Personality Psychology PSY 405
GORDON ALLPORT: A TRAIT THEORY OF PERSONALITY
1- Biographical Sketch
2- What is personality?
3- Criteria for Adequate Personality Theory
4- Allport's Concept of Traits
5- Kinds of Traits
(An Eight Stage Developmental Sequence That Starts at Birth and Goes To Adulthood)
7- FUNCTIONAL AUTONOMY
8-APPLICATION: THE STUDY OF VALUES
A trait is a predisposition or way to respond in a manner to various kinds of stimuli.
A trait is what accounts for the more permanent, enduring features of our behavior.
"Generalized action tendencies".
The "Traits" of Traits
A trait has more than nominal existence.
A trait is more generalized than a habit.
A trait is dynamic or at least determinative in behavior.
A trait's existence may be established empirically.
A trait is not synonymous with moral or social judgment:
Despite the fact that many traits (e.g.,
sincerity, loyalty, greed) are subject to conventional social judgment, they still represent true traits of
personality. Ideally, one would first discover traits as they exist in a given individual and then seek neutral,
devaluated words to identify them.
A trait may be viewed in light of either the personality that contains it or its
distribution in the
population at large: Take autoeroticism as an illustration. Like any other trait, it has both unique and
universal aspects. When viewed uniquely, autoeroticism could be studied in terms of the role it plays in a
given individual's personality.
Personality Psychology PSY 405
Acts or even habits that are inconsistent with a trait are not proof of the nonexistence of the trait:
As an illustration, consider Eve Smith who is characteristically neat in terms of her personal
appearance; with never a hair out of place and her attire impeccable, she indubitably possesses the trait
of neatness. But one would never know this by examining her desk, room, or car. Her personal
belongings in each case are carelessly arranged, cluttered, and downright sloppy. Why the apparent
Types of Traits: Pervasiveness within a Personality
1- Cardinal Traits:
If a trait is extremely pervasive, so pervasive that almost all a person's activities can be traced to its
influence, it is a cardinal trait in Allport's system. This highly generalized disposition cannot remain
hidden unless, of course, it happens to be something like exclusiveness, in which case its possessor might
become a hermit, whose traits were known to no one. In other instances, however, this kind of master
sentiment or ruling passion makes its possessor famous or infamous. Allport insisted that very few people
possess a cardinal trait.
The meaning of a cardinal trait may be readily grasped by considering the many trait adjectives derived
from historical and fictional characters, e.g., when someone is referred to as being a chauvinist,
Machiavellian, Don Juan, Scrooge, or Joan of Arc. Or consider that Albert Schweitzer was said to have had
one cardinal disposition in his life-"reverence for every living organism." Similarly, Leo Tolstoy was said
to have been endowed with a burning passion for the "oversimplification of life."
2 Central Traits:
Less pervasive but still quite generalized characteristics of the individual are what Allport termed central
traits- the so-called building blocks of personality. These traits might best be regarded as those attributes
which would be stressed in writing a carefully defined letter of recommendation, e.g., outgoing,
sentimental, attentive, sociable, or vivacious. Specifically, central traits are those tendencies that a person
often expresses that people around him can readily discern. In a rather hypothetical manner, Allport asked:
"How many central traits does the average individual possess?" He approached this question by asking
ninety-three students "to think of some one individual of your own sex whom you know well" and "to
describe him or her by writing words, phrases, or sentences that express fairly well what seem to you to be
the essential characteristics of this person" (1 961,p.366).
3- Secondary Traits:
Dispositions which are less conspicuous, less generalized, less consistent, and thus less relevant to the
definition of a personality are called secondary traits. Food preferences, specific attitudes, and other
situationally determined characteristics of the person would be classified under this rubric. Consider, for
instance, a person whose central traits are dominance and assertiveness, which he manifests in practically
every interpersonal encounter. This person might also have as a secondary trait submissiveness, which he
displays only in relation to police who dutifully stop him for speeding, running red lights, and ignoring
stop signs ("Yes, officer," "No, officer," "You're right officer, etc.).
