Are law students selfish and art students neurotic? According to a new study, on the whole, yes.  

University majors attract students with very similar personality types, according to a study published in the journal "Personality and Individual Differences."

Lead author Anna Vedel, a psychologist at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, found that those who study business or law tend to be more selfish and uncooperative but on the plus side, they’re “less neurotic” and more extroverted than those in arts or humanities. 

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Scientists analyzed 13,000 students from 12 different studies to look for correlations between the so-called ‘Big Five’ major personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) and what the individual studied. 

We spoke to the expert about what inspired her to undertake this research, and what it could mean in the classroom.  

How did you come up with the idea for this study?

The idea to conduct research on personality group differences across academic majors partly came from personal curiosity. When I finished high school, I found it very hard to decide which major to choose. I liked both the sciences and humanities, so the idea came to me that maybe I shouldn’t only look at what I liked and was good at, but also consider which social environment I would “fit into” with my personality. That didn’t make the choice any easier [laughs]. Anyway, the idea stayed in my head throughout my university years in psychology, and it seemed natural for me to do some research on the topic. 

What are the most interesting results from the study?

If I have to point out something in particular, it could be the finding that the studies measuring students’ personality at enrollment show the same personality group differences as the studies measuring students’ personality after long time periods. The personality group differences are not created after enrollment by faculty traditions or peer pressure – they were always there.

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Could you tell us more about the connection between university majors and personality?

Economics and law students scored low on ‘agreeableness and openness’ whereas psychology and arts/humanities students scored high on these personality traits.

Psychology and arts/humanities students scored high on ‘neuroticism’ also, whereas economics, law, business and sciences students scored low on this personality trait.

Arts/humanities and sciences students scored low on ‘extraversion,’ while medicine, political science, economics, and law students scored high on this personality trait. 

What are the implications of these results?

There are many potential implications for both research and practice. It could perhaps inspire some students in their choice of major, or it could help guidance counsellors to understand their students better and perhaps support students struggling socially. For teachers, it could inspire them to structure learning environments tailored to their student populations. 

What’s next?

I’ve just moved to Brisbane to visit a research colleague for half a year, and I might do some research in a completely different area while I’m here. But I’m not done with personality group differences across academic majors. I’ll be back

The “Big Five” personality traits: 

Neuroticism: anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsivity, vulnerability.

Extraversion: warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement seeking, positive emotion.

Openness: fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas, values.

Conscientiousness: competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, deliberation.

Agreeableness: trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, tender-mindedness.