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What a Jerk—He Must Be Studying Law

New research finds personality differences between college students with different majors.
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(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

"What's your major?" It's among the first questions college students ask each other, and perhaps the most superfluous. Spend a little time getting to know them, and you'll be able to make an educated guess.

That's the implication of a newly published paper, which reviews 12 studies to determine if the folk wisdom that students with specific personality traits tend to major in certain subjects is actually true. Its conclusion—based on the answers of 13,389 students—is yes.

Psychologist Anna Vedel of Aarhus University in Denmark reports finding "consistent 'big five' personality group differences across academic majors." The largest effects, she writes in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, are found for the personality trait "openness," which is very well-represented in people studying the arts and humanities.

The studies, which were published between 1992 and 2015, inevitably used somewhat different methodologies, and varied enormously in the size of their respective samples. But aggregate their results, and consistent patterns emerge.

To take the "big five" personality traits one at a time:

  • Extroversion (marked by sociability and assertiveness): Economics, law, political science, and pre-med students scored higher than those focusing on the arts, humanities, and other sciences. The difference between medicine and humanities was quite large, which is probably a good thing: You want your doctor to be a people person.
  • Openness (marked by creativity and a broad range of interests): Humanities, arts, psychology, and political science majors scored higher than their peers, on average, while economics, engineering, law, and other science majors tended to score relatively low.
  • Agreeableness (the tendency to be trusting and altruistic): "Law, business, and economics scored consistently lower than other groups." No big surprise there.
  • Neuroticism (marked by moodiness, irritability, and emotional instability): Arts and humanities majors scored "consistently high" on this trait compared to all other majors, and psychology majors weren't too far behind. Economics and business majors had, on average, lower scores than the others.
  • Conscientiousness (the tendency to be goal-oriented and not impulsive): "Arts and humanities scored consistently lower than other academic majors." No wonder so many of those one-person shows never actually make it to the performance stage.

This sort of research inevitably raises a chicken-and-egg question: Are young adults with these personality traits drawn into certain majors, or does "unique environment" of a particular department cause certain personality traits to emerge? Vedel is pretty confident of the answer.

"Two of the included studies measured the students' personality just after enrollment," she notes. "These studies found personality group differences corresponding perfectly with the results from the other studies (which were typically administered well into their college educations). This supports the interpretation that (these differences) are pre-existing, and not a result of socialization processes."

Vedel argues that these results could have several practical implications. First, they could be used "to guide students in their choice of academic major, based on the student's scores on the big five personality traits." If you're not sure what you want to study, let your personality be your guide.

Furthermore, they suggest that certain teaching methods "may be more fruitful in some academic majors than others."

"By taking into account some general personality characteristics of student populations," she writes, "teachers and instructors may be better equipped to the task of structuring the learning environment in a way that engages the students, makes them feel comfortable, and facilitates their learning process."

OK, as a journalism major, I fell under the "arts and humanities" category. So did I fit the profile? Openness? Check. Neuroticism? Um ... check.

My conscientiousness level, however, is pretty high (I think my editor will back me up on that). Regarding that particular trait, I was apparently an outlier. Fortunately.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.