Stereotypes about the Psychology Degree: Student Sources and Beliefs

By Brinthaupt, Thomas M.; Counts, Victoria E. et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, September-December 2012 | Go to article overview

Stereotypes about the Psychology Degree: Student Sources and Beliefs


Brinthaupt, Thomas M., Counts, Victoria E., Hurst, Jennifer R., Journal of Instructional Psychology


Very little research addresses the sources of stereotypes about the psychology discipline and what students think of those stereotypes. In Study I, students from a psychology careers course listed the stereotypes they had heard about psychology and the major. We then surveyed students from different sections of the course about their frequency of hearing these stereotypes from their friends/fellow students and parents/family members. Participants reported that friends/fellow students were a more frequent source of stereotype information than parents/family members, and upper division students reported more frequently hearing the stereotypes than lower division students. In Study 2, students reported minimal agreement with the stereotypes. We discuss the implications of these results for research on psychology stereotypes and for career advising.

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The field of psychology is characterized by a broad number of sub-disciplines and many linkages to other fields of study. Despite this broad range of application, students, mass media, and the lay public have a variety of stereotypes about the field of psychology and the characteristics of those who major or work in this field (Mura & Levy, 1987; Wood, Jones, & Benjamin, 1986). These stereotypes are likely to impact student perceptions, intentions, and behaviors, including whether or not they choose to major in the field and what they believe they can do with a psychology degree. Despite the prevalence and potential implications of such stereotypes, experimenters have conducted very little research on the nature, prevalence, and sources of them.

Psychology majors frequently report having an inaccurate understanding of the field, its educational requirements, and the job and career opportunities available to them (e.g., Galucci, 1997; Gutman, 1979; Nauta, 2000). The existence of these misconceptions means that psychology educators need to be concerned with accurately presenting the field and the major to their students. This would allow students to make more realistic assessments of their career options and how to best prepare for those options. However, these efforts are unlikely to change the misconceptions and stereotypes of the public or of those from other fields of study. The latter sources may be likely to offer these stereotypes to students who are thinking about majoring or have decided to major in psychology.

We could find no vocational identity and career decision-making literature that specifically addressed the role that stereotypes about the major play in student perceptions, attitudes, and decisions in any discipline. As a first step in addressing the lack of research on stereotypes about the psychology field, the goals of our research were to identify common stereotypes that psychology students have heard, assess their frequency of hearing these stereotypes from different sources, and examine how much students believe the stereotypes they have heard. We assessed how frequently students heard stereotypical views of the field from their parents/family members as well as from their friends/fellow students. Although this was exploratory research, we expected that some stereotypes might be reported more frequently from different sources and depending upon one's year in school. These hypotheses are described in more detail later.

Class Discussion of Psychology Stereotypes

The first phase of this research involved students from three online sections of a Seminar on Careers in Psychology course. In our department, this course is required for all psychology majors. The online version of the course uses several "best practices" associated with online course delivery (Brinthaupt, 2010). It is taught as a 7-week, 1-credit, pass-fail course. As part of this course, students in three sections (N = 81, 65 women, 16 men) participated in required online class discussions. The first class discussion pertained to stereotypes about psychology and the psychology major. …

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