Counseling for Effective Decision Making

Rational Approaches to Decision-Making Counseling

Rational approaches to decision-making counseling are much more accommodating to the language of formal decision theory than are either the psychoanalytic or existential points of view. In rational counseling choice problems are defined as such; alternatives are weighed in the light of new information; and the counselor actively helps the client implement a plan of action. My use of the label rational counseling might suggest that a fairly unified school of thought exists, but such is not the case. Counseling theorists who operate under the rational rubric comprise a fairly heterogeneous group. This chapter is restricted to those theories most relevant to the conduct of decision-making counseling. Specifically, I will review the contributions of Ellis, trait and factor theorists, Gelatt, and Katz.

Ellis's Rational Emotive Therapy


Albert Ellis is one of the most colorful and controversial figures in the counseling profession. He is by self-proclamation a psychotherapist, a sexologist, and a sexual libertine; however, his model of counselling--"rational emotive therapy"--can be viewed separately.

Ellis (1962) believes that understanding human misery (neurosis) is as simple as ABC. "A" represents an activating event or antecedent stimulus that may produce a particular self-verbalization or belief at -B." These beliefs can be either rational (Br) or irrational (Bi). "C" refers to our consequent emotional response. Any sustained negative emotion--neurosis--is always the result of an irrational belief about "A." For example, a girl is jilted by her boyfriend ("A"). She then seeks therapeutic help after finding herself in the throes of a depression lasting several months ("C"). This depression can only be the result of illogical thinking at "B." Such self-defeating self-talk usually takes the form of "Isn't it horrible that he's done this." "I can't live without him." "His jilting me proves that I'm a worthless person," and so forth.

In 1973 Ellis added D and E to his formulation. "D" refers to the therapist's task of actively disputing these irrational beliefs and serving as a frank counterpropagandist for a more rational perspective. Our jilted client should be saying things to herself such as "I don't like being dumped on, but it's hardly catastrophic. My adequacy or worth as a human being doesn't depend one iota on his opinion of me. In fact, I'm probably better off finding out about his deceptive streak now before committing any more of my life to him." As a result of more rational thinking, our client finds herself with a new effect, that is, emotional freedom at point "E." Ellis also stresses the importance of homework assignments; in this case our client should be actively pursuing some of the many other "fish in the sea" (Ellis, 1965, 1966).

There is ample research supporting Ellis's hypothesis that certain kinds of self-verbalizations may produce untoward emotional responses (Nawas, 1970; Rimm & Litvak,1969; Veltin, 1968). Furthermore, Ellis's work has spawned a good deal of behavioral reconceptualization (see chapter 3). In spite of the clinical utility of Ellis's formulations, however, there are certain epistemological problems inherent in any belief system purporting to be rational. In the 1960s one could easily construct a logically tight rationale for continued involvement or withdrawal of American forces in Vietnam. If we assume that all cats have feathers and that all feathered creatures are dogs, we can mathematically prove that all cats are dogs. Logic does not demand "true" assumptions.

Rational emotive therapy rests on the assumption that all sustained negative emotion (neurosis) is the result of illogical thinking. This of course would imply that Hitler's guilt, if he had any, should be seen as irrational and possibly dismissed by his counselor with the old saw "to err is human!" Grief at the loss of a loved one, a less farfetched example, would likewise be construed as the end product of illogical drivel. Conversely, counselors never try to dissuade clients from feelings of happiness that arise from "irrational" thinking. For example, feeling proud of a task well done is as inherently illogical as feeling miserable about a failure if we view adequacy from Ellis's perspective.

Nevertheless, much human misery is caused or at least accompanied by irrational thinking. Ellis has provided us with a useful therapeutic tool, if not a faultless epistemology.

Decision Making

In his earlier writings Ellis (1962) does not explicitly talk about a framework for making decisions, but he does argue rather convincingly for a life-style based on a long-range, social hedonism. All of us should guiltlessly seek out and enjoy harmless physical sensations (such as sex and gustatory pleasures); but, because we will probably not die tomorrow, some degree of moderation in our eating, drinking, and merrymaking may be a safer course of action.

