5 Psychology Findings That Affect Career Decisions

1. We’re bad at decision making – Kahneman & Tversky (1979), Gilbert (2004)

When weighing up the costs and benefits of a decision, we make two errors.  First, we overestimate the probability of failure in a new direction because of our negative bias.  Second, we underestimate the benefits of change because we fail to imagine or visualise the results of that change in much detail.  This has been shown time and again, not least by Dan Gilbert.

Conclusion: we have to think differently about career decision making.  Firstly, we need to become more aware of our successes and achievements.  Second, we should try to visualise what we actually want in life in greater detail.   Sounds obvious.  Not many do it.

2. Our brains are pre-wired for survival, not fulfilment – Maslow (1943)

We’re survival machines.  Our brains think evolved to anticipate and predict the worst and we try to eliminate this risk.  That’s why our cognitive functions and emotions evolved too – and why we’re 3 to 5 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive.

But as Maslow predicted, once we have survival we adapt and want fulfilment.  And fulfilment isn’t created by avoiding risk, or by surviving.  Happiness, after all, is not the absence of sadness.  Fulfilment often requires us to imagine something better and to take risks to achieve it.

Conclusion: your brain will protest if you consider something new, but fulfilment probably depends on it.  Fulfilment is about contributing something unique to a cause you believe in.  And remember we adapt and learn from failure – very few decisions are irreversible.

3. Negative emotions are unavoidable – Hayes (1998)

We often treat emotions like fear and anxiety as though they must be avoided, when in reality they are an inevitable part of growth – and of being human.  Equally we often treat our internal thoughts as representing the ‘truth’, when in reality they are just thoughts.  Many people try to avoid negative emotions or ‘fight’ the pain, but research shows that being willing to accept these thoughts whilst progressing towards your valued outcomes is more effective.

Conclusion:  Negative emotions are an inevitable part of any activity where we learn and grow.  Acceptance of negative emotions whilst continuing to make progress towards one’s valued goals is a far more effective strategy than avoiding or fighting them.  (If you feel the need to beat your negative emotions first, check that the valued outcome is valuable enough and check that you are truly willing to accept the emotions that come with it).

4. Meaning is about understanding – Steger (2008)

If you want a meaningful life, you need to firstly understand your true self.  Who are you?  What do you stand for?  Then you have to understand how you fit into the world.  What do you believe in?  What do you want to do whilst you’re here?

Without meaning we feel uneasy and anxious because we don’t fully understand what we’re doing.   This definition of meaning can be applied for small things like understanding the meaning of a word in a sentence, or larger things like understanding our lives.  Meaningful work can therefore be found at the intersection of where you use your unique strengths in a purpose that you believe in.

Conclusion: Focus on understanding what you uniquely offer, and then focus on understanding what sort of cause you want to contribute to.  If you’re consistently doing that the end result will bring meaning.

5. Control over our work lives is critical – Langer and Rodin (1976), Whitehall II study (2005)

A famous experiment in 1976 by Langer and Rodin showed that if elderly people were given a plant to care for they had much higher levels of happiness than if they were given a plant but the nurse cared for it.  This finding has been repeated many times in many ways.  The Whitehall Study is a large-scale experiment which showed that those with less control over their daily work schedule had poorer health and died younger than those who had great control.  If you are looking to be happier in your work, look for ways in which you can increase your control over it.

Conclusion: ask yourself how you could exert greater control over your working life.  What could you learn or train in that would help you?  What role or field would you feel more in control in?

 

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