They say it doesn't matter what you major in during college. It might matter, however, if you want your personality to match your chosen field—lest you end up the lone nod-greeter in a marketing class full of exploding fistbumps.
According to a new meta-analysis, there are significant personality differences between students in different academic majors. For the review paper, Anna Vedel, a psychologist from Aarhus University in Denmark, analyzed 12 studies examining the correlation between personality traits and college majors. Eleven of them found significant differences between majors. The review examined the so-called “Big Five” traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Arts and humanities majors, Vedel found, are in the unenviable position of being anxious, but not very organized. They were less conscientious than students in fields like science, law, or engineering. They also tended to score higher on neuroticism.
On the plus side, along with political-science majors, arts and humanities students also scored higher on openness than did economics, engineering, law, or science students. Openness is characterized by an active imagination, love of variety, and a wide range of intellectual interests.
Economics and business students rated consistently lower in neuroticism than other groups. Along with law students, business and economics students were also less agreeable than students in the other majors. Economics, law, political-science, and medicine students were more extroverted than students in the arts, humanities, and the sciences.
The effect sizes tended to be “medium” for all of the traits, and "large" for openness.
The findings are explained somewhat, but not entirely, by the gender distribution among college majors. It's well-known, for instance, that women are far less likely to enter engineering fields than men are, and women tend to be more neurotic, agreeable, and conscientious than men, according to the study. These results partly jive with a 2002 meta-analysis, which found that “artistic” vocational interests correlate with openness, and “social” and “enterprising” ones—such as business and politics—with extraversion.
Vedel disputes the idea that college academic programs socialize students to exhibit certain personality traits. (In other words, that it's the art program that makes art majors more open.) Two of the studies in the review analyzed the students' personalities just after enrollment, suggesting they arrived at college with their unique dispositions already set.
Vedel writes that she hopes her findings can help college counselors guide students into the best majors for their personalities. That, she thinks, might help reduce drop-out rates. At the very least, it might help certain English majors understand why they never can seem to remember to do their stats homework, even though they worry about it constantly.