Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Vocational motivation and personality

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Vocational motivation and personality:
What is the relationship between vocational motivation and personality?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Are you more of a doer or a thinker? Do you like to help people or are you more interested in persuading others? How do such personality differences impact on the types of careers people are motivated to pursue? And, what is the effect when a good match is achieved between personality and job environment?

The belief that personality relates to the types of careers people choose and how they perform in those careers has a long history in vocational psychology (Holland, 1959; Larson, Rottinghaus, & Borgen, 2002). This chapter explores the personality factors that motivate occupational choice and how personality affects occupational fit. Specifically, it will examine the Big Five Model of personality, Holland's theory of vocational choice, self-determination theory and acquired needs theory of motivation, as well as key studies investigating the relationship between personality and vocational choice.

This chapter aims to equip the reader with an understanding of the impact of personality on career choice, and provides tools that can be used to better understand one's own personality and how to achieve an ideal occupational fit, with the aim of maximising job performance, job satisfaction, and individual well-being.

Personality[edit | edit source]

Personality can be defined as "consistent behaviour patterns and intrapersonal processes originating within the individual" (Burger, 2015: p. 4). This definition contains two parts. The first relates to patterns of behaviour that are considered to be consistent across time and situations, and are often referred to as individual differences. The second part refers to the emotional, motivational and cognitive processes that occur inside of us that affect how we act and feel (Burger, 2015). It is important to also recognise the role that culture plays in shaping personality. Not just in terms of the experiences that we have but also in terms of the values and behaviours that are valued and rewarded within a particular culture (Burger, 2015).

Personality trait refers to a dimension of personality used to categorise people according to the degree to which they display a particular characteristic (Burger, 2015). Traits refer to the every day words people use to describe themselves and others.

There are a number of different theories and methods relating to the conceptualisation and measurement of personality, however, this chapter will focus on the trait approach and the Big Five model of personality as this is the most relevant to the area of vocational choice.

Five factor model of personality[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. People who are high in agreeableness are generally kind, helpful and cooperative.

The Big Five personality traits, also known as the five factor model (FFM) of personality, is a descriptive approach to personality based on the trait perspective. The model identifies relatively stable personality features that distinguish individuals from one other. It was developed using a statistical technique called factor analysis, which groups similar descriptors together (Burger, 2015). Costa and McCrae (1992) defined the five factors as Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). Each of these five factors consist of a number of underlying personality characteristics. For example, the lower order facets of Extraversion are warmth, gregariousness, activity, excitement seeking, and positive emotion. Each trait can be represented along a continuum and differences between individuals are reflected by where they sit on the continuum (Burger, 2015). For example, Conscientiousness can range from responsible and organised at one end to careless and spontaneous at the other (see Table 1 for a description of each factor). There is a great deal of research evidence supporting the existence of the five basic trait dimensions across cultures, although there is some variation in the labels used (Cattell, 1957; Goldberg, 1993).

Table 1.

The five factors of personality and their associated characteristics (adapted from Costa & McCrae, 1992; Reeve, 2015).

Factor Description
Openness to experience Relates to intellectual curiosity, creativity and acceptance of new ideas. People high on this trait generally have an appreciation for art, adventure and novelty and are imaginative, non-traditional, flexible and creative. Those low in Openness tend to be more down-to-earth, conforming, traditional and prefer the familiar.
Conscientiousness Relates to how controlled and self-disciplined an individual is. Individuals high in conscientiousness are generally organised, careful, self-disciplined, responsible, and goal-directed. Someone low on this trait is likely to be careless, disorganised and undisciplined.
Extraversion Relates to how sociable and outgoing an individual is. People high in extraversion tend to be energetic, assertive, optimistic, friendly and seek stimulation and large groups. Introverts are more likely to be reserved, independent, and even-paced.
Agreeableness Relates to how cooperative and compassionate an individual is to others. Individuals high in agreeableness are generally helpful, kind, trusting, cooperative, and considerate and do not like conflict with others. Someone low in this trait is generally suspicious, manipulative and self-serving.
Neuroticism Relates to an individual's emotional stability and personal adjustment. Individuals high in Neuroticism generally experience; negative emotions, such as stress and anxiety; wide mood swings and are prone to becoming very upset over daily stressors. Those low on Neuroticism are generally calm, well-adjusted, and self-satisfied.

