Gordon Allport - Psychology of Personality - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Gordon Allport
Psychology of Personality
The Canon


BORN 1897, Montezuma, Indiana


DIED 1967, Cambridge, Massachusetts


Educated at Harvard University and Cambridge University



Considered one of the early founders of personality psychology, Gordon Allport rejected psychoanalysis. He felt it went so deep as to go off on meaningless tangents, latching on to red herrings as an explanation of behavior. And behaviorism, Allport argued, did not go nearly deep enough. Allport developed theories that allowed for the interaction of personality traits and behavior, examining how individual differences play out in one’s environment. And his beliefs about the purpose of the self crossed over into humanistic psychology, a field in which he also can be seen to have exerted considerable influence.

One famous and entertaining anecdote that exemplifies Allport’s frustration with psychoanalysis involves his 1922 meeting with the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Allport was in his early 20s at the time and had taken a train to Vienna for the conversation. Upon Allport’s arrival, Freud was silent. Attempting to break the ice, Allport described a situation he had witnessed on the train: A young boy, who clearly was highly bothered by dirt, objected to sitting in places where dirty people had sat or next to strangers whom he viewed as unclean. Allport suggested to Freud that the boy’s mother, who had seemed rather domineering, might have played a role in the development of this attitude. After Allport completed this story, Freud looked at him and asked, “And was that little boy you?”

It almost reads like a joke—Freud being so Freudian as to almost be a caricature. But to Allport, this awkward exchange exemplified what he viewed as the problems of psychoanalysis. No, the boy was not him; and, no, he wouldn’t have told the story in such a way if the boy had been him. Surely, he thought, psychoanalytic explanations of behavior are not always accurate and are sometimes on the wrong path entirely.

Allport was an early proponent of trait theories. Traits are specific characteristics within our personalities that not only differentiate us from each other but also stay constant over time. According to Allport, not only do we possess different types of traits, they also exist at different levels of significance within us. Cardinal traits are the rarest, and they are so central to an individual’s personality that they pretty much define it. Not everyone has these; only certain people do (for example, Ebenezer Scrooge, whose very existence is synonymous with the trait of stinginess). Central traits are not all-encompassing but work together to form our personalities; we each tend to have five to ten of these. They include things like honesty and aggressiveness. And secondary traits are present only in certain circumstances; they include preferences and attitudes that can be more specific than the more general types of traits. Perhaps you are extremely anxious at very large parties or become very irritable when rushed. The notion of secondary traits allows for the importance of situational factors, a consideration that many other trait theories do not account for. The baggage of the word trait eventually became so significant, in terms of its connotations of strict, quantifiable definitions, that Allport changed it to disposition, which allows for different manifestations of a particular characteristic in different situations and among different people. Curiosity, for example, does not necessarily look the same in two different people. Allport also recognized that traits common in one culture are not necessarily common in another.

Allport’s term for the self is proprium, which emphasizes the qualities that move us forward and propel us toward growth. He theorized that some personality traits are more tied to our proprium than others are. Naturally, if you possess cardinal traits, they define you far more than secondary traits do, and central traits fall somewhere in the middle. Allport used the term propriate functioning to refer to things that we do because they align with our true selves, with the way we view ourselves, and with our role within the world.

He coined the term functional autonomy to refer to our ability to act fully in the present; the origins of our motives don’t matter nearly as much as the motives themselves. Allport didn’t believe (as the psychoanalysts did) that we have to be tied to the burdens of the past. According to Allport, at any moment we are capable of acting with conscious free will and are not overwhelmingly driven by the unconscious. But perseverative functional autonomy allows for the idea that certain behaviors can persist just by force of habit, long after their initial purpose has been served. For example, let’s say that in your early 20s you lived in an incredibly noisy apartment complex, and so you used a white-noise machine so you could fall asleep at night. You did this for years. Now you are in your 50s and have long since lived in quiet places, but you still use the white-noise machine. At some point, you got so used to it that now you can barely sleep without it, even though its original purpose no longer applies and it’s no longer needed to actually reduce background noise.

