The Impact of Vocational Interests on Life

How much does your interest in work affect the course of your life?

Posted Jul 12, 2017

janeb13 via Pixabay
Source: janeb13 via Pixabay

There are many characteristics of people that affect the choices they make in life.  The stable characteristics that determine how people differ from each other are what we call personality.  Many studies explore the impact of broad traits like the Big Five (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism) as well as narrower traits (like narcissism and need for cognition) on the decisions people make about their lives.

What about people’s interests in the work they will do?  If you think about the people around you, some gravitate to academic careers, while others are interested in artistic pursuits.  Still others want to start their own businesses.  These differences are focused on motivations related to how people want to focus their work and personal lives.  Going back to the research of John Holland in the 1950s, there has been a focus on differences in people’s preferences for different vocations. 

Holland argued that there are six broad types of interests.

  • Realistic interests: People who are concerned with money, status, and power.
  • Investigative interests:  People who are interested in science and scholarship.
  • Artistic interests:  People interested in self-expression and aesthetic achievements.  These individuals tend to be uninterested in systematic activities.
  • Social interests:  People who are interested in engaging with others to teach, cure, train, or inform others.
  • Enterprising interests:  People who have ambition for a high-powered career with economic success and prestive.
  • Conventional interests: People interested in an orderly and systematic career.  These individuals tend to be quite conscientious.

Previous research has focused on the influence of these interests on the careers people choose.  There is evidence that people are happiest when they choose careers that mesh with their vocational interests.

A paper by Gundula Stoll, Sven Rieger, Oliver Ludtke, Benjamin Nagengast, Ulrich Trautwein, and Brent Roberts in the July, 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored a broader question.  They were interested in whether these vocational interests people have when they finish high school would predict work, relationship, and health outcomes in people a decade later.  They were particularly interested in whether these predictions would hold even considering differences in personality characteristics which are only broadly correlated with these vocational interests.

The researchers used data from a 10-year study of over 1,000 young adults in a German study.  This study used a measure of vocational interests, a Big Five personality inventory, and measured a variety of career, personal, and health outcomes.  The analyses looked at how well vocational interests at the end of high school predicted outcomes 10 years later.

Unsurprisingly, work outcomes were better predicted by vocational outcomes than by Big Five personality characteristics.  People with a Realistic or Enterprising interest were more likely to be employed and made more money ten years later than those with other orientations.  People with an Artistic or Social interest were less likely to be employed and made less money ten years later.

Perhaps more surprisingly, these vocational interests were generally better predictors of personal outcomes ten years later than were personality traits.  People with a Social or Conventional interest were more likely to be married and more likely to have had children than those with other interests.  People with an Investigative or Enterprising interest were less likely to be married or to have had children than those with other interests.  The trait of Conscientiousness was positively related with getting married, and the trait of Extraversion was positively related to having children.

Vocational interests do not predict every outcome, though.  Health outcomes were better predicted by personality traits than by vocational interests.  Increasing neuroticism predicted more health complaints.  Increasing extraversion and agreeableness predicted fewer health complaints.

Why would vocational interests matter?

People’s interests in work are a reflection of their life goals and motivation to achieve them.  While people may change their beliefs about what particular job is best-suited to them, their overall motivation for particular types of jobs does not change much over time.  This motivation affects many aspects of life including the amount of time people are willing to spend in their work lives, their devotion to friends and family, and their interests in advancing in their careers.  Because so much of the modern world is organized around people’s work (and the elusive work-life balance), these motivations have a large impact on how people choose to spend their time.


Holland, J.L. (1959). A theory of vocational choice. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 6(1), 1959, 35-45

Stoll, G., Rieger, S., Ludtke, O., Nagengast, B., Trautwein, U., & Roberts, B.W. (2017). Vocational interests assessed at the end of high school predict life outcomes assessed 10 years later over and above IQ and Big Five personality traits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(1), 167-184.