The Personality of Philosophy Majors

Psychologist Anna Vedel (Aarhus University) writes: “The choice of education is perhaps the first highly important decision that young people have to make for themselves in the developed world. Each education paves the way for certain vocational paths, and the choice has a lasting impact on the young adult’s life.” It might be useful, then, to see what we can learn about people from their educational choices, including the areas of study they choose. Vedel has conducted a systematic review of studies on the distribution of the “big five” personality traits across different academic majors, and reports on it in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and Scientific American.

The “big five” personality traits are:

  • openness – “curiosity about and tolerance for diverse cultural and intellectual experiences”
  • conscientiousness – “being dutiful, diligent, and orderly”
  • extraversion – “tendency to experience positive emotions and being active and sociable”
  • agreeableness – “being friendly, modest, and accommodating”
  • neuroticism – “tendency to experience negative and unstable emotions”

(above quotes from Vedel’s article in Scientific American)

According to Vedel’s review, there are non-trivial differences across majors. “Arts/Humanities” majors, as a group, scored higher than other groups on openness and neuroticism, high on agreeableness, low on extraversion, and “consistently lower” on conscientiousness.

Further, in the journal article she notes that though women in general score higher than males on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, she argues that the differences across majors are “not mere gender effects.”

Vedel does bring up the causal question:

What do these results mean? Are the personality differences the result of socialization processes within faculties, or are they pre-existing? Certain personality traits may be valued and cultivated in some faculties, but not in others. Over time, that could hypothetically create personality differences. However, the personality differences may also originate from self-selection: individuals with different personalities may be attracted to different majors. In order to test these competing hypotheses, we would need studies measuring the students’ personality traits at enrollment, before any socialization within faculties can take place. Only a couple of studies included in the review had this research design. However, the results from these studies are similar to those obtained in the remaining studies. So it seems more likely that the personality differences found between academic majors were pre-existing rather than due to socialization. This does not rule out that some socialization within faculties may affect students’ personality, though, and longitudinal studies with repeated personality measurements can hopefully explore this.

One limitation of Vedel’s study is that it didn’t break down the “Arts/Humanities” category into specific majors. This struck me as problematic, given that it seems plausible that different personality types would be drawn to the study of, say, philosophy, religion, or studio art, for example.

So I wrote to her and asked if she had specific data about philosophy majors. The difficulty, she noted, is that the individual majors lack sufficiently large sample sizes in the existing research for statistically reliable results. However, she was kind enough to run a quick analysis on the information she had about philosophy majors. Noting that “this analysis is run with very few subjects compared to the published results and therefore should be interpreted with caution,” she found that philosophy majors are:

  • less neurotic than the Arts/Humanities group as a whole
  • close to the Arts/humanities group as a whole regarding extraversion, though slightly less extravert
  • very close to the Arts/Humanities group as a whole regarding openness
  • close to the Arts/Humanities group as a whole regarding agreeableness, though slightly less agreeable
  • very close to the Arts/Humanities group as a whole regarding conscientiousness

“Slightly less agreeable,” huh? I don’t think so.

(portraits of birds by Leila Jeffreys)

(portraits of birds by Leila Jeffreys)



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Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
8 years ago

low agreeableness often registers as a false positive in professions that formalize arguing.

there used to be a facebook app (back when facebook apps were commonplace) called MyPersonality. it was essentially a Big Five test that enormous numbers of Facebook users had filled out. you could sort the data by college major, and Philosophy wasn’t just low agreeableness of college majors, it was one of the lowest. you can still get MyPersonality’s data from their website, iirc.

the more the major involved arguing, the lower the agreeableness was. this is because the Big Five often tests agreeableness by providing statements like “I contradict people” and asking you to rate how much they apply to you on a scale of 1-5. the problem here is that if you are a philosophy student, contradicting people is pretty much all you do. so you will rate highly on questions like “I argue a lot” or whatever.

the test isn’t designed to account for the kind of argumentation done by philosophers or lawyers or whatever. when it provides the “I contradict others” prompt the data aligns with what the most typical person would take that to mean, which is probably “I am bratty.” low agreeableness in a person who doesn’t think of arguments in this way will probably mean they’re loud and difficult for the sake of it; the kind of person who gets thrown out of bars for yelling at the bartender.

so it’s important to remember this effect on agreeableness whenever you’re looking at philosophers or people who have formally studied argumentation. the big five agreeableness results don’t mean the same thing for that kind of person.

rusty shackleford
rusty shackleford
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
8 years ago

What, in your explanation, makes low agreeableness a false positive? It looks like you’re just describing why we might think our low agreeableness is a good thing.

Reply to  rusty shackleford
8 years ago

I think you might be understanding “agreeableness” differently. The agreeableness questions from a sample big 5 questionnaire:

I see myself as someone who: (Rate 1-5)
26. Suspects hidden motives in others.
27. Trusts others.
28. Contradicts others.
29. Values cooperation over competition.
30. Is easy to satisfy.
31. Thinks highly of myself.
32. Is concerned about others.
33. Puts people under pressure.

If you have a sense of “arguing” and “disagreeing” in mind where they’re *within your workplace norms*, things like “I like to argue” and “I often disagree with people” don’t get at the same thing these questions are trying to get at.

I think researchers generally do a pretty good job choosing items though. I don’t think “contradicts others” has the same issue, or at least not to the same extent.

4 years ago

Cant find the big 5 facebook study on iirc website Alfred Macdonald.Would love to see it.