Common versus Individual Traits
Allport also distinguished between common and individual traits. The former, common traits (also called
dimensional or nomothetic traits) includes any generalized disposition to which most people within a given
culture can be reasonably compared. We might say, for example, that some people are more assertive than
others or that some people are more polite than others. The logic for assuming the existence of common
traits is that members of a given culture are subject to similar evolutionary and social influences; therefore,
they develop roughly comparable modes of adjustment. Examples include proficiency in the use of
language, political and/ or social attitudes, value orientations, anxiety, and conformity. The majority of
people within our culture could be measurably compared with one another on these common dimensions.
The proprium: a real self?
No personologist, least of all Allport, believes that personality is a mere bundle of unrelated traits.
Personality embodies a unity, consistency, and integration of traits. It is therefore reasonable to suppose
Personality Psychology PSY 405
that there is an overall principle that unifies traits, attitudes, values, motives, and experiences. For Allport,
the problem of identifying and describing the nature of personality integration requires an all inclusive
construct such as the self, ego, or style of life. Formerly, in less scientific days, people called it a soul. But
all these terms had accumulated too many ambiguous connotations and semantic ambiguities for Allport's
taste. So he introduced a new term-the proprium.
Allport's humanistic orientation to personality is nowhere more clearly revealed than in his concept of
proprium, defined as "the self-as-known- that which is experienced as warm and central, as of importance"
(I 968a, p. 4) It's the "me" part of subjective experience. It's selfhood.
1- The Sense of Bodily Self: A sense of one's own body, including bodily sensations, attests to
one's existence and therefore remains a lifelong anchor for self awareness.
2- The Sense of Self-Identity: The second aspect of the proprium to unfold self-identity, is most
evident when, through language, the child recognizes himself or herself as a distinct and constant
point of reference. Unquestionably, the most important anchorage for one's self-identity is one's
own name, e.g., "That's Tommy (me) in the mirror." Clothing, toys, and other precious possessions
also strengthen this sense of identity, but identity is not firmly established all at once. For
"instance, a 2-year-old may be unaware that he is cold, feels tired, or needs to eliminate. Fantasy
and reality are often blurred and the former often dominates play life.
3- The Sense of Self-Esteem or Pride: Essentially, self-esteem is an individual's evaluation of
herself or himself. The urge to want to do everything for oneself and take all the credit is one of the
most conspicuous aspects of a 2-year-old's behavior. Parents frequently consider this the age of
negativism, since the child resists almost any adult proposal as a threat to integrity and autonomy.
Later, by the age of 4 or 5, self-esteem acquires a competitive flavor, reflected by the child's
delighted "I beat you!" when she or he wins a game.
4- The Sense of Self-Extension: From approximately 4 to 6 years of age, the proprium is
elaborated through self-extension, that is, the sense that although other people and things are not
inside my physical body, they are still very much a part of me-they are "mine." With it comes
jealous possessiveness, e.g., "This is my ball," "I own the doll house." My mommy, my sister, my
dog, my house are regarded as warm parts of oneself and are to be guarded against loss, especially
against takeover by another child. Later, we extend our loyalties to our families, our churches, and
our nation; we can also become preoccupied with material possessions in this respect.
5- The Self-Image: How others view "me" is another aspect of selfhood that emerges during
childhood. Now is the time when the child realizes that parents expect him or her to be "good"
while at times he or she is "naughty." As yet, however, the child has no clearly developed
conscience, nor any image of how she or he would like to be as an adult. Allport writes: "In
childhood the capacity to think of oneself as one is, as one wants to be, and as one ought to be is
merely germinal" (1961, p. 123).
6- The Sense of Self as a Rational Coper: Between 6 and 12 years of age, the child begins to fully
realize that he or she has the rational capacity to find solutions to life's problems and thereby cope
effectively with reality demands. Reflective and formal thought appear, and the child begins to
think about thinking. But the child does not yet trust himself or herself to be an independent moral
agent, but rather dogmatically believes that his or her family, religion, and peer group are right;
this stage of propriate development reflects intense moral and social conformity.
