Have you ever wondered if people in the same academic major are similar somehow? Or likewise, have you ever wondered if people in different majors are different somehow? My guess is that you have. Whether emanating from cheerful conversations with peers, or from Hollywood’s entertaining caricatures, many of us have this sense that there seem to be different “types” in different academic majors. Is there some truth to this? The short answer is yes. Researchers have explored personality differences across academic majors empirically, and there are in fact personality differences between students in different majors.
We know that personality plays a part in everything from mortality to occupational attainment, and the range of topics studied in relation to personality is constantly expanding. The last couple of decades, much of this research has been conducted using the personality traits known as the Big Five to describe and measure personality. These five personality traits are broad personality dimensions on which we differ. We can score high on some of them and low on others, but the majority of us score somewhere in the middle. The Big Five personality traits are: neuroticism (tendency to experience negative and unstable emotions), extraversion (tendency to experience positive emotions and being active and sociable), openness (curiosity about and tolerance for diverse cultural and intellectual experiences), agreeableness (being friendly, modest, and accommodating), and conscientiousness (being dutiful, diligent, and orderly). The Big Five traits have also been studied in relation to academic performance, where conscientiousness in particular has emerged as a robust predictor of grades.
However, the strength of the association between conscientiousness and academic performance is greater in studies using psychology students than in other studies. My colleagues and I wanted to look deeper into this variation, but we also wanted to explore whether there were personality differences between students enrolled in different majors. I therefore started searching for similar studies in order to determine what was known about Big Five personality traits across academic majors. After finishing the empirical study with my colleagues on prediction of grades and personality differences across majors, I decided to write a systematic review article summarizing the accumulated research on Big Five traits across majors.
This review shows that researchers in different countries do find consistent personality differences. Psychology and arts/humanities students score high on openness and neuroticism; political science students score high on openness; economics, law, medicine, and political science students score high on extraversion; medicine, psychology, arts/humanities, and science students score high on agreeableness; and arts/humanities students score low on conscientiousness. Statistically speaking, the group differences were often medium sized for all Big Five traits and regularly even large for openness, so these differences are far from trivial.
What do these results mean? Are the personality differences the result of socialization processes within faculties, or are they pre-existing? Certain personality traits may be valued and cultivated in some faculties, but not in others. Over time, that could hypothetically create personality differences. However, the personality differences may also originate from self-selection: individuals with different personalities may be attracted to different majors. In order to test these competing hypotheses, we would need studies measuring the students’ personality traits at enrolment, before any socialization within faculties can take place. Only a couple of studies included in the review had this research design. However, the results from these studies are similar to those obtained in the remaining studies. So it seems more likely that the personality differences found between academic majors were pre-existing rather than due to socialization. This does not rule out that some socialization within faculties may affect students’ personality, though, and longitudinal studies with repeated personality measurements can hopefully explore this. Also, we need to explore how personality traits affect the choice of academic major, and which mechanisms are involved in this.
As interesting as the personality group differences are, it is important to note that this type of research is based on averages. Large variation within the groups exists, and many individuals will not, of course, “fit the personality pattern” of their academic major. It would not be wise to base your future academic pursuits on your personality traits alone; academic abilities and interests obviously affect educational choices as well, as do many other factors. Time will show if the results on personality differences can be of use to practitioners. It may inspire teachers and counselors to take characteristics of their student population into account when planning learning and guidance activities. Furthermore, some programs and faculties may have an interest in trying to attract more diverse student populations, pulling in people to study topics that they might not have suspected they would enjoy.