Gordon Allport was an American psychologist who is best known for his work on personality. He is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of personality psychology. Allport rejected behaviorism and psychoanalysis in favor of his own eclectic approach that stressed the importance of individual uniqueness and present-day circumstances in understanding human personality. In a 2002 survey endorsed by the American Psychological Association, Allport was ranked as the 11th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.
Gordon Allport's Early Life
Gordon Willard Allport was born on November 11, 1897 in Montezuma, Indiana. He was the fourth son born to John Edward Allport and Nellie Edith Allport (née Wise). His older brothers were named Harold, Floyd, and Fayette.
Although he was born in Indiana, Allport grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. His family were devout Methodists. Both of Allport's parents were highly respected in their community. His father left a career in business to work as a doctor and his mother was a homemaker and former schoolteacher.
Allport’s parents emphasized hard work, academic excellence and service to others. A lack of medical facilities in Cleveland motivated his father, John Edward, to turn the family home into a hospital. Allport and his brothers often assisted with washing bottles, interacting with patients, and managing the office. John Edward boasted that he had never taken a vacation and he instilled a similar work ethic in his children.
Allport’s mother, Nellie Edith, had an even bigger influence on his life. She raised her sons according to her high moral principles and encouraged them to pursue their intellectual interests. Nellie was an active member of the temperance movement and she urged people to abstain from alcohol. Interestingly, Allport was given the middle name “Willard” in honor of Frances Willard, who founded the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and was a leader of the national Prohibition Party. It was not uncommon for foreign missionaries and members of the WCTU to visit the Allport family home from time to time.
Allport was a shy boy who preferred to read and study rather than engage in “boyish” activities outdoors. He attended Glenville High School, where he was often mocked for being born with only eight toes. When he graduated from high school in 1915, Allport was operating his own printing business and serving as editor of the school newspaper. He was ranked second in his graduating class of one hundred students.
Educational Background and Career
After leaving high school, Allport was encouraged by his older brother Floyd to enroll at Harvard University. A few years earlier, Floyd had also entered Harvard as an undergraduate student and was now pursuing his PhD in psychology at the university. Allport decided to follow his brother’s advice and earned a full scholarship to attend Harvard. However the move was challenging for him as the moral standards at the university were very different from what he was accustomed to.
Although Allport no longer participated in the Methodist evangelizing work, he was drawn to courses that emphasized social service. He was particularly interested in the Department of Social Ethics. Allport had a heavy academic workload as an undergraduate student. Nevertheless, he still made time to engage in social work at the Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation, Phillips Brooks House, the YMCA, and the Boston Juvenile Court.
Allport was introduced to psychology by the renowned German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, who was in charge of the psychology lab at Harvard at the time. However, Allport’s love for psychology was sparked by his older brother Floyd. who worked as Münsterberg’s assistant. Floyd would often engage his younger brother in deep discussions about psychology and Allport was always keen to listen to his older brother’s opinions and advice on psychological issues. An important question they discussed would have great influence on Allport’s future work: can scientific methods uncover all the mysteries of human nature?
In 1919, Allport earned his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Economics. After his graduation, he was unsure what career path to take so he accepted a position as a missionary and lecturer at Robert College in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. However, Allport became increasingly aware of the limitations of social service and soon concluded that his efforts to improve the lives of the Turkish people were being wasted. He decided that his professional future was in the field of education so he made plans to go back to Harvard in 1920 to pursue graduate studies in social ethics and psychology.
Before returning to America, Allport visited Sigmund Freud at his home in Vienna, Austria. Allport had a basic knowledge of psychoanalysis and was eager to get the conversation with Freud going, so he told Freud about an experience he had on the train while on his way to Vienna. Allport explained that he saw a young boy who seemed to be afraid of dirt—the boy told his mother that he did not want to sit in a dirty seat and that he did not want a dirty man to sit next to him. Allport also noticed that the boy’s mother seemed to be a neat, “well-starched” lady with a dominant attitude.
When he finished his story, Allport expected Freud to make a connection between the mother’s demeanor and the boy’s phobia. He was shocked when Freud asked “”And was that little boy you?” Apparently, Freud viewed the story as a glimpse into Allport’s own character. Freud’s misinterpretation led to Allport developing a distaste for quick psychoanalytic interpretations that lasted for the rest of his life.
Allport began his graduate studies at Harvard in 1920. In 1921, he and his older brother Floyd co-authored and published a book which was titled Personality Traits: Their Classification and Measurement. Allport also earned his master’s degree in psychology in 1921 under the guidance of Herbert Sidney Langfield. In 1922, he received his PhD in psychology for his dissertation An Experimental Study of the Traits of Personality: With Special Reference to the Problem of Social Diagnosis.