7- Propriate Striving: Allport believed that the core problem for the adolescent is the selection of
an occupation or other life goal. The adolescent knows that the future must follow a plan and, in
this sense, her or his selfhood assumes a dimension entirely lacking in childhood (Allport, 1961).
Pursuing long range goals, having a sense of directedness and intentionality in striving for defined
objectives, imparting to life a sense of purpose- this is the essence of Propriate striving, although it
may be quite elementary in the adolescent.
7- Functional Autonomy: The Past is Past
Basic to Allport's trait theory is the underlying idea that personality is a dynamic (motivated) growing
Personality Psychology PSY 405
system. In fact, Allport held that "any theory of personality pivots upon its analysis of the nature of
motivation (1961, p. 196).
Allport proposed that an adequate theory of human motivation must meet four requirements. First, it must
recognize the contemporaneity of motives. While knowledge about a person's past helps to reveal the
present course of her or his life, Allport believed that such historical facts are useless unless they can be
shown to be dynamically active in the present. In his words, "Past motives explain nothing unless they are
also present motives" (1961, p. 220). Thus, It is the current state of the individual- not what happened
during toilet training or weaning- that is central.
Second, it must be a pluralistic theory, allowing for motives of many types. Many theorists, hoping to
unravel the complex nature of human motivation, have suggested that all motives are reducible to one type,
e.g., a few basic drives, the unconscious, or self-actualization. Being a true eclectic, Allport felt that there is
some truth in all these formulations of motivation, adding, "Motives are so diverse in type that we find it
difficult to discover the common denominator" (1961, p. 221). This, many motivational concepts must be
used if we are to understand motivation. Third, such a theory must ascribe dynamic force to the individual's
cognitive processes, especially to the individual's long-range intentions and plans. For Allport, the most
significant question one can as a person in order to understand his or her personality is "What do you want
to be doing five years from now?" or "what are you trying to do with your life?" An adequate theory of
motivation must therefore address itself to what sort of future a person IS trying to bring about. And fourth,
the theory must allow for the concrete uniqueness of motives. In contrast to theorists who assume a
schedule of motives common to all, Allport insisted that the study of motivation must focus on how
motives function m unique ways m the individual organism.
In contrast to the "circular-feedback" processes that characterize perseverative autonomy, propriate
functional autonomy refers to the individual's acquired interests, values, attitudes, and intentions. Propriate
autonomy, essential to the integration of adult personality, significantly contributes to the person's striving
for a congruent self-image and an enriching style of life. It is what impels an individual to respond to life's
challenges, resulting in the attainment of progressively higher levels of authentic maturity and growth.
Once again, Allport proposed a concept that is a precursor of much of contemporary humanistic thinking
about human nature. For example, propriate autonomy clearly suggests that we need not be constantly
rewarded (reinforced) to sustain our efforts:
Application: The Study of Values
Allport stressed that a mature person needs a unifying philosophy of life to make sense of his or her
existence. An individual's philosophy is founded upon values basic convictions about what is and is not of
real importance in life. Believing that a person's efforts to find order and meaning in his or her existence are
governed by values, Allport worked hard to identify and measure basic value dimensions. The success of
his effort is evident in the well-known personality test that he helped significantly to develop-the Study of
Values-which was originally published in 1931 and is currently in its third edition (Allport, Vernon, and
Lindzey, 1960). Within the context of trait theory, this instrument illustrates Allport's ability to dissect an
enormously complex component of personality (values) into empirically measurable terms.
