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What does your college major say about your personality?

A lot, according to psychologists.

FIONA MACDONALD
20 APR 2016
 

We all know that we're unique little snowflakes, with totally individual personalities. But have you ever noticed how certain types of people tend to choose certain types of university majors. Or how people with similar personalities always end up hanging out together?

It's not just you. A new meta-analysis of psychology research has found that, not only can your college major provide insight into your IQ score, it could also reveal a whole lot about your personality. In other words, we might be more predictable than we like to think.

 

Fascinated by whether people taking the same majors tended to have similar personalities, psychologist Anna Vedel, from Aarhus University in Denmark, looked into 12 studies from around the world, involving more than 13,389 college students.

Each of the studies looked at student's scores on the Big Five personality traits - neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (or, how thoughtful and careful they are) - and compared how they related to the major they ended up pursuing. 

Eleven of them found a strong correlation between personality and academic major. In fact, Vedel could even group certain personality types into different fields:

  • Science students scored high for openness and extraversion, and medium for neuroticism
  • Engineering students tended to have medium levels of neuroticism and conscientiousness, and low openness scores
  • Arts/humanities majors scored high in openness and neuroticism, and low for conscientiousness
  • Law students were highly extraverted, rated medium for neuroticism and conscientiousness, but scored low on openness and agreeableness. Economics students ranked similar
  • Medical students also scored high on extraversion, but were highly agreeable, too
  • Psychology students rated high for neuroticism and openness

"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," Vedel wrote over at Scientific American.

The big question now is whether this is a chicken or an egg situation - in other words, do people choose certain majors because of their personalities, or does their choice of study modify their personality?

In order to figure that out, researchers need to measure students' personality traits when they enrol, before they've started studying and socialising with other people in their major. 

 

There were two studies in Vedel's review that did just that, and they both showed similar trends to the rest of the results, suggesting that it's our personalities that drive us to seek out certain courses. But more investigation needs to be done into this hypothesis. 

"As interesting as the personality group differences are, it is important to note that this type of research is based on averages," insists Vedel. "Large variation within the groups exists, and many individuals will not, of course, 'fit the personality pattern' of their academic major."

So that means that it's probably not the best idea to base your future academic and career choices on your personality type. 

But Vedel hopes that one day the research will help people make smarter choices about their future.

"It may inspire teachers and counsellors to take characteristics of their student population into account when planning learning and guidance activities," she writes over at Scientific American. "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."

After all, being the odd-one-out in your course may just give you an edge over your peers. Take it from Einstein - fitting in is overrated.

The research has been published in Personality and Individual Differences.

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