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Gordon Allport
BornNovember 11, 1897
DiedOctober 9, 1967(1967-10-09) (aged 69)
NationalityUnited States
Alma materHarvard
Scientific career

Gordon Willard Allport (November 11, 1897 – October 9, 1967) was an American psychologist. Allport was one of the first psychologists to focus on the study of the personality, and is often referred to as one of the founding figures of personality psychology.[1] He contributed to the formation of values scales and rejected both a psychoanalytic approach to personality, which he thought often was too deeply interpretive, and a behavioral approach, which he thought did not provide deep enough interpretations from their data. Instead of these popular approaches, he developed an eclectic theory based on traits.[1] He emphasized the uniqueness of each individual, and the importance of the present context, as opposed to past history, for understanding the personality.

Allport had a profound and lasting influence on the field of psychology, even though his work is cited much less often than that of other well-known figures.[2] Part of his influence stemmed from his knack for exploring and broadly conceptualizing important and interesting topics (e.g. rumor, prejudice, religion, traits). Another part of his influence resulted from the deep and lasting impression he made on his students during his long teaching career, many of whom went on to have important careers in psychology. Among his many students were Jerome S. Bruner, Anthony Greenwald, Stanley Milgram, Leo Postman, Thomas Pettigrew, and M. Brewster Smith. His brother Floyd Henry Allport, was professor of social psychology and political psychology at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (in Syracuse, New York) from 1924 until 1956, and visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Allport as the 11th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.[3]


Allport grew up in a religious family.[4] He was born in Montezuma, Indiana, and was the youngest of four sons of John Edward and Nellie Edith (Wise) Allport. When Gordon Allport was six years old, the family had already moved many times and finally settled in Ohio. His early education was in the public schools of Cleveland, Ohio.

John Allport was a country doctor and had his clinic and hospital in the family home. Allport's father turned their home into a makeshift hospital, with patients as well as nurses residing there. Gordon Allport and his brothers grew up surrounded by their father's patients, nurses, and medical equipment, and he and his brothers often assisted their father in the clinic.[5] Allport reported that "Tending office, washing bottles, and dealing with patients were important aspects of my early training" (p. 172).[6] During this time, Allport's father was encapsulated in a blurb in Samuel Hopkins Adams' exposé in Collier's Magazine on fraudulent medicinal cures, later reprinted as the book The Great American Fraud: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery. While much of the book focuses on large scale, heavily advertised patent medicines available at the turn of the century, the author states Allport "would never have embodied this article were it not for the efforts of certain physicians of Cleveland." Allport was criticized for diagnosing and treating morphine addicts via mail simply on the basis of letters and no in-person appointments. Upon receiving Adams' letter detailing his concocted affliction, Allport replied back via mail, diagnosing Adams as a morphine addict and sending doses of the "Dr. J. Edward Allport System," designed to cure morphine addicts. Analysis of the medicine revealed its active ingredient to be nothing more than additional morphine, packed with a bottle of pink whiskey "to mix with the morphin[sp] when it gets low." Adams referred to Allport as a "[quack] who pretend[s] to be a physician," is "no less scoundrelly," and "is even more dangerous" than other fraudulent addiction cure peddlers mentioned earlier in the book.[7]

Allport's mother was a former school teacher, who forcefully promoted her values of intellectual development and religion.[6]

Biographers describe Allport as a shy and studious boy who lived a fairly isolated childhood. As a teenager, Allport developed and ran his own printing business while serving as editor of his high school newspaper. In 1915, he graduated second in his class at Glenville High School at the age of eighteen. He earned a scholarship that allowed him to attend Harvard University, where one of his older brothers, Floyd Henry Allport, was working on his Ph.D. in Psychology.[8]

Allport earned his A.B. degree in 1919 in Philosophy and Economics (not psychology).[9]

After graduating Harvard, Allport traveled to Robert College in Istanbul, Turkey, where he taught economics and philosophy for a year, before returning to Harvard to pursue his Ph.D. in psychology on fellowship in 1920. His first publication, Personality Traits: Their Classification and Measurement in 1921, was co-authored with his older brother, Floyd Henry Allport. Allport earned his master's degree in 1921, studying under Herbert Langfeld, and then his Ph.D. in 1922, along the way taking a class with Hugo Münsterberg before the latter's death in 1916.[10]

Harvard then awarded Allport a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship. He spent the first Sheldon year studying with the new Gestalt School in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany; and then the second year at Cambridge University.[9]

In 1921 through 1937, Allport helped establish personality as a psychological research type within American psychology.[4] He returned to Harvard as an instructor in psychology from 1924 to 1926 where he began teaching his course "Personality: Its Psychological and Social Aspects" in 1924. During this time, Allport married Ada Lufkin Gould, who was a clinical psychologist. Together they had one child, a boy, who later became a pediatrician.[9] After going to teach introductory courses on social psychology and personality at Dartmouth College for four years, Allport returned to Harvard and remained there for the rest of his career.