In addition to stressing the concept of future consequences of our actions, Ellis emphasizes the equality between self-interest and social interest; that is, what is good for us is also good for our culture: "There is a very good answer to the question why one should love one's neighbor, or at least why one should take care not to harm him: namely, that only in so doing is one likely to build the kind of society in which one would best live oneself" (1962, p. 323). This doctrine is, of course, akin to the classic economic theory of "enlightened self-interest." By paying his workers five dollars per day, Henry Ford ensured they would have enough money to buy his automobiles.

But though Ellis does present a philosophy on which all decisions to act ought to be grounded, his credo is relatively abstract, so the dictates of what specifically constitutes rational behavior are open to wide interpretation. Furthermore, in his classic text Ellis (1962) does not provide the counselor with a technology or even a procedural description for helping clients resolve a decision.

In a more recent book, The Civilized Couple's Guide to Extra-Marital Adventure, which was designed for lay reading (no pun intended), Ellis (1973) addresses these issues indirectly. We are told, for example, that "civilized adultery" may be a very rational activity. In fact the opening chapter is entitled "Extramarital adventure: Almost everybody is doing it." In a subsequent chapter ("To be or not to be an extramarital adventurer: That is the question") Ellis examines a number of factors to consider before making such a decision. These include gauging and analyzing your motives, dealing with feelings of shame and guilt (You shouldn't have any; they're irrational!), and using a "hedonistic calculus" in which facts are considered along with the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative. Finally, should one decide to embark on a course of extramarital adventure, one must make another decisionshould one be honest with one's spouse? After marshaling the opinions of numerous experts, Ellis generally recommends "no" (for reasons that, incidentally, may or may not be entirely rational).

Thus Ellis does recommend engaging in a number of preparatory steps prior to making a decision. The gathering of relevant information and the consideration of advantages and disadvantages are components that tie Ellis's views to those of most other decision theorists. But though some of the components may be present, the process is rather incomplete and unsystematic. No formal sequence of counselor activities is provided.

Ellis does apparently allow for the possibility of more than one "rational" choice. However, it is rather difficult to read his book on extramarital sex and come away with the notion that monogamy could ever be anything but a stifling compromise.

Finally, there is the matter of intrusive counselor values--a factor that cannot be dismissed as irrational drivel (see chapter 6). Ellis's system demands that the therapist directly attack the client's irrational beliefs, a procedure most counselors--behaviorally inclined or otherwise-would support from a cost- perspective. Although the irrationality of certain client self-statements may be obvious to everyone, just what constitutes a rational substitute may not be at all clear. Ellis is not above advice giving or arguing for a particular alternative such as secrecy from one's spouse in the matter of extramarital sex. But Ellis's utilities may differ widely from those of his clients and other rational emotive counselors

Essentially, then, Ellis has provided the counselor with a very useful framework for removing clients from discomforting emotional states. Although his conceptualizations have stimulated much behavioral counseling theory, research, and practice, his work only indirectly and imperfectly addresses the topic of decision-making counseling.

Trait and Factor Counseling


People differ. Some are aggressive; others are submissive. Some smile frequently; others frown. Some are intelligent; others are not. There are approximately eighteen thousand words in the English language that are descriptive of such human conduct (Allport, 1961). Over the past century the trait psychologist has been primarily concerned with boiling down this enormous number of descriptive adjectives into a more manageable quantity. For example, a list containing the words outgoing, sociable, gregarious, friendly, and attention seeking might be reduced to a single entity such as extraversion. just as the chemist Mendeleff developed the periodic chart that now defines and differentiates a mere hundred and five elements out of literally billions of compounds in the earth's crust, the trait psychologist likewise seeks a taxonomy or master list of elemental words thought to be descriptive of all human conduct. But success has been elusive, there are nearly as many trait taxonomies as there are trait psychologists.

Traits are often equated with needs and factors, but there are important differences. Need theories of personality are essentially prescientific in that they purport to explain a phenomenon when all they actually do is label it. For example, to claim that a client slashed his or her wrists because of "masochistic needs" provides the illusion of explaining why the suicidal act occurred. All that can actually be said is that the client behaved in a selfdestructive manner. Likewise to argue that one studies to meet achievement needs or explores to satisfy curiosity needs would be equally redundant.