To see what you score on each of the five factor scales you can complete this short version of the IPIP-NEO test.

Vocational motivation[edit | edit source]

Firstly, what is motivation? In its simplest sense, motivation refers to being moved to do something (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Motivation concerns the internal processes that give behaviour its energy, direction, and persistence (Reeve, 2015). So how does motivation relate to the occupations that people choose? Vocational and career counselling is primarily concerned with assisting individuals to identify the types of careers which best fit their unique personality, values, abilities, and interests (Furnham, 2001). Vocational motivation, or vocational interests, refers to characteristic likes or dislikes a person has regarding different occupations or types of work (Holland, 1959; 1996). For the purposes of this book chapter, vocational motivation is defined as the internal drivers that influence an individual's choice of career and the relative 'fit' of that chosen career to their unique personality, interests, and skills.

Person-environment fit: vocational theory which suggests that the match between the characteristics of a person (e.g., personality traits, abilities, expectations) and those of the environment (e.g., workplace, school) determines the level of job satisfaction and performance (Holland, 1997).

Holland's typography theory[edit | edit source]

"Studies show that people flourish in their work environment when there is a good fit between their personality type and the characteristics of the environment. Lack of congruence between personality and environment leads to dissatisfaction, unstable career paths, and lowered performance" (Holland, 1996: p. 397).

Figure 3. Holland's theory is based on the principle of congruence between the individual and the work environment.

John Holland's (1959, 1997) theory of vocational choice is widely researched and applied. According to Holland's typography theory, most people can be categorised as one of six personality types that align with six basic types of occupations or work environments. These types are: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (commonly abbreviated to RIASEC; a description of each type is provided in Table 2).

Holland asserted that people seek out environments that let them exercise their skills and abilities, express their attitudes and values, and take on agreeable problems and roles (1997). Achieving a match, or "congruence", between the person and the job environment leads to success and satisfaction (Holland, 1997; see Figure 3). For example, Artistic people are more likely to be successful and satisfied if they choose a job that has an Artistic environment, like choosing to be an art teacher at a university - an environment characterised by Artistic type people where creative abilities and expression are highly valued. Holland's theory suggests that the choice of occupation is an expression of personality and that members of an occupational group are likely to share similar personality characteristics. Medical staff, for example, have been found to be analytical, non-conforming, and introspective, with strong altruistic motivations (Antony, 1998). When people of the same personality type work together, they create a work environment that fits their type. For example, when people who are Social work together, they create a work environment geared towards social thinking and behaviour - a Social environment.

Real-life example: People working in the IT profession (e.g., computer programmers and IT workers) have typically been found to exemplify three of Holland's dimensions - Investigative, Realistic, and Conventional. This reflects the profession's scientific-research orientation, its emphasis on practical concerns including working with machinery and equipment, and the tendency for work to occur in a structured, office setting (Lounsbury, Studham, Steel, Gibson & Frost, 2009). Using a sample of 1378 computer programmers, Perry and Canon (1968) demonstrated that, compared with other occupations, male programmers had greater interest in problem solving, mathematics, and mechanical pursuits, and less interest in people.

A number of studies have tested the hypotheses relating to congruence and satisfaction. A meta-analysis of 26 studies by Tsabari, Tziner, and Meir (2005), confirmed that greater person-environment fit is associated with job satisfaction and performance; however, the effect size was small (congruence-satisfaction correlation of .17). Holland (1997) acknowledged the need to understand more about the modest explanatory power of the congruence theory.