Following are Spranger's basic value types, as depicted in the Study of Values manual (Allport, Vernon, and
1- The Theoretical:
The theoretical person is primarily concerned with the discovery of truth. He or she assumes a "cognitive"
attitude in pursuing this objective, seeking only to observe and to reason. In doing so, the theoretical
individual searches for fundamental identities and differences, rejecting any considerations of beauty or
2- The Economic:
The economic individual places highest value upon what is useful. He or she is thoroughly "practical" and
conforms closely to the stereotype of the successful American businessperson. Rooted originally in the
satisfaction of bodily needs (self-preservation), the economic value gradually extends to the everyday
Personality Psychology PSY 405
affairs of the business world-the production, marketing, and consumption of goods, the elaboration of
credit, and the accumulation of tangible wealth. The economic person is interested in making money.
3- The Aesthetic:
The aesthetic person places highest value on form and harmony. Judging each single experience from the
standpoint of grace, symmetry, or fitness, he or she perceives life as a procession of events, with each
individual impression enjoyed for its own sake. Such an individual need not be a creative artist but is
aesthetic to the degree that his or her chief interest is in the artistic episodes of life.
4- The Social:
The highest value of the social type is love of people. Since the Study of Values focuses only upon the
altruistic or philanthropic aspects of love (as opposed, for example, to conjugal or familial love), social
persons prize others as ends and are themselves kind, sympathetic, and unselfish. Such a person is likely to
experience the theoretical, economic, and aesthetic attitudes as cold and inhuman, regarding love as the
only suitable form of human relationship. In its purest form, the social attitude is selfless and is closely
related to the religious value.
5- The Political:
The dominant interest of the political individual is power. Vocational activities of this type of person are
not necessarily confined to the realm of politics, since leaders in any field generally place a high value on
power. Because competition and struggle are inherent in all life, many philosophers have argued that power
is the most universal and fundamental human motive. In fact, some of the early writings of Alfred Adler, as
you may recall, reflect this point of view. However, for Spranger there are clear individual differences in
the power value. For certain personalities, direct expression of this motive overrides all others in that they
yearn for personal power, influence, and renown above all else.
6- The Religious:
Religious individuals place their highest value upon unity. Fundamentally mystical, they seek to understand
and experience the world as a unified whole. Spranger describes the religious person as one who is
permanently oriented toward the creation of the highest and absolutely satisfying value experience. There
are, however, different modes of seeking this level of experience. For instance, some religious persons are
"immanent mystics," i.e., individuals who find religious meaning in the affirmation and active participation
in life, while others are "transcendental mystics," striving to unite themselves with a higher reality by
withdrawing from life, e.g., monks. Regardless of the particular type of expression, the religious person
basically seeks unity and higher meaning in the cosmos.
1- Gordon Allport's trait theory represents a blend of humanistic and personalistic approaches to the study
of human behavior.
2- Allport regarded the trait as the most valid unit of analysis for understanding and studying personality.
In his system, traits are predispositions to respond in an equivalent manner to various kinds of stimuli. In
short, traits account for a person's behavioral consistency over time and across situations. They may be
classified under one of three headings- cardinal, central, or secondary - according to their degree of
pervasiveness within a personality.
3- The overall construct that unifies traits and provides direction for the person's life is termed the
proprium. This concept essentially refers to the "self-as-known," including all aspects of personality that
contribute to an inward sense of unity.
4- Another of Allport's personality concepts, his best-known and most controversial, is that of functional
autonomy. This principle asserts that adult motives are not related to the earlier experiences in which
appeared. Allport further distinguished between preservative functional autonomy (reverberatory, or
feedback, mechanism in the nervous system, and Propriate functional autonomy (the latter allows for the
development of the truly mature person.
Personality Psychology PSY 405
5- One useful application of Allport's theory, the Study of Values, is a self-report personality test. Based
upon Spranger's value types, it assesses the relative strength of each of six basic values in the individual's
life: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, and religious. Persons can be characterized by their
dominant value orientation or by their particular patterns of values.
Example we have used this scale extensively with students and the values of aesthetic, economic are there
in females while social and political are there in males.
1-Allport's profound disagreements with the psychoanalytic and behavioral concepts of human nature are
clearly evident in his basic assumptions.
2-While trait theory has stimulated almost no research to date in support of its core constructs, Allport
himself made some interesting empirical contributions to the Personality literature.
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