Trait theories are much less grandiose. They do not purport to explain a behavior pattern but only to describe it. The focus is primarily on whether or not a word such as "aggressive" is an adequate descriptor of human conduct. How the individual got that way is a speculative matter. A trait is a name for a particular class of similar behaviors that can further be defined in terms of a continuum and the familiar bell-shaped curve. Nearly all psychometric tests, which measure traits, are constructed in such a way that most people will have an -average" amount of a given trait, with relatively few people at either extreme. An individual scoring high on the trait "dominance," for example, might be expected to behave frequently in a dominant manner, at home, at play, and at work. Most trait theorists believe that human individuality can be explained in terms of one's unique pattern of traits (Allport, 1961; Cattell, 1965; Eysenck, 1961; Guilford, 1959).

Need and trait theories of personality often rest on armchair speculations rather than empirical foundations. Factor theories are a little more sophisticated. Factors are traits derived from a statistical manipulation called factor analysis, which essentially examines the relationship between various pieces of data and sorts out, so to speak, variables that are similar, dissimilar, or not related. Unfortunately, computer output depends upon input; factor analysis reflects only that portion of reality it ingests. Thus to view personality from the perspective of factor analysis may be akin to looking at the universe from the bottom of a well.

Although the trait approach to the study of personality has broad popular appeal, its theoretical and empirical status has been closely scrutinized by Mischel 1968, 1973) and found wanting. Apart from abilities related to intelligence, human beings are remarkably inconsistent. Mischel argues rather convincingly that trait theories do not give enough credence to environmental and personal variables, which are more powerful predictors of behavior. The so-called "dominant" individual, for example, might be submissive in another situation or the same situation interpreted differently.

Decision Making

For the first half of this century decision-making counseling was not conceptualized apart from vocational guidance, which in turn was inextricably bound with trait approaches to personality. For example, Frank Parsons (1909, p. 5), the father of the vocational guidance movement, recommended that the worker make the following assessments prior to choosing a vocation: "(1) a clear understanding of yourself, your aptitudes, abilities, interests, ambitions, resources, limitations, and their causes; (2) a knowledge of the requirements and conditions of success, advantages and disadvantages, compensation, opportunities, and prospects in different lines of work; (3) true reasoning on the relations of these two groups of facts," Parsons was essentially arguing that the individual possesses a number of traits. Likewise, the qualities of various jobs can be thought of as a similar set of traits. Decision-making counseling, then, is simply finding a compatible match between client traits and job traits.

Subsequent technological developments increased the ease and precision with which people could be matched with jobs. Interest and ability tests were developed; vast amounts of employment information were condensed and attractively packaged. Computers were then called in to assist if not replace the counselor as receipt of a success- probability statement for various job alternatives became the principle component of decision-making counseling.

Although trait psychology still permeates many sectors of the vocational guidance field, the "cutting edge" of the profession has adopted a much broader perspective. The choice of an occupation is no longer seen as a static event occurring at a single point in one's life. Rather career education (Herr, 1969) should be an integral part of the student's academic program. To ease the transition from student life to the world of work, our educational curricula from kindergarten through high school or beyond ought to be systematically providing informational and personal competence experiences germane to the making of satisfactory career decisions (Herr & Cramer, 1972).

At this point it would be easy to digress into a detailed description of career education on programming, but this material has been fully covered by other authors (for example, Borow, 1973; Byrne, 1977; Herr, 1974; Herr & Cramer, 1972; Horan, in press; Osipow, 1968). Though it may well be the principal preoccupation of school-based counselors, helping clients choose a career alternative is only one of an infinite number of decision-making counseling concerns. The trait approach to personality has had some utility in career decision-making, but extrapolations beyond this domain have not been attempted.

Gelatt's "Conceptual Frame of Reference"


H. B. Gelatt has been a pioneer in the application of formal decision theory to counseling practice. In a 1962 article he decried the absence of a theoretical framework for secondary guidance services and suggested this void was the greatest deterrent to research and development in the field. Gelatt believed that decision theory offered the most promising conceptual frame of reference for counseling.

Decision Making

Gelatt (1962) observed that all decisions have essentially the same characteristics. In the first place there is an individual who must make a decision. Second, there are two or more possible courses of action. Finally, we pre sume that the decision is to be made on the basis of information. Building on the work of Bross (1953) and Cronbach and Gleser (1957), Gelatt suggested there were essentially two kinds of decisions: terminal decisions, which are final, and investigatory decisions, which call for additional information. An investigatory decision recycles until it results in a terminal decision.

