Gordon W. Allport
Personality Trait Theory
Research on Predjudice and Discrimination
Gordon Willard Allport spent nearly his entire academic career at Harvard, completing both his bachelor’s degree and his PhD at the university, and serving as a faculty member from 1930 – 1967.
Allport pioneered research on human personality. At a time when behaviorism held sway in psychology departments in the U.S., and psychoanalytic approaches dominated elsewhere, Allport championed an empirical methodology that considered the influences of current context and conscious motivations, without dismissing the possible contribution of unconscious memories and/or mechanisms to human thought and behavior.
“My plea … is that we avoid authoritarianism, that we keep psychology from becoming a cult from which original and daring inquiry is ruled out by the application of one-sided tests of method; that we come to evaluate our science rather by its success in enhancing … our powers of predicting, understanding, and controlling human action. As an aid to progress I have tried especially to strengthen the case for research upon complex patterns of human mental organization, frames of reference, the subject's point of view, and the act of understanding.” Gordon W. Allport, 1939 APA Presidential Address
Allport created a highly influential three-tiered hierarchy of personality traits, consisting of:
Cardinal traits: Rare, but strongly deterministic of behavior.
Central traits: Present to varying degrees in all people. Central traits influence, but do not determine, an individual’s behavior.
Secondary traits: Also present in all individuals and can influence behavior, but secondary traits are strongly dependent upon immediate context, such that they are not apparent in all situations.
Allport also conducted seminal research into the psychological underpinnings of prejudice and discrimination. In 1954 he published The Nature of Prejudice, based on his research. The book was widely read and cited, not only by other psychologists but also by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. It is still in print today.
Allport was a well-regarded teacher, who shaped the thinking of numerous students, including Jerome Bruner and Stanley Milgram. The influence of Allport’s research is broad and long-lived; he is ranked at number 11 on the American Psychological Association’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.
Allport, G.W. (1979). The Nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
Allport, G.W. (1940). The psychologist’s frame of reference. Presidential address delivered at the Forty-seventh Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Berkeley, California, September 7, 1939.
Eminent psychologists of the 20th century. (July/August, 2002). Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), p.29.
Nicholson, I. (2003). Inventing personality: Gordon Allport and the science of selfhood. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association