Social Cognitive Career Theory

Social cognitive career theorySocial cognitive career theory (SCCT) is a relatively new theory that is aimed at explaining three interrelated aspects of career development: (1) how basic academic and career interests develop, (2) how educational and career choices are made, and (3) how academic and career success is obtained. The theory incorporates a variety of concepts (e.g., interests, abilities, values, environmental factors) that appear in earlier career theories and have been found to affect career development. Developed by Robert W. Lent, Steven D. Brown, and Gail Hackett in 1994, SCCT is based on Albert Bandura’s general social cognitive theory, an influential theory of cognitive and motivational processes that has been extended to the study of many areas of psychosocial functioning, such as academic performance, health behavior, and organizational development.

Three intricately linked variables—self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, and goals—serve as the basic building blocks of SCCT. Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s personal beliefs about his or her capabilities to perform particular behaviors or courses of action. Unlike global confidence or self-esteem, self-efficacy beliefs are relatively dynamic (i.e., changeable) and are specific to particular activity domains. People vary in their self-efficacy regarding the behaviors required in different occupational domains. For example, one person might feel very confident in being able to accomplish tasks for successful entry into, and performance in, scientific fields but feel much less confident about his or her abilities in social or enterprising fields, such as sales. SCCT assumes that people are likely to become interested in, choose to pursue, and perform better at activities at which they have strong self-efficacy beliefs, as long as they also have necessary skills and environmental supports to pursue these activities.

  • Self-efficacy beliefs are assumed to derive from four primary sources of information: personal performance accomplishments, vicarious experiences (e.g., observing similar others), social persuasion, and physiological and emotional states. Personal accomplishments (successes and failures with specific tasks) are assumed to offer a particularly compelling source of efficacy information, but the nature of the social models and reinforcing messages to which one is exposed, and the types of physiological states one experiences while engaged in particular tasks (e.g., low levels of anxiety), can all affect one’s self-efficacy regarding different performance domains.
  • Outcome expectations refer to beliefs about the consequences or outcomes of performing particular behaviors (e.g., what will happen if I do this?). The choices that people make about the activities in which they will engage, and their effort and persistence at these activities, entail consideration of outcome as well as self-efficacy beliefs. For example, people are more likely to choose to engage in an activity to the extent that they see their involvement as leading to valued, positive outcomes (e.g., social and self-approval, tangible rewards, attractive work conditions). According to SCCT and the larger social cognitive theory, persons’ engagement in activities, the effort and persistence they put into them, and their ultimate success are partly determined by both their self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations.
  • Personal goals may be defined as one’s intentions to engage in a particular activity (e.g., to pursue a given academic major) or to attain a certain level of performance (e.g., to receive an A in a particular course). In SCCT, these two types of goals are, respectively, referred to as choice goals and performance goals. By setting goals, people help to organize and guide their own behavior and to sustain it in the absence of more immediate positive feedback and despite inevitable setbacks. Social cognitive theory posits that goals are importantly tied to both self-efficacy and outcome expectations: People tend to set goals that are consistent with their views of their personal capabilities and of the outcomes they expect to attain from pursuing a particular course of action. Success or failure in reaching personal goals, in turn, becomes important information that helps to alter or confirm self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations.

Social Cognitive Career Theory Figure 1

SCCT’s Interests Model

Self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and goals play key roles in SCCT’s models of educational and vocational interest development, choice making, and performance attainment. As shown in the center of the figure above, interests in career-relevant activities are seen as the outgrowth of self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Over the course of childhood and adolescence, people are exposed, directly and vicariously, to a variety of occupationally relevant activities in school, at home, and in their communities. They are also deferentially reinforced for continuing their engagement, and for developing their skills, in different activity domains. The types and variety of activities to which children and adolescents are exposed is partly a function of the context and culture in which they grow up. Depending on cultural norms, for example, girls are typically exposed to and reinforced for engaging in different types of activities than are boys.

Through continued activity exposure, practice, and feedback, people refine their skills, develop personal performance standards, form a sense of their efficacy in particular tasks, and acquire certain expectations about the outcomes of activity engagement. People are most likely to develop interest in activities at which they both feel efficacious and from which they expect positive outcomes. As people develop interest in an activity, they are likely to develop goals for sustaining or increasing their involvement in it. Further activity involvement leads to subsequent mastery or failure experiences, which, in turn, help to revise self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and, ultimately, interests within an ongoing feedback loop.

Interest development may be most fluid up until late adolescence, the point at which general interests (e.g., in art, science, social, or mechanical activities) tend to become fairly stable. At the same time, data on the stability of interests suggest that interest change does occur for some people during their post-adolescent years. SCCT posits that such changes, when they do occur, can be explained by changes in self-efficacy beliefs and/or outcome expectations—more precisely, by exposure to potent new learning experiences (e.g., parenting, technological advances, job training or restructuring) that enable people to alter their sense of self-efficacy and outcome expectations in new occupational and avocational directions.