The components of Gelatt's (1962) conceptual model are depicted in figure 8.1. Gelatt illustrates these components with the common problem of educational planning. The client's objective is to select an appropriate program of courses; the counselor's role is to help the client decide in a systematic manner. In the predictive system the decision maker assesses the possible alternatives, outcomes, and probabilities. Therefore test results, previous course grades, interests, and the relation of this decision to future choices are examples of possibly relevant data. In the value system the decider determines the desirability of the various outcomes. Gelatt is careful to distinguish between the desired and the desirable. Valuing is a subjective process that differs with individuals and circumstances. (Recall the discussion of utility in chapter 4.) In the criterion strategy the client must weigh the information obtained in the prediction and value systems before selecting a terminal or investigatory decision.

Gelatt's conceptual model was elaborated somewhat in a subsequent publication (Clarke, Gelatt, & Levine, 1965), but the task remains for future authors to explicate fully the implications of formal decision theory for the making of personal decisions.
Figure 8.1. Conceptual
	model of decision making
Source: Harry B. Gelatt, "Decision Making: A Conceptual Frame of Reference for Counseling," Journal of Counseling Psychology 9 (1962), pp, 240-45. Copyright 1962 by the American Psychological Association. Reprinted with permission.

FIGURE 8.1. Conceptual model of decision making

Katz's "Papier-Mâché Mock-Up"


Martin Katz is a staff member of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, who has a strong background in psychometrics, trait psychology, decision theory, and vocational development. In 1966 he put together a remarkably creative model for making static educational or occupational choices. Though Katz refers to his model as a "papier-mâché mock-up," his humility is uncalled for. The model is an excellent application of classical decision theory to the field of career decision making. Though Katz's (1966) original writing is not well known, its influence on subsequent thinking is obvious.
Illustration chart for Joe Doe
Strength of return
Decision Magnitude Importance
(sum = 100)
Cf Pr
Cf Pr
Cf Pr
Cf Pr
A A1
B B1
C C1
D D1
E E1
Source: Martin R. Katz, "A model of guidance for career decision making," Vocational Guidance Quarterly 15 (Washington, D.C.: APGA, 1966), pp. 2-10. Copyright 1966 American Personnel and Guidance Association. Reprinted with permission.
FIGURE 8.2. Decision-making grid

Decision Making

Katz suggests that career choices ought to begin with an examination of our values. Although conceptualization and research on the topic of values is primitive in comparison to other domains, such as interests or aptitudes, for the moment our self-study can he aided by any one of a number of factor-analytically based value inventories, which can provide us with a list of values relevant to our decision.

Katz feels that values have three properties: dimension, magnitude, and importance. The dimension of a value is simply its name, such as income, autonomy, or altruism. Magnitude means the amount or level of a value. Income, for example, consists of several possible salary levels. Importance refers to a scaling or weighting of our respective values. For instance, salary might be much more important to us than autonomy.

Katz's decision-making model is illustrated by the grid for Joe Doe depicted in figure 8.2. The first three columns are devoted to value properties. Dimension A is the value income; B through E represent other values. The magnitudes A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, might represent yearly incomes in thousands of dollars. The boldface type on A3 means that income range is a "value threshold" or salary Joe Doe specified as acceptable. In the importance column one hundred points (an arbitrary but convenient number) are distributed in such a way that for Joe Doe A3, would be worth as much as B1, and C1 together. We should note that initial entries are rarely final. Katz suggests massaging these figures until we are content with the numerical constellation. An important counselor function is to point out intransitives (values that do not add up to one hundred). The entire exercise should serve to "clarify our values" as well as prepare us for a decision.

The next component of career decision making is to identify our options (alternatives). Four options are depicted on Joe Doe's grid (W, X, Y, Z). These might represent, for example, the four curricula open to students at his school. When large numbers of alternatives are possible, Katz recommends preliminary screening or clustering of the options into broad areas. This condensation process makes the model more manageable. The client can make a specific choice within a given cluster later.

