Friday, 12 February 2016

The personality differences between students studying different academic subjects

Psych students tend to score highly in neuroticism and openness to experience
When I was at university it seemed fairly obvious that students studying the same academic subject often had similar personalities. The geography students were far more interested in partying than studying, the English lit undergrads always so nice and friendly, while my fellow psych students seemed quirkier and more eccentric than others. Of course these are highly subjective over-generalisations on my part, probably revealing more about my prejudices than anything else. However, in a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences, Anna Vedel at Aarhus University in Denmark has reviewed all the published evidence on how personality varies with students' choice of academic subject and she reports that there are consistent differences across subjects.

Vedel searched numerous academic databases looking for relevant studies and found 12 that involved personality tests conducted on 13,389 students. Most of the studies were conducted in North America and Europe and the average age of the participating students varied from 18 to 26 years.  All but three of the studies found that students' personalities differed according to their university subject (and one of the three that didn't find this result probably had too small a sample to detect differences). In statistical terms, the effect size of these personality differences by subject was medium (and large for the trait of openness).

Among the main findings: Psychology students, and those studying arts and humanities subjects, tended to score higher on neuroticism (emotional instability). Economics, politics and medicine students tended to score higher on extraversion than arts, humanities and sciences students. Law, business and economics scored lower on agreeableness, particularly in comparison with medicine, psych, science, arts and humanities students. Psych, humanities and arts students tended to score higher on openness to experience than others. And arts and humanities scored lower on conscientiousness than most.

There are some important flaws in the existing literature, most notably that many of the studies measured students' personalities after they had been enrolled on their courses for some time, thus making it tricky to know if people's personalities shape the subjects they choose, or if their experience studying a subject shapes their personality. However, Vedel notes that those studies that tested students soon after enrolment found results that were similar to the other studies that involved later measurements, which is consistent with the idea that personality influences the subjects that young people choose, rather than the other way around.

Vedel hopes that this line of research might one day be used to help guide students into making optimal decisions about what subject to study at university. However, she acknowledges that it remains to be seen if this will be possible because there is, as yet, little evidence on whether specific personality profiles are beneficial to students studying specific subjects. Another possibility, she writes, is that lecturers might be able to take note of the typical personality profile of students studying their subject and then adapt their teaching approach in a way that engages these kinds of students (though note, there is little evidence for students having different "learning styles").


Vedel, A. (2016). Big Five personality group differences across academic majors: A systematic review Personality and Individual Differences, 92, 1-10 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.12.011

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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