In sum, people are likely to form enduring interest in an activity when they view themselves as competent at performing it and when they expect the activity to produce valued outcomes. Conversely, interests are unlikely to develop in activities for which people doubt their competence and expect negative outcomes. Furthermore, SCCT posits that for interests to blossom in areas for which people have talent, their environments must expose them to the types of direct, vicarious, and persuasive experiences that can give rise to robust efficacy beliefs and positive outcome expectations. Interests are impeded from developing when individuals do not have the opportunity to form strong self-efficacy and positive outcome beliefs, regardless of their level of objective talent. Indeed, findings suggest that perceived capabilities and outcome expectations form key intervening links between objective abilities and interests.

SCCT’s Choice Model

SCCT’s model of the career choice process, which builds on the interests model, is also embedded in the figure above. Arising largely through self-efficacy and outcome expectations, career-related interests foster particular educational and occupational choice goals (e.g., intentions to pursue a particular career path). Especially to the extent that they are clear, specific, strongly held, stated publicly, and supported by significant others, choice goals make it more likely that people will take actions to achieve their goals (e.g., seek to gain entry into a particular academic major, training program, or job). Their subsequent performance attainments (e.g., successes, failures) provide valuable feedback that can strengthen or weaken self-efficacy and outcome expectations and, ultimately, help to revise or confirm choices.

As illustrated in the same figure, SCCT also emphasizes that choice goals are sometimes influenced more directly and potently by self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, or environmental variables than they are by interests. Interests are expected to exert their greatest impact on academic and occupational choice under supportive environmental conditions, which enable people to pursue their interests. However, many adolescents and adults are not able to follow their interests either unfettered by obstacles or with the full support of important others. The choice making of these persons is constrained by such experiences as economic need, family pressures, or educational limitations. In such instances, people may need to compromise their interests and, instead, make their choices on the basis of such pragmatic considerations as the type of work that is available to them, their self-efficacy beliefs (“Can I do this type of work?”), and outcome expectations (“Will the job pay enough to make it worthwhile?”). Cultural values (e.g., the degree to which one’s choices may be guided by elder family members) may also limit the role of personal interests in career choice.

SCCT posits conditions that increase the probability that people will be able to pursue their interests as well as conditions where interests may need to be compromised in making career-related choices. Collectively labeled “environmental influences” in the above figure, these conditions refer to the levels of support (e.g., family financial and emotional support), barriers (e.g., lack of finances, inadequate levels of education), and opportunities available to the individual. Simply put, SCCT hypothesizes that interests will be a more potent predictor of the types of choices people make under supportive rather than under more restrictive environmental conditions. Under the latter conditions, one’s interests may need to be bypassed or compromised in favor of more pragmatic, pressing, or culturally acceptable considerations.

SCCT’s Performance Model

SCCT’s performance model is concerned with predicting and explaining two primary aspects of performance: the level of success that people attain in educational and occupational pursuits and the degree to which they persist in the face of obstacles. SCCT focuses on the influences of ability, self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and performance goals on success and persistence. Ability (as reflected by past achievement and aptitudes) is assumed to affect performance via two primary pathways. First, ability influences performance and persistence directly. For example, students with higher aptitude in a particular subject tend to do better and persist longer in that subject than do students with lesser aptitude. (Ability or aptitude may be thought of as a composite of innate potential and acquired knowledge.) Second, ability is hypothesized to influence performance and persistence indirectly though the intervening paths of self-efficacy and outcome expectations.

In other words, performance involves both ability and motivation. SCCT emphasizes the motivational roles of self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and performance goals. Specifically, SCCT suggests that self-efficacy and outcome expectations work in concert with ability, in part by influencing the types of performance goals that people set for themselves. Controlling for level of ability, students and workers with higher self-efficacy and more positive outcome expectations will be more likely to establish higher performance goals for themselves (i.e., aim for more challenging attainments), to organize their skills more effectively, and to persist longer in the face of setbacks. As a result, they may achieve higher levels of success than those with lower self-efficacy and less positive outcome expectations. Thus favorable self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and goals help people to make the best possible use of their ability.

It should be emphasized that self-efficacy is seen as complementing, not substituting for, ability. Indeed, SCCT does not assume that self-efficacy will compensate for inadequate task ability. It does, however, predict that the performance of individuals at the same ability level will be facilitated by stronger versus weaker self-efficacy beliefs. For example, academically able adolescents who underestimate their academic talents, compared to their equally able peers with more optimistic self-efficacy beliefs, are likely to set lower goals for themselves, experience undue performance anxiety, give up more quickly in the face of obstacles, challenge themselves less academically, and consequently experience less academic success.