Table 2.

RIASEC personality types and their descriptions (based on Holland, 1997).

Type Description of personality Suggested career choices
Realistic (R)


  • Likes to work with animals, tools, or machines
  • Values practical things you can see, touch, and use like plants, animals, and equipment
  • Sees self as practical, mechanical, and realistic
Mechanic, carpenter,

fisherman, engineer,

electrician, farmer

Investigative (I)


  • Likes to study and solve math or science problems
  • Values science
  • Sees self as precise, scientific, and intellectual
Biologist, chemist,

computer programmer, dentist,

electrical engineer, vet

Artistic (A)


  • Likes to do creative activities like art, drama, crafts, dance, music, or creative writing
  • Values the creative arts - drama, music, art, or the works of creative writers
  • Sees self as expressive, original, and independent
Actor, art teacher,

clothes designer, musician,

dancer, graphic designer

Social (S)


  • Likes to do things to help people - teaching, counselling, nursing, or providing information
  • Values helping people and solving social problems
  • Sees self as helpful, friendly, and trustworthy
Counsellor, nurse,

teacher, physical therapist,

social worker

Enterprising (E)


  • Likes to lead and persuade people, and to sell things and ideas
  • Values success in politics, leadership, or business
  • Sees self as energetic, ambitious, and sociable
Lawyer, banker,

sales person, auctioneer

Conventional (C)


  • Likes to work with numbers, records, or machines in a set, orderly way
  • Values success in business
  • Sees self as orderly, and good at following a set plan and instructions
Accountant, bookkeeper,

secretary, post office clerk

Figure 4. Holland's RIASEC hexagon depicting the opposing relationship between the six different personality and environment types.

Holland's (1959, 1997) hexagonal model shows the relationship between personality types and environments (see Figure 4). The types closest to each other on the hexagon are more alike than those further away. For example, Realistic and Social are considered the opposite of each other, however, Social and Artistic share similarities.

From this theory, Holland developed a number of interest inventories to measure vocational interests including the Vocational Preference Inventory (VPI; Holland, 1965) and the Self-Directed Search (SD; Holland, 1973) which are widely used today.

If you would like to find out your Holland Code, try these free quizzes: My Next Move and Sheridan College Quiz.

Prediger and Gottfredson's theories[edit | edit source]

Prediger (1982) offered a reconceptualised model of Holland's theory, demonstrating the existence of two underlying work task dimensions of Holland's hexagon: data vs ideas and things vs people. "Data" is conceptualised as representing Conventional and Enterprising types, whilst "Ideas" represents Investigative and Artistic. "Things" captures Conventional, Realistic and Investigative, while the "People" triad incorporates Enterprising, Social and Artistic. Prediger's dimensions have received wide empirical support, particularly the distinction between people and things (Prediger & Vansickle, 1992). Although, a large meta-analytic study by Rounds and Tracey (1993) found little support for the compatibility between both models and they concluded that the structure of the RIASEC cannot be reduced.

Gottfredson (1981) argued that vocational choices are determined by circumscription, as young people eliminate occupations as being incompatible with their developing self concepts, and compromise, as they eliminate their preferred choices through perceptions of their inaccessibility. Thus, career choices are the result of a complex interaction between individual's self-perceptions, their perceptions about jobs, their individual abilities and traits, and the job choices available (socioeconomic constraints). Satisfaction with career choice depends on how well that choice matches their self-concept (Gottfredson,1981).

Relationship between personality and vocational motivation[edit | edit source]

The following motivation theories are relevant to people's behaviours at work and in particular, the individual drivers that influence career choice.

Figure 5. The three psychological needs that, when satisfied, increase motivation according to self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

The research of Ryan and Deci (2008) lead to the development of self-determination theory (SDT). According to SDT, there are three innate psychological needs that, when satisfied, increase motivation and promote well-being. These universal needs are: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When people are in an environment that supports and nurtures their psychological needs, this promotes positive emotions, optimal experience and healthy development. When these needs are thwarted, it leads to reduced productivity and satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

Autonomy - the need to experience self-direction and choice in relation to ones' behaviour (Reeve, 2015).