In 1922, Allport was awarded the Sheldon Travelling Scholarship. From 1922-1923 he studied in Germany—first in Berlin under the guidance of Carl Stumpf and Max Dessoir, and then in Hamburg under the supervision of Heinz Werner and Wilhelm Stern. He spent the following year studying at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. He returned to Harvard in 1924 and began teaching the course “Personality: Its Psychological and Social Aspects.”
Allport accepted an offer to become an assistant professor of psychology at Dartmouth College in 1926. During his time there he taught an introductory course on psychology as well as other courses on personality psychology and social ethics. Allport left Dartmouth when he was offered the position of assistant professor of psychology at Harvard. He was promoted to associate professor in 1936 and professor in 1942.
Allport’s time at Harvard helped to lay the groundwork for the growth of psychology in the United States. He was widely considered to be an influential figure in the field and an expert in human personality. A number of his students—such as Jerome Bruner, Gardner Lindzey, Leo Postman, Philip Vernon, and Thomas Pettigrew—all became notable psychologists in their own right. He wrote books, appeared on radio shows, and was elected as the president of the American Psychological Association in 1939.
Allport’s Trait Theory of Personality
In the 1930s, psychoanalysis had a strong influence on the field of psychology and behaviorism was the dominant school of thought. However, Allport did not agree with either of these approaches. He believed that practitioners of psychoanalysis were often too eager to find unconscious motives for simple, everyday observations and were therefore likely to misinterpret what they saw. According to Allport, psychoanalysis was too focused on people’s sexual and environmental history and too dismissive of present day intentions, motivations, and experiences.
While Allport believed that psychoanalysis dug too deeply, he rejected behaviorism because he believed it did not dig deep enough. He disagreed with the behaviorist views that people are born without internal mental content and that all human behavior can be explained by the process of conditioning. Although Allport’s work focused on the importance of conscious motivations and current circumstances, he recognized that unconscious mental material and past experiences can impact human psychology. He also respected behaviorism’s emphasis on the scientific method and empirical evidence when conducting research.
Allport made major contributions to the trait theory of personality. A trait is a distinguishing quality, habit, or characteristic that sets one person apart from everyone else. Allport believed that people possessed many traits and that an individual’s personality traits are key to his or her thought patterns, motivations, behaviors, and uniqueness. He believed that personality has a biological basis, but that it can be molded by an individual’s life experiences.
Allport suggested that traits can be separated into three levels of hierarchy:
1. Cardinal traits - these traits dominate an individual’s personality and tend to determine his or her emotions, behaviors, and identity. Cardinal traits are rare as most people do not center their life around a single theme. Examples of cardinal traits include:
- An insatiable need for sex
- An insatiable need for fame
- An insatiable need for money
2. Central traits - while central traits are not as dominant as cardinal traits, they are the major characteristics that stand out in a person. They influence but do not necessarily determine behavior. These types of traits are present in everyone to some degree. Examples of central traits include:
3. Secondary traits - These traits are not as easily seen as cardinal or central traits as they only stand out in specific situations. However, they do highlight the complexity of the human personality. Examples of secondary traits include:
- Getting nervous before giving a public speech
- Getting impatient when waiting in line
- Staying calm under pressure
Genotypes and Phenotypes in Allport’s Personality Theory
Allport claimed that there were many internal and external forces that could influence a person’s thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings may develop into behaviors, which in turn, may become specific actions. Based on the consequences of these actions, Allport believed that an individual’s personality may develop along a specific path.
Allport referred to influential internal forces as genotypes and influential external forces as phenotypes. Genotypes may affect a person's thoughts and emotions at any time. They help the individual to remember information, reason, make decisions, and draw conclusions about the world. In many cases, these internal forces or genotypes are based on the “normality” of the individual’s home environment.
To get a better understanding of genotypes, consider two children named Alex and Becky. Alex was raised in a home that views men as superior to women. Becky was raised in a home that views white people as superior to black people. For Alex, it would be “normal” for men to look down on women; for Becky, it would be “normal” for white people to look down on black people. Although neither viewpoint would be widely accepted in society, it would hardly matter to the children if they remain at home. For them, “normal” would be the beliefs and behaviors that dominate their personality due to their internal forces or genotypes. Consequently, Alex and Becky would continue to make decisions based on what they learned at home unless another force can influence their thoughts and feelings.
What would happen if Alex and Becky are taken from their respective homes and placed in wider society? Based on Allport’s theory, societal forces would be an external influence or phenotype. Alex may learn that there are many areas in which women outperform men and Becky may learn that racial and cultural diversity adds to the strength and beauty of a community. As their thoughts and feelings change, their behaviors and actions may change as well. If these new internal and external forces are strong enough, they may eventually overwhelm the children’s cardinal traits. If the new internal and external forces are too weak, the children will not retain them as time passes.