Social cognitive theory notes that large overestimates of self-efficacy can also be self-defeating. For example, job trainees whose self-efficacy drastically overshoots their current skills are likely to set unrealistically high performance goals and to take on job tasks that are beyond their current grasp, which may occasion failure and discouragement. According to Bandura, self-efficacy beliefs that modestly exceed current capabilities are probably optimum because they are likely to lead people to set challenging (but attainable) performance goals and to engage in activities that stretch their skills and that further strengthen their self-efficacy and positive outcome expectations.

Empirical Support and Practical Applications

A substantial body of research has accumulated suggesting that SCCT and its major elements offer a useful framework for explaining educational and vocational interest development, choice making, and performance. Sufficient data have, in fact, accumulated to yield several meta-analyses relevant to SCCT. Meta-analysis is a research strategy that can be used to integrate findings and draw conclusions about the strength of hypothesized relations among variables. Meta-analyses of SCCT’s interest model have revealed substantial support for its major hypotheses. In particular, self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations have each been found to account for a sizable amount of the variation in vocational and educational interests.

Meta-analyses have also supported SCCT’s choice hypotheses. For example, it has been shown that career-related choices are strongly predicted by interests and, to a lesser extent, self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations. Consistent with SCCT’s assumptions about the importance of environmental and cultural influences, some recent research also suggests that interests may play a smaller role in the choice-making process of adolescents and young adults from particular cultures. Specifically, those from a culture characterized by collective decision making were more inclined to choose a career path that was consistent with the preferences of their family members and with their self-efficacy beliefs rather than one that necessarily fit their personal interests. Other research supports SCCT’s hypotheses that interests are more likely to translate into goals, and goals are more likely to promote choice actions, when people are faced with choice-supportive environmental conditions (e.g., relatively low barriers and high supports for their preferred educational/occupational path).

Meta-analyses relevant to SCCT’s performance hypotheses have found that self-efficacy is a useful predictor of both academic and occupational performance. Research on the sources of information, or learning experiences, from which self-efficacy beliefs are assumed to derive has found that performance accomplishments typically show the strongest relations with self-efficacy in corresponding activity domains (e.g., successful performance in math-related classes is associated with higher math self-efficacy). The other (vicarious, persuasion, emotional) sources have also been found to relate to self-efficacy, although typically to a more modest degree than personal accomplishments.

Finally, SCCT has sparked a number of efforts to design and test interventions aimed at various facets of career development. In particular, SCCT suggests a number of targets at which educational and career programs can be directed. These include efforts to expand interests and nurture career aspirations in children and adolescents, facilitate career goal setting and implementation in adolescents and young adults, and promote successful work adjustment (e.g., satisfaction, performance) in adult workers. Reflecting the central role that SCCT accords to self-efficacy and outcome expectations, the interventions that have been proposed or tested to this point tend to rely heavily on experiences that promote these expectations (e.g., exposure to personal mastery experiences and support, access to accurate information about work conditions and outcomes). Extensions of the theory to a number of subpopulations (e.g., women of color, gay and lesbian workers, persons with disabilities) have appeared, and the theory has been applied to the study of career behavior in a number of countries and cultural contexts.

See also:


  1. Bandura, A. 1986. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  2. Bandura, A.   1997. Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.
  3. Brown, S. D. and Lent, R. W. 1996. “A Social Cognitive Framework for Career Choice Counseling.” Career Development Quarterly 44:354-366.
  4. Hackett, G. and Betz, N. E. 1981. “A Self-efficacy Approach to the Career Development of Women.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 18:326-336.
  5. Hackett, G. and Byars, A. M. 1996. “Social Cognitive Theory and the Career Development of African American Women.” Career Development Quarterly 44:322-340.
  6. Lent, R. W. 2005. “A Social Cognitive View of Career Development and Counseling.” Pp. 101-127 in Career Development and Counseling: Putting Theory and Research to Work, edited by S. D. Brown and R. W. Lent. New York: Wiley.
  7. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D. and Hackett, G. 1994. “Toward a Unifying Social Cognitive Theory of Career and Academic Interest, Choice, and Performance” [Monograph]. Journal of Vocational Behavior 45:79-122.
  8. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D. and Hackett, G. 2000. “Contextual Supports and Barriers to Career Choice: A Social Cognitive Analysis.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 47:36-49.
  9. Lent, R. W., Hackett, G. and Brown, S. D. 1999. “A Social Cognitive View of School-to-Work Transition.” Career Development Quarterly 44:297-311.
  10. Stajkovic, A. D. and Luthans, F. 1998. “Self-efficacy and Work-related Performance: A Meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 124:240-261.