Competence - the need for individual's to feel effective in their interactions with the environment (Reeve, 2015). Individuals are more likely to experience a sense of competence when undertaking work activities that are matched to their interests, skills and abilities.

Relatedness - the need to establish close emotional bonds and attachments with other people (Reeve, 2015). Workers who feel supported by others when carrying out work activities are . By working in an environment surrounded by like-minded people, as proposed by Holland's model, individuals are provided opportunity for positive interactions and fulfillment of their need for relatedness

McClelland's acquired needs theory[edit | edit source]

McClelland proposed that one’s needs are acquired over time as a result of their experiences.  According to McClelland's acquired needs theory, people are motivated by three basic needs: achievement, affiliation, and power (McClelland & Winter, 1969). Each person has a tendency to be motivated by one of these needs more so than the other two. Consequently a person’s behaviour and performance at work is strongly influenced by the most meaningful of the three needs. Further, the decision of which particular type of career to pursue is motivated by their strongest need.

Figure 6. A person with a strong need for achievement experiences enjoyment while engaging in a challenging task and seeks out opportunities to display personal competence.

Need for achievement is the desire to show personal competence and do well relative to a standard of excellence (Reeve, 2015). High-need achievers are more likely to choose occupations that offer challenge, independent work, personal responsibility, and rapid performance feedback (e.g. investing in stocks and entrepreneurship; McClelland, 1985).

Individuals with a strong need for affiliation are likely to seek out opportunities to please others, gain their approval, and be involved in warm and secure relationships (Reeve, 2015). They prefer careers that involve positive relationships and support for others (e.g. helping professions such as nursing, education, and social work; Sid & Lindgren, 1981). High-affiliation-need individuals work best in a group environment rather than individually, so are unlikely to pursue a solo career.

People high in the need for power desire to have impact, control, or influence over others (McClelland & Winter, 1969). Individuals often satisfy this need through leadership roles or professions such as judge, CEO, or entrepreneur (Reeve, 2015), as they provide legitimate interpersonal power over others. Thus, choice of occupation can provide a means for satisfying need strivings.

Further information on how these two motivation theories relate to vocational choice can be found at motivation theory and vocational choice.

Holland's model and the five-factor model of personality[edit | edit source]

A [vague] number of validity studies have examined the link between the Big Five and the RIASEC model. Costa, McCrae, and Holland (1984) examined correlations between Holland’s Self-Directed Search (SDS) scales and the Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness (NEO) model of personality in a sample of 361 American adults. Strong correlations were found for Investigative and Artistic interests with Openness to Experience, and for Social and Enterprising interests with Extraversion, though they noted that Neuroticism is missing from Holland's typology. These correlations seem quite logical given the similarities in descriptions between traits and interests. For example, people high in Openness tend to be imaginative, unconventional, and artistic, traits which correspond with Artistic and Enterprising interests such as those involving discovery, abstract thinking, originality, and nonconformity. Likewise, extroverted people are described as warm and gregarious (Costa & McCrae, 1992), traits which would be well suited to a Social occupation which requires people to be 'friendly' and 'sociable'.

Further empirical support was provided by Gottfredson, Jones, and Holland (1993), who explored the relationship between Holland's VPI and the NEO on a sample of 725 U.S Navy trainees, and found small to moderate correlations, though they noted that the degree of overlap was too small to substitute one measure for the other. They also found Neuroticism, a trait which is likely to impact on job satisfaction and work adjustment, to be moderately but negatively correlated with all RIASEC types. This research suggests that occupational preferences are not linked to differences in this domain[explain?].