The likelihood that a particular value magnitude can be accommodated by a given option is called the "strength of return coefficient." In Joe Doe's grid, Katz uses a "standard five" scale where five represents the fact that more than 92 percent of the people in occupation W received at least the threshold income A3. Coefficients of 4, 3, 2, or 1 would signify 69-92 percent, 33-68 percent, 9-32 percent, and less than 9 percent, respectively. Normative salary data are not difficult to obtain. Estimating the strength of return for other values, however, is a very imprecise matter. (Recall the discussion of subjective probability in chapter 4.)

The next step in Katz's model is to multiply these coefficients by the importance scores assigned to the respective value magnitudes. For example, the importance score for A3, 30, multiplied by the coefficient of 5 produces a product of 150. This product is known as the "value return." Taking the sum of the value returns for each option tells us which option will allow the greatest expression of our values. For Joe Doe alternative W, with a score of 410, appears most promising at this point.

Because option W has the greatest sum of value returns, Joe Doe might be tempted to make a decision on the basis of this data. But Katz's model goes one step further. Information on the probability of entry or success or both in a given option might be available or easily obtained. For example, test scores or academic records can tell us the probability of our being accepted and retained in a particular university or curriculum. If we have such information, we now multiply the sum of value returns for each option by the appropriate probability of success estimate. This maneuver produces an "index of expected value," which thus dictates the appropriate choice. Option W is still Joe Doe's best bet. (See also Hills, 1964.)

Some counselors may reject Katz's model on the basis that it treats decisions as static whereas vocational development might better be construed as a continuous process. Katz (1966, pp.8-9) responds to this criticism quite well: "Decisions, whether long-range or short-range, tentative or binding must still be made ... at various choice-points. . . . The numbers produced in the bottom row of this model have no permanence. They reflect the individual's reasoned state of mind interacting with available information at a given moment in time.... At appropriate intervals, and certainly whenever there is some likelihood that change has occurred, Joe can go back to the starting point." Thus the model is ideally suited for making firm, short-range decisions such as what curriculum to enter. Longrange decisions, such as what ultimate career to choose, can be tentatively made and revised at a later date, pending new values, options, and information.

Although Katz's model is appropriate for use in the vocational choice arena, it suffers many of the same limitations of classical decision theory when applied to other client choice problems. The values pertaining to the myriad decisions of life do not exist in listed, much less factor analyzed, form. Nor are there tables to which we can turn for precise probability information about value realization in the infinitely large legion of life's alternatives.


Rational approaches to decision-making counseling are generally more accommodating to formal decision theory than are dynamic approaches, but counseling theorists who operate under the rational rubric make up a fairly heterogeneous group. Ellis views neurosis (sustained negative emotion) as a consequence of irrational beliefs about various events. Rational emotive therapists actively dispute these beliefs in order to help their clients achieve emotional freedom. Although there is evidence that selfverbalizations can cause emotional responses and that rational emotive therapy can provide counselors with a useful framework for relieving some forms of client distress, Ellis's work is only indirectly and imperfectly applicable to decision-making counseling.

Trait and factor personality theory was initially applied to decisionmaking counseling in the context of vocational guidance, which historically focused on matching the traits of an individual with the traits of a job. Current views stress the need to provide informational and personal competence experiences germane to the making of satisfactory career decisions.

Gelatt suggested that decision theory offered the best conceptual frame of reference for counseling. Noting that decisions involve a decision maker and at least two alternatives, Gelatt distinguished between terminal decisions that are final and investigatory decisions that call for more information. The components of Gelatt's model include a prediction system, a value system, and a criterion.

Katz's "papier-mâché mock up" is a direct application of classical decision theory to the domain of career choice. His model employs a grid that considers expression probabilities of designated value levels (corrected by importance scores) in several possible alternatives. The career alternatives that allow the greatest value expression can then be corrected by probability of success estimates. Though ingenious, Katz's model suffers the same limitations as classical decision theory when applied to other choice problems.

The foregoing rational modes of treating client choice problems differ in the extent to which they incorporate concepts from classical decision theory. Moreover, in subsequent chapters we shall see that formulations from the behavioral-counseling and problem-solving literatures can dramat- ically enhance the effectiveness of the rational approach.

Counseling for Effective Decision Making - Copyright © 1977 John J. Horan, All rights reserved.
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