Why Should(n’t) You Study Economics? (Part 1)

Last Friday, I registered for my last undergraduate semester, and now I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. This made me start thinking about how I ended up as an economics major, given that I spent my first year here assuming I’d be a chemistry major. (I guess making that big of an assumption should’ve been a clue) I think the main two factors were a fun, engaging economics teacher in high school, and a class called IPE 201, with Lisa Nunn. I ended up joining IPE 201: Introduction to International Political Economy, a week into the semester, after a brief foray into Spanish 201.

While the class was very challenging, I found that I enjoyed trying to understand how people tried to make decisions, then what actually happens once you throw in institutions, complicated and protectionist trade agreements, and socio-cultural factors. Looking back, I think I appreciated the mathematical “certainty” that simple models could bring, as well as Lisa’s intense enthusiasm for her subject. I decided to declare the following fall, after a long night trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. (funnily enough, that’s how I feel again with regard to careers)

Picking a college major is hard…unless you are everyone’s favorite listicle, click bait producing website, Buzzfeed. When I searched “buzzfeed college major” on Google, I found lots of quizzes that promise to make the decision easy. One bases it off of your zodiac sign (apparently I should’ve been a theater major), a second predicts based off of your favorite foods (Philosophy?), and a third promises an answer if you just click a button. If you are trying to actually think about it, however, you probably consider quite a few factors: including probability of employment, earnings, workload, enjoyment, and of course…stereotypes.

When I think of the stereotypes about college majors, a few come to mind. Another Buzzfeed article outlines some, and says this about economics majors,

You probably tote around the Wall Street Journal to class and enjoy a cup of hot black coffee. Also, you’re, like, way more into stocks and sh*t and know how to handle your ~money~ way better than your peers. You have a weird relationship with business majors, and think they took the easy way out.

And just so I’m not only mentioning buzzfeed, here’s an article from The Tab with another assessment of econ majors,

You’ve been running an E-Trade account since freshman year of high school and you can name the last three Fed chairs. The words “Lehman Brothers” make you cringe and you hate when people use the concept of “supply and demand” incorrectly.

From a more academic approach, Anna Vedel completed a systematic review of 12 studies examining relationships between the Big Five personality traits and academic major. Briefly, the Big Five are:

  1. Extraversion:excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and high amounts of emotional expressiveness.
  2. Agreeableness: attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviors.
  3. Conscientiousness: high levels of thoughtfulness, with good impulse control and goal-directed behaviors.
  4. Neuroticism: characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability.
  5. Openness: characteristics such as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

The results for economics students, as summed up by the Atlantic, were: econ majors tend to be less open, lower in neuroticism, and more extroverted. All in all, that makes sense to me, as I picture econ majors as people who like what they’re studying and are fairly rational, though I don’t think I would’ve predicted extroversion…unless they were telling you about how they had come up with an economic solution to a significant problem.

In my next post, I will address some criticisms of economics as a discipline, and try to explain the economics side of the story.

Vedel, A. (2016). Big Five personality group differences across academic majors: A systematic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 92(Supplement C), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.12.011

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