Consistent with earlier research, a meta-analysis of 12 studies conducted by Larson, Rottinghaus, and Borgen in 2002, found five correlations among Holland's personality types and the five factor personality traits. Significant correlations were found for 1) Artistic-Openness (r= .48); 2) Enterprising– Extraversion (r = .41); 3) Social–Extraversion (r = .31); 4) Investigative–Openness (r = .28); and 5) Social–Agreeableness (r = .19). They were an additional four correlations found which were unexpected. These correlations were 1) Conventional–Conscientiousness (r = .29); 2) Enterprising–Conscientiousness (r = .29); 3) Enterprising–Neuroticism (r = .24); and 4) Social–Openness (r = .22). These results highlight the role of congruence in matching personality with interests. Given Conventional jobs are highly task oriented and impersonal, it makes sense that Conscientiousness, which focuses on being organised and detail-oriented, would be associated with interest in these types of jobs. Furthermore, Agreeableness is related to being cooperative, considerate, and sympathetic towards others, so it is understandable that those high in Agreeableness would prefer work environments where there is social interaction and cooperation (i.e. Social environments). This [which?] research suggests that three of the Big Five personality traits (extroversion, openness, and agreeableness) are particularly relevant to vocational interests. The conclusion of most researchers has been to recommend that both instruments are used for vocational counselling (Furnham, 2001).

Strengths and limitations of Holland's theory[edit | edit source]


  • corresponding measurement tools
  • user-friendliness and practical application
  • accessibility to clients and counsellors
  • empirical evidence of existence of personality and environment types - RIASEC types have emerged repeatedly in large samples involving high school students, college students, and working adults (see Nauta, 2010).
  • generalisability - support has been found across cultural subgroups in Western cultures. For example, Ryan, Tracey, and Rounds (1996) found no differences in interest structure between African American and White high school students in a sample of 370 students.


  • the cross-cultural applicability of the theory - while the model has been found to have applicability to non-western cultures (Rounds & Tracey, 1996), some revision of items is required to accommodate cultural differences which makes comparisons problematic (Furnham, 2001).
  • weak evidence demonstrating link between congruence and job satisfaction (Furnham, 2001; Tsabari, et al., 2005).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Personality is highly influential on the types of careers people are motivated to pursue. Vocational choice can be viewed not only as a reflection of personality but also as a mechanism for satisfying psychological needs. People tend to seek out environments that are complimentary to their skills and abilities and let them express their personality. Achieving a match between personality and job environment is likely to contribute not only to greater performance and work satisfaction, but also greater overall well-being. While Holland's model provides a useful tool for assisting individual's to identify occupations likely to provide the best fit, it is important to also be mindful that economic and technological changes can impact on the availability of certain occupations and hence the decision about which occupation to pursue may need to be tempered by factors other than interests.

Take home messages[edit | edit source]

Nuvola filesystems folder home.png

"How can I decide what to do if I don't really know who I am?"

Deciding which vocation is right for you requires a number of steps:

  • get to know yourself and your individual personality, interests and skills (by completing a personality test such as the NEO)
  • identify which occupations and environments provide the best fit for your personality (by finding out your Holland code)
  • research the jobs and the tasks involved, that are available within these occupations
  • finding the right working environment for your personality and interests is crucial to finding a job you'll enjoy and be successful in.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 According to Holland's theory, what are the six personality types?

Rational, Introverted, Agreeable, Social, Extroverted, and Conservative.
Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional.
Realistic, Investigative, Agreeable, Scientific, Energetic, and Conservative.

2 Which of the Big Five personality traits are of most relevance to vocational interests?

Extroversion, Openness, and Conscientiousness.
Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Extroversion.
Extroversion, Openness, and Agreeableness.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Antony, J. (1998). Personality career fit and freshman medical career aspirations: a test of Holland’s theory. Research in Higher Education, 39, 679–98. doi:10.1023/A:1018762008742

Burger, J. M. (2015). Personality (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

Cattell, R. B. (1957). Personality and Motivation Structure and Measurement. New York: World Book.

Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and individual differences, 13, 653-665. doi:10.1016/0191-8869.92.9.0236

Costa, P. T., McCrae, R. R. & Holland J. L. (1984). Personality and vocational interests in an adult sample. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 390-400. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.69.3.390

Furnham, A. (2001). Vocational preference and P–O fit: Reflections on Holland’s theory of vocational choice. Applied Psychology, 50, 5-29. doi: 10.1111/1464-0597.00046

Gottfredson, L. S. (1981). Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling psychology, 28, 545-579. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.28.6.545

Gottfredson, G. D., Jones, E. M., & Holland, J. L. (1993). Personality and vocational interests: The relation of Holland's six interest dimensions to five robust dimensions of personality. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 40, 518-524. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.40.4.518

Goldberg, L. R. (1993). The structure of phenotypic personality traits. American Psychologist, 48, 26–34. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.48.1.26

Holland, J. L. (1959). A theory of vocational choice. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 6, 35-45. doi:10.1037/h0040767

Holland, J. L. (1965). Manual: Vocational Preference Inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Holland, J. L. (1973). Making vocational choices: A theory of career. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Holland, J. L. (1996). Exploring careers with a typology: What we have learned and some new directions. American Psychologist, 51, 397-406. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.51.4.397

Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Larson, L. M., Rottinghaus, P. J., & Borgen, F. H. (2002). Meta-analyses of Big Six interests and Big Five personality factors. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 61, 217-239. doi:10.1006/jvbe.2001.1854

Lounsbury, J. W., Studham, R, S., Steel, R. P.,Gibson, L. W., & Frost. A. W. (2009). Holland’s Vocational Theory and Personality Traits of Information Technology Professionals, Handbook of Research on Contemporary Theoretical Models in Information Systems, 529-543. Retrieved from

McClelland, D. C., & Winter, D. (1969). Motivating economic achievement. New York: Free Press.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American psychologist, 40, 812-825. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.40.7.812

Nauta, M. M. (2010). The development, evolution, and status of Holland’s theory of vocational personalities: Reflections and future directions for counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 57, 11-22. doi:10.1037/a0018213

Perry, D. K., & Cannon, W. M. (1968). Vocational interests of female computer programmers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 52, 31-35. doi:10.1037/h0025351

Prediger, D. J. (1982). Dimensions underlying Holland's hexagon: Missing link between interests and occupations?. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 21, 259-287. doi:10.1016/0001-8791(82)90036-7

Prediger, D., & Vansickle. T. (1992). Locating occupations on Holland's hexagon: Beyond RIASEC. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 40, 111-128. doi:10.1016/0001-8791(92)90060-D

Reeve, J. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Rounds, J., & Tracey, T. J. (1993). Prediger's dimensional representation of Holland's RIASEC circumplex. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 875-890. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.78.6.875

Rounds, J., & Tracey, T. J. (1996). Cross-cultural structural equivalence of RIASEC models and measures. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43, 310–329. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.43.3.310

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. doi:10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Self-determination theory and the role of basic psychological needs in personality and the organization of behavior. In O. P. John, R. W. Robbins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (pp. 654-678). New York: The Guilford Press.

Ryan, J. M., Tracey, T. J., & Rounds, J. (1996). Generalizability of Holland's structure of vocational interests across ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43, 330. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.43.3.330

Sid, A. K. W., & Lindgren, H. C. (1981). Sex differences in achievement and affiliation motivation among undergraduates majoring in different academic fields. Psychological Reports, 48, 539-542. doi:10.2466/pr0.1981.48.2.539

Tsabari, O., Tziner, A., & Meir, E. I. (2005). Updated meta-analysis on the relationship between congruence and satisfaction. Journal of Career Assessment, 13, 216-232. doi:10.1177/1069072704273165

External links[edit | edit source]