and of Roy Lackman, Janet Lackman, and Earl Butterfield. When applied to the realm of career choice, this paradigm, herein referred to as the “CIP model,” provides a way to describe the fundamental memory structures and thought processes involved in solving career problems and making career decisions. With the CIP model, career counselors are able to assist clients in becoming better career problem solvers and decision makers.

Definitions and Concepts

The following are key definitions in the CIP model:

  • Career problem: A gap between an existing state of career indecision and a more desirable state of decidedness. The gap creates a state of cognitive dissonance that becomes the primary motivational force driving the problem-solving process. The presence of a gap results in tension or discomfort that individuals seek to eliminate through problem solving and decision making.
  • Problem space: All cognitive and affective components contained in working memory as individuals approach a career problem-solving task. In the lives of clients, the problem space entails the career problem at hand in addition to all the issues associated with it, such as marital and family relationships, as well as the emotional states embedded in them.
  • Career problem solving: A complex set of thought processes involved in the acknowledgment of a gap, an analysis of its causes, the formulation and clarification of alternative courses of actions, and the selection of one of these alternatives to reduce the gap. A career problem is solved when a career choice is made from among the alternatives.
  • Career decision making: A process that not only encompasses career choice but also entails a commitment to and the carrying out of the actions necessary to implement the choice.
  • Career development: The implementation of a series of career decisions that constitute an integrated career path throughout the life span.

The Pyramid of Information Processing and the CASVE Cycle

Two fundamental structures constitute the CIP model: (a) the Pyramid of Information Processing and (b) the CASVE Cycle.

The Pyramid of Information Processing

For individuals to become independent and responsible career problem solvers and decision makers, certain information-processing capabilities must undergo continual development throughout the life span. These capabilities may be envisioned as forming a pyramid of certain “information-processing domains,” with three hierarchically arranged domains. The Knowledge Domain lies at the base, the Decision-making Skills Domain constitutes the mid-level, and the Executive Processing Domain is at the apex.

The Knowledge Bases. Two Knowledge domains, Self-knowledge and Occupational Knowledge, lie at the base of the pyramid. Self-knowledge includes knowledge about one’s interests, abilities, skills, and values based on an ongoing construction of one’s life’s experiences. Occupational knowledge consists of one’s own unique structural representation of the world of work and an understanding of individual occupations in terms of their duties and responsibilities, as well as education and training requirements for attaining them.

The CASVE Cycle. The middle level of the Pyramid of Information Processing, referred to as the “Decision-making Skills Domain,” involves generic information-processing skills that combine occupational knowledge and self-knowledge to solve a career problem and to make a decision. A five-step recursive information transformation process, the CASVE Cycle (pronounced “ca-sah-veh”), is used as a heuristic for the career counseling process.

  • Communication (C). Information is received and encoded that signals that a problem exists. One then queries oneself and the environment to formulate the gap (or discontinuity) that is the problem. It also entails getting “in touch” with all components of the problem space, including thoughts, feelings, and related life circumstances.
  • Analysis (A). The causes of the problem are identified, and the relationships among problem components are placed in a conceptual framework or mental model.
  • Synthesis (S). Possible courses of action are formulated through the creation of possibilities (synthesis elaboration) and then narrowed (synthesis crystallization) to a manageable set of viable alternatives.
  • Valuing (V). Each course of action or alternative is evaluated and prioritized according to its likelihood of success in removing the gap and its probable impact on self, significant others, cultural group, and society. Through this process, a first choice emerges, and the career problem is solved.
  • Execution (E). An action plan is formulated to implement the choice, which becomes a goal for the client. A series of milestones are laid out in the form of a means-ends relationship that will lead step-by-step to the attainment of the goal. Thus, a career decision is made when individuals move deliberately toward a goal, such as enrolling in a training program or taking a job in a chosen occupational field.

Upon executing the plan, there is a return to the Communication phase of the cycle to evaluate whether the decision successfully removed the gap. If so, the individual moves on to solve succeeding problems that arise from the implementation of the solution. If not, one recycles through the CASVE cycle with new information about the problem, oneself, and occupations acquired from the initial pass through the CASVE cycle.

The Apex. The apex of the pyramid, the Executive Processing Domain, contains metacognitive components that guide and regulate the lower-order cognitive functions. We describe this domain as “thinking about thinking,” which entails the ability to view oneself as a career problem solver from a detached perspective. The domain involves metacognitive components that (a) control the selection and sequencing of cognitive strategies to achieve a goal and (b) monitor the execution of a given problem-solving strategy to determine whether a goal has been reached.