Allport’s Concept of Functional Autonomy
Allport drew a clear distinction between drives and motives. He linked drives with unconscious behaviors that are commonly associated with childhood. However, he believed that independent motives can develop out of drives as an individual grows older and matures. The idea that a motive can become independent of the original drive and become the reason for a particular behavior is called functional autonomy.
Consider a boy who has a strong need to be around his friends due to feelings of abandonment. This drive will have a significant influence on his behavior and motivate him to seek out his friends. However, as the boy grows older, he may desire to be around his friends, not because he feels abandoned, but because he genuinely cares about them or he enjoys their company. An independent motive has developed from the original drive and now serves as the reason for the boy’s friendly behavior.
Allport’s Scale of Prejudice and Discrimination
In addition to his work on traits, Allport studied and analyzed prejudice. He eventually developed a scale which he believed could measure the amount of prejudice in a particular society. His scale is copied below:
1. Antilocution - The majority group negatively stereotypes and makes ethnic jokes about the minority group. Although these types of verbal remarks may be classified as hate speech, the majority group views them as harmless
2. Avoidance - People in the majority group actively avoid people in the minority group. Although no harm may be intended, there is psychological harm to the minority group due to social isolation.
3. Discrimination - Feelings of prejudice are put into action as the majority group actively tries to harm the minority group. For example, the minority group may be denied services and opportunities related to education and employment.
4. Physical attack - Members of the majority group physically attack members of the minority group and vandalize their property. Attacks may involve lynchings, tarring and feathering, and other forms of violence.
5. Extermination - The majority group tries to eliminate all members or a significant percentage of the minority group through genocide.
Applications of Allport’s Theories
Allport made major contributions to our modern day understanding of personality. He conducted the first literature review of personality in 1921, wrote the first dissertation on personality in 1922, taught one of the first courses on personality in 1924, coauthored one of the first studies on personality in 1928, and authored the first major textbook on personality in 1937. Allport helped his contemporaries to develop an appreciation for the uniqueness of each person and view human nature as more than just a set of innate drives, reflexes, and repressed memories. His theories and research also laid the groundwork for the development of personality psychology.
Criticisms of Allport’s Theories
Although most researchers agree that people have personality traits, there is no consensus on the number of traits that make up an individual’s personality. Another weakness of Allport’s trait theory is that it is not a good predictor of behavior. For example, people who receive a high score for a particular trait may not always display that trait in different situations. Allport’s trait theory also fails to explain how and why people develop different personality traits.
Gordon Allport's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
Allport authored several books on his research. Some of his most impactful pieces are listed below:
- Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, 1937
- The Individual and His Religion, 1950
- The Nature of Prejudice, 1954
- Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality, 1955
- Personality and Social Encounter, 1960
- Pattern and Growth in Personality, 1961
- The Person in Psychology, 1968
Allport also received a number of awards and served in several prestigious roles over the course of his career. Some of his accomplishments include:
- Elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1933)
- Elected as Editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (1937)
- Elected as President of the American Psychological Association (1939)
- Elected as President of the Easter Psychological Association (1943)
- Elected as President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (1944)
- Appointed as a Director of the Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (1947)
- Received the Gold Medal Award from the American Psychological Foundation (1963)
- Received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (1964)
Gordon Allport married Ada Lufkin Gould in 1925. Ada was a respected clinical psychologist and social worker who worked primarily with adolescent girls. Ada often collaborated with Gordon while he was working on individual cases. The couple also traveled together when Gordon had assignments overseas.
In 1929, Gordon and Ada had a son named Robert. The family was close-knit and often visited a rustic farm they purchased in the late 1930s in Camden Hills, Maine. Robert would later pursue a career in pediatrics. He specialized in helping children who were born with significant mental and physical challenges.
Gordon Allport died from lung cancer on October 9, 1967 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was one month away from his 70th birthday. Although Allport may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries, the contributions he made to our modern day understanding of the human personality are unquestionable. His excellent mentorship of some of the most brilliant minds ever to work in the field of psychology is another part of his enduring legacy.
Allport, Gordon Willard. (2018, May 14). In Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/medicine/psychology-and-psychiatry-biographies/gordon-willard-allport
Allport, G. W. (1955). Becoming: Basic considerations for a psychology of personality. Yale University Press.
Gordon Allport. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gordon-W-Allport
Harvard University Department of Psychology. (n.d.). Gordon W. Allport. Retrieved from https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/gordon-w-allport
Hevern, V. W. (2004, April). Gordon W. Allport (1897-1967). Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Retrieved March 26, 2021 from the Le Moyne College Website: