You Know What They Say About Those Majors: Exploring Personality Traits Across Major Fields

You Know What They Say About Those Majors: Exploring Personality Traits Across Major Fields

NSSE Research Scientist Angie Miller and IU doctoral student Rosemarie Lerma presented a study at the 2019 American Educational Research Association that looked at potential differences in personality traits across majors.

For college students, choosing a major is an essential part of establishing an identity and achieving desired post-graduation outcomes. There are also many stereotypes prevalent in popular culture that are associated with various majors: the nerdy computer science major, the eccentric theater major, or the super-nurturing nursing major. Yet much of the higher education academic discourse on major choice has focused on pre-college ability, socioeconomic background, and expected earnings. What, if any, is the role of personality in major choice? The goal of this study was to explore differences in personality traits between college majors, using the widely known Five Factor Model (FFM).

The data used in this study were part of an experimental set in the 2017 NSSE administration. Responses were available from nearly 5,900 seniors attending 34 baccalaureate-granting institutions who received additional questions that included a short measure of the Five Factor Personality Model. The FFM measures the traits of Openness to Experience (also termed Intellect), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (also termed Emotional Instability). This study also used 11 major field categories to group students: Arts; Humanities; Biological Sciences, Agriculture, & Natural Resources; Physical Sciences, Mathematics, & Computer Science; Social Sciences; Business; Communications, Media, & Public Relations; Education; Engineering; Health Professions; and Social Service Professions.

A series of five one-way ANOVAs with post-hoc analyses indicated that there were many significant differences in personality traits across majors. Many (although not all) of these differences do seem to support the everyday, conventional wisdom about college majors. For extraversion, communications majors, along with social service professions majors, were near the top of the pack, with significantly higher scores than biological sciences, physical sciences/mathematics, and engineering majors (who were among the lowest in extraversion). Engineering majors were also the lowest group for agreeableness, scoring significantly lower than every other major field with the exception of physical sciences.

For conscientiousness, health professions (who were the highest), business, engineering, and social services significantly outscored those majoring in the arts and the humanities. For the trait of neuroticism, engineering majors were significantly lower than every single other major field, with the exception of physical sciences, while arts and humanities were the highest on this trait (and significantly outscored physical science, business, engineering, and social service professions). Finally, for openness/intellect, arts majors were the highest on this trait, significantly outscoring all other majors with the exception of humanities, who also had relatively high scores for this trait.

These differences were not entirely unexpected, but they do provide some support for the concept that personality plays a role in major selection. There seems to be at least a kernel of truth in many of the stereotypes about different majors, as well as for the notion of “matching” personality types to corresponding future careers. For instance, it is somewhat comforting to think that those majoring in the health professions, many of whom will be nurses providing life-saving medical care, are high in conscientiousness. Similarly, one might hope that a communications major, who may end up in a public relations role, would find a benefit from their extroversion. Overall, these findings suggest that the personality differences between major fields are somewhat influencing self-selection into those fields, and more attention should be given to this aspect in research and practice. This awareness can help guide faculty, advisors, and administrators to better operationalize recruitment, retention, and counseling efforts.

Lerma, R., & Miller, A.L. (2019, April). Personality and major choice: The psychology behind choosing a major. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Toronto, Ontario.