Propriate functional autonomy is less the result of habits than of values. It has to do with behaving in ways that reflect who we believed ourselves to be. Allport, along with his colleagues Philip Vernon and Gardner Lindzey, developed a measure of values that was in use for several decades. It was based on six types of values identified in 1914 by the German psychologist Eduard Spranger: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, and religious.

Finally, moving more toward what aligns well with humanistic psychology, Allport had ideas about what it means to reach psychological maturity. He theorized that such maturity occurs as a combination of having an adaptable and healthy set of traits and having a well-developed proprium (that is, the sense of self aligned with those traits). The attainment of maturity comes about on the basis of seven different criteria, all of them ways of relating to the world:

”Extensions of the self, which mean involvement with others and the community

”Warm relating, which refers to trust, genuineness, and empathy for others

”Emotional security and the ability to accept oneself

”Realistic perception, which allows one to be honest about oneself rather than defensive

”Problem-centeredness, which allows one to overcome challenges

”Self-objectification, which lets one really know oneself and see the big picture

”A philosophy of life that is cohesive and includes a conscience that one has developed to be true to oneself


Gordon Allport’s theories not only influenced later personality researchers but also had an impact on the humanistic therapies of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Allport’s noteworthy students include Stanley Milgram and Anthony Greenwald, whose Implicit Association Test (developed with Mahzarin Banaji) broke new ground in how we think about bias and showed just how prevalent various unconscious biases are among wide ranges of people.


How do you define yourself? Are you kind sometimes? Rarely? Almost always? Maybe you’re just average on the kindness scale, the same as millions of others. In that case, kindness does not seem to define you one way or another. It’s not a cardinal trait for you, and in fact you may not even have any cardinal traits at all. It’s not a central trait, either, as being kind or unkind is not something that would really differentiate you from others.

But let’s say there are very specific situations that bring out your kindness in ways that really do make you stand out. You have a soft spot for troubled teens, perhaps, maybe because you were once one yourself. You give big to causes that help these young men and women when the holidays roll around. Perhaps kindness, after all, is one of your traits, but it’s a secondary one. It may not manifest when you are jostling to get a seat on the subway or when you are giving the finger to someone in traffic. But it is there in certain situations, and that makes it a trait, in some form.

The same could be true for any number of other traits, from being funny to being energetic, from being fearful to being orderly. Only a few of us are defined completely by one cardinal trait, one that can make us a caricature like Scrooge or Mother Teresa. But for most of us, different layers of traits add up and make us who we are.

Allport’s categories of values also tell us something about how we compare to others. Our values not only reflect what we believe to be important in life but also might help explain why we are drawn to different professional fields or set particular goals to be achieved. People with theoretical values are on a search for truth and may become scientists or philosophers. They investigate and analyze, to try to better understand the foundations of what is real in this life. People who tend toward economic values emphasize practicality; they want to create things of use and are utilitarian. They may become concerned with the accumulation of wealth. The aesthetic-valuing person places importance on experiencing harmony and beauty and is clearly more likely to be engaged in the creative arts as a career or as a side job. He or she seeks symmetry and grace and may sometimes value stylistic expression more than truth. People oriented toward social values are most interested in other human beings and relationships. They are focused on connectedness among people and are likely to be found in altruistic types of jobs that emphasize community or emotional connection. Allport’s definition of political values says, perhaps cynically, that they involve a desire for power. Maybe power comes through an actual career in politics, or maybe someone is in a different industry altogether. But even in the latter case, the person who values power will be found acting in a way that is concerned with becoming a leader. And those with religious values seek unity, trying to find the way they fit into the universe as a whole and to understand not only their part within it but also the ways in which everything in life, and perhaps the cosmos, fits together.

What have you chosen to devote your life to? Or, at least, what have you chosen to devote the next few years to? What values lead you to be motivated to achieve certain goals? Perhaps you see yourself in some of these constructs, or you see yourself as a blend of two or more. Maybe early in your life you were driven by one set of values—let’s say economic values, because they had long been instilled in you, given the need to put food on the table above all else. You spent your first couple of adult decades in middle management, comforted by your steady paycheck and your predictable life. But in mid-adulthood, you discovered volunteer work or painting or spirituality, and you suddenly found yourself driven by a different set of values altogether. With respect to Allport’s theory of functional autonomy, the beauty of this is that we have the freedom to change ourselves midstream.