What factors shape college students' decisions to major in one field rather than another? Students may consider many things when deciding what to study in college, including what they're interested in, whether they have role models in the field, and how capable they are.

Regardless of their actual abilities, students have beliefs about intelligence and stereotypes about who is intelligent. These beliefs may affect what they choose to major in. Furthermore, people of different genders may be impacted differently by those beliefs and stereotypes.

Beliefs about brilliance (very high levels of intelligence) can shape students' choices of an academic major and their trajectory in and after college. Specifically, people judge whether a major is a good fit for them by comparing how brilliant they are (or others think they are) to the brilliance they assume is required to succeed in that field. Unfortunately, the gender stereotype about brilliance—that men can be brilliant, but women cannot be brilliant—discourages women from majoring in fields assumed to require brilliance. Women may internalize this stereotype and avoid majors they think require brilliance.

Another belief about intelligence concerns whether it is innate and unchangeable or malleable. If you believe that you can't change how smart you are no matter how hard you work, you have a fixed mindset. In contrast, if you believe that you can work hard, learn, and increase your intelligence over time, you have a growth mindset. Some researchers have proposed that women tend to have fixed mindsets, which discourages them from majoring in certain fields.

Understanding college major choice is complicated by the many ways that academic fields differ. To better understand how beliefs and stereotypes about intelligence contribute to major choice, we focused on two fields that have many similarities: psychology and philosophy. These two fields share a common history and considerable subject matter overlap (for example, the study of human nature, the mind, ethics, group dynamics, knowledge, perceptions of reality, moral decision-making).

We find it striking that, despite these similarities, the gender gaps in psychology and philosophy go in opposite directions. Many more women study and work in psychology, and many more men study and work in philosophy. We wondered whether brilliance beliefs, fixed vs. growth mindsets, or both, could explain this pattern.

We collected data from 467 undergraduates enrolled in philosophy and psychology classes at universities in the United States and Canada. Students shared how much brilliance they think is required in psychology and philosophy, how brilliant they think they are (brilliance beliefs), how much they think people can get smarter through effort and over time (fixed vs. growth mindsets), and their GPAs coming into college.

As expected, there were more women than men in psychology but more men than women in philosophy. Despite having higher GPAs on average, women believed themselves to be low in brilliance, compared to men, who believed themselves to be high in brilliance. These lower brilliance beliefs explained why women opted to study psychology, which was rated as requiring lower brilliance, over philosophy, which was rated as requiring higher brilliance.

Fixed vs. growth mindsets about intelligence did not explain this pattern. In fact, women were more likely than men to view intelligence as something they could work hard to develop over time. Thus, it may not matter if you think you can work hard and improve your intelligence if society tells you that the highest level of intelligence (brilliance) is what matters most but is out of your reach.

Our findings suggest that internalized stereotypes about who can be brilliant, not beliefs that intelligence can be changed through effort, affect women's college major choice. Our findings also highlight problematic beliefs about psychology. Psychology requires the systematic thinking employed in philosophy plus the application of statistics and the scientific method. Therefore, it is not at all clear that success in psychology requires less brilliance than success in philosophy. For fields to attract people of diverse genders, it is important that stereotyped beliefs about brilliance—including who has it—change to reflect the truth. Women, too, can be brilliant.

For Further Reading

Maranges, H. M., Iannuccilli, M., Nieswandt, K., Hlobil, U., & Dunfield, K. (2023). Brilliance Beliefs, Not Mindsets, Explain Inverse Gender Gaps in Psychology and Philosophy. Sex Roles, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-023-01406-5

Leslie, S.-J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 347(6219), 262–265. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1261375

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.

Heather María Maranges is a researcher at Florida State University who studies what facilitates or undermines personal flourishing and social health, including cooperation and morality.