Personality traits, preferences and educational choices: a focus on STEM

Johan Coenen*, Lex Borghans, Ron Diris

*Corresponding author for this work

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Around the developed world, the need for graduates from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields is growing. Research on educational and occupational choice has traditionally focused on the cognitive skills of prospective students, and on how these determine the expected costs and benefits of study programs. Little work exists that analyzes the role of personality traits on study choice. This study investigates how personality traits relate to preferences of students for STEM studies and occupations, and to specialization choice in high school. We use a rich data set that combines administrative and survey data of Dutch secondary education students. We find that personality traits are related to both the preference that students have for STEM as the actual decision to specialize in STEM studies, but to different degrees. We identify significant relations with preference indicators for all Big Five traits, especially for Openness to Experience (positive), Extraversion and Agreeableness (both negative). The size of these relations is often larger than those between cognitive skills and STEM preferences. Personality traits are comparatively less important with respect to the actual specialization choice, for which we identify a robust (and sizable) negative relation with Extraversion, and for girls find a positive relation with Openness to Experience. The results suggest that once students have to make actual study choice decisions, they rely more on cognitive skills rather than personality traits, in contrast to their expressed preferences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102361
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Economic Psychology
Early online date22 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

JEL classifications

  • j24 - "Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity"
  • i21 - Analysis of Education
  • i20 - Education and Research Institutions: General


  • Educational choice
  • Personality
  • STEM
  • educational choice
  • personality

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