Thinking Styles and Career Choices

By Mihyeon Kim

Conventional psychometric intelligence tests have been challenged as predictors of students’ academic success and real-world performance (Sternberg, Wagner, Williams, & Horvath, 1995).  To explain students’ successful school and real-world performance, Sternberg (1994) emphasized individual differences and styles of thinking more than different types of abilities.  He believed that intellectual abilities could not be understood without knowing how individuals reacted to environmental situations.  In accord with this belief, he developed the mental self-governing theory (1997), which hypothesized that people govern their daily activities with different strategies.  He called these different strategies “thinking styles.” 

Thinking style is the preference for representation and processing of information in the mind, which is the consistent way of interacting with the environment and adapting to new information.  Preferences shape expressive behaviors and styles.  The basic idea of Sternberg’s (1997) mental self-government theory is that people need to govern their minds, and these governing activities need to be responsive to environmental changes, just as a government needs to be responsive to changes in our society.  Sternberg proposed 13 thinking styles within five dimensions of mental self-government: functions (legislative, executive, and judicial thinking styles), forms (hierarchical, oligarchic, monarchic, anarchic thinking styles), levels (global and local thinking styles), scopes (including internal and external thinking styles), and leanings (liberal and conservative thinking styles).  Table 1 provides a summary of these defined styles.

Sternberg (1997) stressed individual differences and addressed the point that style research should provide a basis for matching students’ styles with educational approaches.  This would allow students to identify proper career paths based on their preferences, and to experience appropriate career development toward their identified career paths.  Therefore, the purpose of various thinking style research is to promote learning based on individual differences and to achieve better performance in schools, as well as in the work setting, by maximizing individuals’ potential abilities (Cano-Garcia & Hughes, 2000).

Table 1

Summary of Styles of Mental Self-Government Theory

Style   Characterization
    Legislative     Like to create and do new things, and prefer less pre-structured problems
    Executive     Like to follow disciplines, and prefer to be in the   existing structure
    Like to judge and evaluate people and things
    Monarchic Like to do one thing at a time with devotion regardless of the situation
    Hierarchic Like to do many things at once through setting priorities for  work
    Oligarchic Like to do many things at once without setting priorities
    Anarchic Like to take a random approach to problems, and to put together diverse bits of information and ideas in a creative way
    Global Like to deal with a big abstract picture rather than focusing on details
    Local Like to deal with details and concrete examples rather than looking at abstract big goals
    Internal Like to work alone and tend to be introverted
    External Like to work with others, and be sociable 
    Liberal Like to do things in new ways and deny tradition
    Conservative Like to do things in traditional way

The current study examined individual style differences in thinking among high-achieving students within two different high-school service-delivery models: the IB program and Governor’s School Program.  These models are for high-achieving students.  Because giftedness does not necessarily produce high performance (Kingore, 2005), this study considers high-achieving students as those who have been selected through an IB program or Governor’s School Program admission process.  Even though both programs are designed for high-achieving students, a Governors’ School Program and an IB program have different academic foci, and different academic foci might demonstrate students’ differences in thinking styles.  The following research questions focus on seeking answers to two primary inquiries associated with the thinking style differences of high-achieving students.

  1. How are thinking styles related to choice of desired career?
  2. How are thinking-style preferences of high-achieving students attending a Governor’s School Program in science and technology different from those of the high-achieving students participating in International Baccalaureate (IB) programs with a focus on the liberal arts?

 Research Findings

A total of 209 responses out of 283 (74%) were received from students who were selected through admission process of an IB program or Governor’s School program in an East Coast city.  Out of 209 participants, 95 students (45%) were attending IB programs, and 114 students (55%) were attending a Governor’s School. With regard to gender, 104 students were male and 105 students were female. The students’ age range was 15 to 18 years, and the average age was 16.8 years.  To address Research Question 1, logistic regression analyses were used to determine which thinking styles would best predict students’ desired career choices, and allowed the researcher to assess a model’s ability to predict students’ desired careers with different thinking styles (Field, 2009; McCoach & Siegle, 2003).  Based on the results of logistic regression analysis, thinking styles were good predictors for whether students choose social science or computers and math areas as their desired career.    The results of the current study showed that those students with a liberal or an external thinking style chose the social science area for their future careers.  High school students who were people-oriented, outgoing, and socially sensitive preferred the social science area for their future careers.  In addition, the results showed that high-achieving high school students with an external thinking style did not prefer computer and math areas for their future careers.

To address Research Question 2, MANOVA was conducted to compare the means of students in the two programs for the different thinking styles.  Students in the IB programs scored higher in hierarchic, external, and judicial thinking styles; whereas students in the Governor’s Program scored higher in the liberal/progressive and legislative/self-reliant thinking style.  High school students attending a program with an academic focus on liberal arts tended to be more people-oriented, outgoing, and valued sharing ideas with others as opposed to students in a program with an academic focus on science and technology.  In addition, students attending a program with an academic focus on liberal arts tended to be more systematic and set priorities as compared to students attending a program with an academic focus on science and technology.


The current study set out to explore how thinking styles are related to career decision-making and different programs among high-achieving students.  The data show that thinking styles are a factor in students’ career decision-making.  In addition, thinking styles are different among students enrolled in different programs.  If students’ thinking styles are different, counselors, teachers, and parents should recognize these differences as factors in students’ optimal career choices.  The leaders in designing advanced high-school programs may choose to recruit students who fit each of the advanced programs, depending on their academic focus.  In addition, schools can provide various assessments, including thinking style assessment, to identify students’ preferences and talents, to maximize their abilities, and to prepare them for their future careers.  Because academic and career advising play an important role in students’ career decisions, counselors may want to consider individual styles as they attempt to find a match between students’ characteristics and future career goals.


Cano-Garcia, F., & Hughes, E. H. (2000). Learning and thinking style: An analysis of their interrelationship and influence on academic achievement. Educational Psychology, 20(4), 413-430. doi:10.1080/713663755

Field, A. (2009). Discovering statistics using SPSS (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Kingore, B. (2005). High achiever, gifted learner, creative thinker. Plano Association for the Gifted and Talented Resource.

McCoach, D. B. & D. Siegle. (2003). Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high achieving gifted students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 47(2), 144-154  doi:10.1177/001698620304700205

Sternberg, R. J. (1994). Allowing for thinking styles. Educational Leadership, 36-40.

Sternberg, R. J. (1997). Thinking styles. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.  doi:10.1017/CBO9780511584152

Sternberg, R. J., Wagner, R. K., Williams, W. M., & Horvath, J. A. (1995). Testing common sense. American Psychologist, 50(11), 912-927.  doi:10.1037/0003-066X.50.11.912