Allport was a member of the faculty at Harvard University from 1930 to 1967. In 1931, he served on the faculty committee that established Harvard's Sociology Department. In the late 1940s, he helped to develop an introductory course for the new Social Relations Department. At that time, he was also editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Allport was also a Director of the Commission for the United Nations Educational Scientific, and Cultural Organization. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1933.[11]

By 1937, Allport began to act as a spokesman for personality psychology. He appeared on radio talk shows, wrote literature reviews, articles, and a textbook.[4] He was elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1939, being the second youngest person to hold that office.[4] In 1943, he was elected President of the Eastern Psychological Association. In 1944, he served as President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. In 1950, Allport published his third book titled The Individual and His Religion. His fourth book, The Nature of Prejudice, was published in 1954, based on his work with refugees during World War II. His fifth book, published in 1955, was titled Becoming: Basic Considerations for Psychology of Personality. In 1963, Allport was awarded the Gold Medal Award from the American Psychological Foundation. In the following year, he received the APA's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. Gordon Allport died on October 9, 1967, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of lung cancer, just one month shy of his 70th birthday.[12]

Allport's trait theory

Main article: Trait theory

Allport contributed to the trait theory of personality, and is known as a "trait" psychologist. He did not believe that people can be classified according to a small number of trait dimensions, maintaining that each person is unique and distinguished by peculiar traits.[13] In one of Allport's own articles, Concepts of Trait and Personality (1927), Allport states that traits are "habits possessed of social significance"[14] and become very predictable, traits are a unit of personality. Allport states that the personality of a person is the single most unique thing about a person.[14]

One of his early projects was to go through the dictionary and locate every term that he thought could describe a person. From this, he developed a list of 4500 trait-like words. He organized these words into three levels of traits. This is similar to Goldberg's fundamental lexical hypothesis, or the hypothesis that over time, humans develop widely used, generic terms for individual differences in their daily interactions.

Allport's three-level hierarchy of traits are:

1. Cardinal trait - These traits are rare but is the trait that dominate and shape a person's behavior. These are the ruling passions/obsessions, such as a need for money, fame etc.

2. Central trait - These traits are general characteristics found in some degree in every person. These are the basic building blocks that shape most of our behavior although they are not as overwhelming as cardinal traits. They influence but do not determine behavior. An example of a central trait would be honesty.

3. Secondary trait - These traits are the bottom tier of the hierarchy and are not as apparent as central traits. Secondary traits are characteristics seen only in certain circumstances (such as particular likes or dislikes that a very close friend may know). They must be included to provide a complete picture of human complexity.

Genotypes and phenotypes

Allport hypothesized the idea of internal and external forces that influence an individual's behavior. He called these forces Genotypes and Phenotypes. Genotypes are internal forces that relate to how a person retains information and uses it to interact with the external world. Phenotypes are external forces, these relate to the way an individual accepts his surroundings and how others influence their behavior. These forces generate the ways in which we behave and are the groundwork for the creation of individual traits.

The Problem with this hypothesis is that it cannot be proven as they are internal theories, influenced presumably by the outer environment.

Functional autonomy of motives

Allport was one of the first researchers to draw a distinction between Motive and Drive. He suggested that a drive forms as a reaction to a motive, which may outgrow the motive as the reason for a behavior. The drive then becomes autonomous and distinct from the motive, whether the motive was instinct or something else. The idea that drives can become independent of the original motives for a given behavior is known as "functional autonomy."

Allport gives the example of a man who seeks to perfect his task or craft. His original motive may be a sense of inferiority engrained in his childhood, but his diligence in his work and the motive it acquires later on is a need to excel in his chosen profession, which becomes the man's drive. Allport says that the theory:

... avoids the absurdity of regarding the energy of life now, in the present, as somehow consisting of early archaic forms (instincts, prepotent reflexes, or the never-changing Id). Learning brings new systems of interests into existence just as it does new abilities and skills. At each stage of development these interests are always contemporary; whatever drives, drives now.[15]


See also


  1. ^ a b Sperry, Len (2015). Mental Health and Mental Disorders: An Encyclopedia of Conditions, Treatments, and Well-Being [3 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of Conditions, Treatments, and Well-Being. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 47. ISBN 9781440803833.
  2. ^ "Why should we care about Gordon Allport?". 2001-03-14. Archived from the original on 2012-02-18. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  3. ^ Haggbloom, Steven J.; Powell, John L., III; Warnick, Jason E.; Jones, Vinessa K.; Yarbrough, Gary L.; Russell, Tenea M.; Borecky, Chris M.; McGahhey, Reagan; et al. (2002). "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century". Review of General Psychology. 6 (2): 139–152. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139. S2CID 145668721.
  4. ^ a b c d Nicholson, Ian A. M. (1998). "Gordon Allport, character, and the "culture of personality," 1897–1937". History of Psychology. 1 (1): 52–68. doi:10.1037/1093-4510.1.1.52. ISSN 1939-0610.
  5. ^ Sheehy, Noel; Forsythe, Alexandra (2004). Fifty Key Thinkers in Psychology. London: Routledge. pp. 2. ISBN 0415167744.
  6. ^ a b HJelle, L.A., Ziegler, D.J. (1992). Personality Theories: Basic Assumptions, Research, and Applications. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. ISBN 9780071126403
  7. ^ Adams, Samuel Hopkins (1912). The Great American Fraud: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery. Chicago: Press of American Medical Association, P.F. Collier & Son Inc. p. 118.
  8. ^ V.W. Hevern (1996-2003). Narrative Psychology: Internet and Resource Guide.
  9. ^ a b c Pettigrew, T.F. (1999). Journal of Social Issues, Fall, 1999
  10. ^ Bowman, John S. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 13
  11. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011.
  12. ^ "Later Life". 1967-10-09. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  13. ^ Allen, Bem (2016). Personality Theories: Development, Growth, and Diversity. Oxon: Routledge. p. 414. ISBN 9780205439126.
  14. ^ a b Allport, Gordon W. (1927). "Concepts of trait and personality". Psychological Bulletin. 24 (5): 284–293. doi:10.1037/h0073629. ISSN 1939-1455.
  15. ^ Allport, G. W. (1937). The American Journal of Psychology, 50, pp. 141-156.


Further reading