Readiness for Career Problem Solving And Decision Making

An initial consideration in the application of the CIP model in career counseling is acquiring an understanding of two critical factors, complexity and capability, associated with readiness for undertaking the task of solving a career problem. These factors are taken into account in administering assessments and prescribing learning experiences to enhance the acquisition of career problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Complexity. The career problems of clients often emanate from highly complex lives. The career problem space may include, in addition to career concerns, many personal issues, such as the desire to have committed relationships, children and family responsibilities, property ownership, community and spiritual involvement, and leisure pursuits. These aspects are interrelated with the presenting career issue and directly influence how a client engages the respective stages of the CASVE Cycle.

Capability. Clients bring a wide range of individual differences in prior learning experiences and general problem-solving abilities to the career decision-making process. Moreover, clients vary in terms of aptitudes for further education and training, attitudes toward risk taking, self-esteem or self-efficacy, family support and values, and thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions about the world of work.

Operations and Interventions

The Assessment of Client Learning Needs

Assessment from the perspective of the CIP model concerns what clients need to learn to enhance their career problem-solving and decision-making skills so as to effectively address the career problem at hand. The Pyramid and the CASVE Cycle serve as heuristics for the identification of client learning needs.

Assessing Readiness for Career Problem Solving and Decision Making

Not all clients are prepared to immediately engage the career problem-solving process. They may require intensive personal assistance from a career counselor to manage factors in the problem space that impede learning before they are able to begin.

The assessment of readiness may be accomplished through the integration of information gathered through the administration of the Career Thoughts Inventory (CTI), followed by a client interview. The CTI is a 48-item self-report measure that assesses the level of a client’s dysfunctional thinking through three principal construct scales, Decision-making Confusion (DMC), External Conflict (EC), and Commitment Anxiety (CA). Scale scores along with responses to individual items enable a career counselor together with the client to identify discrepancies in the Pyramid or blocks in the CASVE Cycle that impede career problem solving and decision making. On the basis of the readiness assessment, clients may be assigned to one of three levels of career service: (1) self-help, (2) brief staff assistance, and (3) individual case-managed career counseling.

Assessing Career Problem-solving Skills

The assessment of problem-solving and decision-making skills entails identifying specific domains in the Pyramid that require further development in order to be able to solve the career problem at hand.

  • Self-knowledge. The assessment of self-knowledge is often a confirmatory process in which interest inventories, such as the Self-Directed Search, allow clients to clarify and reaffirm their interests. Computer-assisted career guidance (CACG) systems, card sorts (values, interests, skills), and autobiographical sketches may also be useful.
  • Occupational Knowledge. Occupational knowledge may be assessed through traditional vocational card sorts or through using a card sort as a cognitive-mapping task. Through the use of a think-aloud procedure, clients reveal their knowledge about occupations as they sort the cards into Like, Dislike, or Maybe In a cognitive-mapping task, the clients reveal a schema of the world of work by sorting cards into piles of related occupations and then identifying the pile Most like me.
  • Decision-making Skills. The CTI may be used to identify specific phases in the CASVE Cycle in which a client is experiencing blocks in the career problem-solving process brought about by dysfunctional career thoughts. The Decision-Making Confusion (DMC) scale reveals dysfunction in the Communication, Analysis, and Synthesis phases, which entail the derivation of career alternatives. The External Conflict (EC) scale addresses the Valuing phase, in which clients weigh the importance of their views in relation to the views of significant others. The Commitment Anxiety (CA) scale alludes to the transition from arriving at a solution to the career problem in the Valuing phase to making a commitment to action in the Execution phase.
  • Executive Processing. Dysfunctional thoughts in this domain may also be assessed through responses to individual items on the Executive Processing content scale of the CTI. In addition, during interviews with a client, a career counselor may listen carefully for instances of negative self-talk, ineffective cognitive strategies, and lack of control in staying focused on the task at hand.

The outcome of the assessment process is the development of an individualized learning plan (ILP) that comprises the goals of counseling in order to address the identified deficiencies and blocks that impede problem solving and decision making.

Helping Clients Acquire Career Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills

The Pyramid and CASVE Cycle are instrumental in developing interventions that facilitate the acquisition of self-knowledge, occupational knowledge, and career problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Acquiring Self-knowledge. The acquisition or clarification of self-knowledge may be accomplished through the use of interest inventories, values inventories, and ability and skills assessments that typically affirm and clarify the elements of the Self-knowledge Domain. Autobiographies may also be helpful in describing and organizing life experiences that bear on the career problem at hand.

Acquiring Occupational Knowledge. In career counseling, clients engage in the processes of schema specialization, in which they are able to make finer discriminations among occupations, and schema generalization, in which they form more extensive networks of connections among extant occupational knowledge structures. When career counseling takes place within comprehensive career centers, the acquisition of occupational knowledge may be facilitated through the use of a variety of media, such as print materials in the form of occupational briefs, vocational biographies, and reference books; special-topics books are an efficient means of acquiring factual knowledge about occupations, interactive media, and Internet Web sites. Reality testing through job shadowing or interviews with incumbents allows clients to experience occupations even more directly.

