Neuroticism, negative thinking, and coping with respect to career decision state.

Author:Bullock-Yowell, Emily

Using structural equation modeling, the present study investigated relationships between neuroticism, coping strategies, and negative career thoughts within the context of attaining a positive career decision state. Results from the initial model, based on a sample of college students (119 women, 113 men; M = 20.3 years) enrolled in a career development course, revealed that coping strategies were not a significant contribution to the model. The final model, without coping strategies, showed that neuroticism had a significant indirect effect on career decision state through negative thinking and that the relationship between neuroticism and career decision state was also significant. Findings also indicate that in the presence of negative career thoughts, neuroticism becomes associated with a more positive career decision state. Practical implications include suggestions that counselors intervene on clients' negative career thoughts to potentially render their neurotic tendencies more productive in reaching a desired career decision state.

Keywords: negative career thoughts, neuroticism, coping, career decision


For college students, a positive career decision state includes the ability to identify one or more occupational options and to be satisfied with a choice. During the postsecondary years, ineffectively coping with the career decision-making process has been associated with poor retention and low graduation rates (Lotkowski, Robbins, & Noeth, 2004). The attainment of a positive career decision state is becoming more of an emotionally charged issue, especially considering a declining job market and increasing student debt (Reardon, Lenz, Peterson, & Sampson, 2012). Thus, questions arise regarding how students are coping with negative career decision states and what interventions are successful in promoting more positive career decision states. To address these questions, the present study examined the extent to which neuroticism (as a basic dimension of personality involving negative feelings about self and the future), negative career thoughts, and ways of coping with these negative proclivities ultimately affect career decision states.

Focusing on cognitive processes affecting career decision states, Sampson, Peterson, Lenz, Reardon, and Saunders (1998) developed the Career Thoughts Inventory (CTI) to assess and aid in addressing negative career thinking. Sampson et al. (1998) proposed specific connections between neuroticism, negative thinking, and coping behaviors, yet these connections have not been investigated in research. Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Emery (1979) pointed out that negative thinking often produces negative affect that can limit productivity in problem solving. The CTI has been positively correlated with neuroticism, indecision, and vulnerability. Therefore, individuals with higher CTI scores may be

more likely to experience negative affect, more susceptible to psychological distress, more prone to disruptive emotions that interfere with adaptation (e.g., career development tasks), more prone to irrational ideas (concerning career choice), less able to control their impulses, and less able to cope effectively with stress [emphasis added], (Sampson et al., 1996b, p. 28).

According to cognitive information processing theory (CIP; Peterson, Sampson, & Reardon, 1991), high levels of negative career thoughts may be related to less use of problem-oriented coping to achieve a positive career decision state. Moreover, Bullock-Yowell, Peterson, Reardon, Leierer, and Reed (2011) used a path model and found that career tension and neuroticism directly influence both negative career thoughts and career decision state. Building directly on this study, we sought in the present study to further advance knowledge about achieving a positive career decision state by investigating relationships between neuroticism, negative career thoughts, and coping strategies as antecedent variables.


Neuroticism, a domain in the five-factor model of personality (Digman, 1990), is viewed as a fundamental trait underlying other personality characteristics. The heart of neuroticism is "the general tendency to experience negative effects such as fear, sadness, embarrassment, anger, guilt, and disgust" (Costa & McCrae, 1992, p. 14). This trait is also indicative of persons who are "prone to have emotional ideas, to be less in control of their impulses, and to cope more poorly than others with stress" (Costa & McCrae, 1992, p. 14). Not surprisingly, neuroticism is the personality variable that has received the most attention in the stress and coping literature (Gunthert, Cohen, & Armeli, 1999). The importance of considering personality in relation to career development has been regularly discussed and supported for many years (Costa, McCrae, & Holland, 1984; Holland, 1997). Therefore, career practitioners addressing the neuroticism personality trait may help clients attain a state of readiness for effective career problem solving and decision making.


Research has provided support for connections between neuroticism and coping behavior. Costa and McCrae (1992) proposed that people who score high on measures of neuroticism cope more poorly with stress, whereas those low in neuroticism more effectively approach stressful situations without becoming upset. For example, previous studies suggest that individuals who score high in neuroticism make poor choices in dealing with stress (Gunthert et al., 1999). Empirical evidence also suggests that people who score high on measures of neuroticism tend to use coping behaviors that maintain or exacerbate distress (e.g., Boyes & French, 2012; McCrae & Costa, 1986). Endler and Parker (1999) and Boyes and French (2012) found significant positive correlations between neuroticism and emotion-oriented coping, whereas Hooker, Frazier and Monahan (1994) and Penley and Tomaka (2002) found that neuroticism predicts emotion-focused coping. Although there appears to be some evidence of a relationship between neuroticism and various coping strategies, it is unknown whether one or more of the coping strategies are associated with a positive career decision state. It seems that emotion-focused and avoidance coping would be inversely associated with career certainty and satisfaction, whereas task-focused coping would be positively associated with certainty and satisfaction.

Negative Career Thoughts

Career thoughts denote "outcomes of one's thinking about assumptions, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, feelings, plans, and/or strategies related to career problem solving and decision making" (Sampson, Reardon, Peterson, & Lenz, 2004, p. 91). Negative career thoughts have been shown to be related to neuroticism (Sampson et al., 1998). Kelly and Shin (2009) found a mediating effect of negative career thoughts on the relationship between neuroticism and perception of lack of information (a core element of chronic career indecision). These findings taken together suggest that those high in neuroticism tend to engage in negative career thinking that leads to a perception that there is not enough information to make a career decision.

Negative career thoughts can be conceptualized as a variable related to appraisal in a stress and coping model. There are several studies that help provide additional context for the connection between negative career thoughts and neuroticism. For example, one study found that neuroticism predicted a self-appraised lack of problem-solving ability and personal control over one's emotional response (Chartrand, Rose, Elliott, Marmarosh, & Caldwell, 1993). Those results were consistent with another study that found a positive relationship between neuroticism and problem-solving inadequacies, particularly those that entail confidence and control of emotions (Elliott, Herrick, MacNair, & Harkins, 1994). More recently, based on previous studies, neuroticism was found to directly predict negative career thoughts (Bullock-Yowell et al., 2011). These findings suggest strong evidence of a direct relationship between neuroticism and negative career thinking.

Coping Strategies and Negative Career Thoughts

Researchers have classified and described coping behaviors in various ways. Although there has been a relative lack of consensus among coping researchers on how to conceptualize and measure coping, there is a general agreement that a distinction should be made between problem-focused and emotion-focused coping behaviors (Endler & Parker, 1999). Models using three factors are also common in the literature. For example, Billings and Moos (1981) and Pearlin and Schooler (1978) classified coping into strategies similar to problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping, but they added a third class of coping: responses with a purpose of changing the meaning of the appraisal of the stress.

In an effort to better understand a three-factor coping model, we used a model composed of (a) task-oriented coping, (b) emotion-oriented coping, and (c) avoidance-oriented coping (Endler & Parker, 1999). Task-oriented coping behaviors are intended to...

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