Acquiring Career Problem-solving and Decision-making Skills. The concept of the Pyramid of Information Processing is presented directly to clients in the form of a handout, “What’s Involved in Career Choice.” The concepts of Communication, Analysis, Synthesis, Valuing, and Execution, as well as the cyclical relationship among these concepts, are learned through presenting a visual representation in the form of a handout, with a figure depicting the CASVE Cycle and easy-to-grasp statements describing each stage. Then, through subsequent considerations of activities included in the ILP and feedback from a counselor, clients begin to accommodate and assimilate the CIP model into their own decision-making styles. At the termination of counseling, the counselor reviews the decision-making process undertaken and demonstrates how the CIP model can be used in future career problem situations.

Acquiring Metacognitive Skills in the Executive Processing Domain. When dysfunctional or negative thoughts have been identified in the assessment process, clients learn how to change their dysfunctional or negative career thoughts using the ICAA algorithm (Identify, Challenge, Alter, and Act). The CTI Workbook takes clients step-by-step through a cognitive-restructuring process. Clients also learn how to self-monitor their progress through the CASVE Cycle.

Implementing the CIP Model in Career Counseling

A seven-step career service delivery sequence is used as a heuristic for implementing the CIP model in career counseling:

  1. Initial interview. The career counselor gathers qualitative information about the nature of the presenting career problem.
  2. Preliminary-readiness assessment. An individual’s readiness for career counseling is assessed through administering the CTI and the Problem Space Worksheet. The findings are reviewed with the client.
  3. Define the problem and analyze the causes. The counselor and the client come to a mutual understanding of the career problem and related issues. The specific causes of the problem lie in the deficiencies within the respective domains of the Pyramid or blocks that impede or inhibit progressing through the CASVE Cycle. We refer to this as the “career diagnosis,” according to the CIP model.
  4. Formulate goals. The counselor and client together formulate a set of attainable goals, stated in behavioral terms, to remove the respective deficiencies or blocks.
  5. Develop an individualized learning plan (ILP). For each goal, the counselor and client develop learning activities to attain the goal and identify resources used in the activities, estimate the time needed to carry out the activities, and establish priority in the sequence of goal attainments as well as an indicator or measure of their attainment.
  6. Execute ILP. Clients carry out the ILP while the counselor monitors the attainment of the respective goals and assists the client when required.
  7. Summative review and generalization. At the conclu­sion of the ILP, the client and counselor review the process used to solve the problem, make the decision at hand, and evaluate its effectiveness. They also explore how the CIP model might be applied to future career problems or even life problems in general.

Implications for Best Practices In Career Counseling

The CIP model advances the state of the science in career counseling by providing a theory base for introducing a value-added dimension, that is, using the problem at hand as a means of furthering the acquisition of career problem-solving and decision-making skills. Furthermore, focusing specifically on what clients are required to learn to improve their career problem-solving skills, counselors are freed up to look beyond the traditional one-on-one counseling relationship and creatively develop facilitative learning environments. Finally, the assessment of readiness for career problem solving enables counselors to match career service delivery resources to the depth and scope of the presenting problem, thereby fostering greater efficiency in the administration of career services.

The intent of the CIP model is to serve as a heuristic to enable individuals to systematically think through a career problem that will improve opportunities for career and lifestyle enhancement. Through the application of the model to solve a presenting problem, clients become better career problem solvers and decision makers, which, in turn, ultimately leads to satisfying, meaningful, and productive careers.

See also:


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  2. Lackman, R., Lackman, J. L. and Butterfield, E. C. 1979. Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Newell, A. and Simon, H. A. 1972. Human Problem Solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Peterson, G. W., Sampson, J. P. Jr., Lenz, J. G. and Reardon, R. C. (2002). “A Cognitive Information Processing Approach to Career Problem Solving and Decision Making.” Pp. 312­369 in Career Choice and Development, 4th ed., edited by D. Brown. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Peterson, G. W., Sampson, J. P. Jr. and Reardon, R. C. 1991. Career Development and Services: A Cognitive Approach. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
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  7. Sampson, J. P. Jr., Peterson, G. W., Lenz, J. G., Reardon, R. C. and Saunders, D. E. 1996. The Career Thoughts Inventory (CTI). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  8. Sampson, J. P. Jr., Peterson, G. W., Lenz, J. G., Reardon, R. C. and Saunders, D. E. 1996. Improving Your Career Thoughts: A Workbook for the Career Thoughts Inventory. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  9. Sampson, J. P. Jr., Peterson, G. W., Reardon, R. C. and Lenz, J. G. 2000. “Using Readiness Assessment to Improve Career Services: A Cognitive Information Processing Approach.” Career Development Quarterly 49:146-174.
  10. Sampson, J. P. Jr., Reardon, R. C., Peterson, G. W. and Lenz, J. G. 2004. Career Counseling and Services: A Cognitive Information Processing Approach. Belmont, CA: Brooks/ Cole Thomson Learning.