ALLPORT: PSYCHOLOGY OF THE INDIVIDUAL
I. Overview of Allport’s Psychology of the Individual
Allport built his theory of personality as a reaction against both psychoanalysis and animal-based learning theory. He criticized these other theories as neglecting the normal and psychologically healthy individual. However, Allport was eclectic in his approach and borrowed ideas from both psychoanalysis and from learning theory. His major emphasis was on the uniqueness of each individual.
Gordon Allport was born in Indiana in 1897, the youngest son of a country doctor and a former schoolteacher. In 1915, he followed his older brother Floyd (also a famous psychologist) to Harvard, beginning a nearly continuous 50-year association with that university. Allport’s undergraduate degree was in philosophy and economics, but a fortuitous meeting with Sigmund Freud in Vienna helped him decide to complete a Ph.D. in psychology. He then spent two years studying under some of the great German psychologists, but returned to teach at Harvard. After two years, he took a position at Dartmouth, but after four years at Dartmouth, he returned to Harvard, where he remained until his death in 1967.
III. Allport’s Approach to Personality
Allport believed that psychologically healthy humans are motivated by present, mostly conscious drives and that they not only seek to reduce tensions but to establish new tensions. He also believed that people are capable of proactive behavior. The concept of proaction suggests that people can consciously behave in new and creative ways that foster their own change and growth. Allport called his study of the individual morphogenic science and contrasted it with traditional nomothetic methods that study groups of people.
IV. Personality Defined
Allport’s precisely thought-out definition of personality, which remains frequently quoted, states that “personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristic behavior and thought” (Allport, 1961, p. 28).
V. Structure of Personality
According to Allport, the basic units of personality are personal dispositions and the proprium.
A. Personal Dispositions
Allport was careful to distinguish between common traits, which permit inter-individual comparisons, and personal dispositions, which are peculiar to the individual. He argued that one individual’s personal disposition (e.g., aggressiveness) cannot be compared to that of another individual.
1. Levels of Personal Dispositions
Allport recognized three overlapping levels of personal dispositions. The most general are the cardinal dispositions, which are so obvious and dominating that they cannot be hidden from others. Not everyone has a cardinal disposition, but all people have 5 to 10 central dispositions, or characteristics around which their lives revolve. In addition, everyone has a great number of secondary dispositions, which are less reliable and conspicuous than central dispositions.
2. Motivational and Stylistic Dispositions
Allport further divided personal dispositions into motivational and stylistic dispositions. Motivational dispositions are more strongly felt and derive from basic needs and drives. They initiate action. Stylistic dispositions, which refer to the manner in which an individual behaves, guide action.
proprium refers to all those behaviors and characteristics that people regard
as warm and central in their lives. Propriate experiences and possessions are
opposed to those that lie on the periphery of personality. Allport preferred
the term proprium to self or ego because the latter terms could imply an object
or thing within a person that controls behavior, whereas proprium suggests the
To Allport, an adequate theory of motivation must consider the notion that motives change as people mature and also that people are motivated by present drives and wants.
A. Reactive and Proactive Theories of Motivation
insisted that a useful theory of personality rests on the assumption that
people not only react to their environment but also shape their environment and
cause it to react to them. He criticized psychoanalysis and animal-based
learning theories as being reactive because they saw people as being motivated
by needs to reduce tension and to react to their environment. His proactive
approach emphasized that people consciously and purposefully act on their
in a way that fosters growth toward psychological health.
B. Functional Autonomy
Allport’s most distinctive and controversial concept is his theory of functional autonomy, which holds that some (but not all) human motives are functionally independent from the original motive responsible for a particular behavior. Motives that are not functionally autonomous include those that are responsible for reflex actions, basic drives, and pathological behaviors.
1. Perseverative Functional Autonomy
recognized two levels of functional autonomy. Perseverative
functional autonomy is the tendency of certain basic behaviors to continue
in the absence of reinforcement. Addictive behaviors are examples of
perseverative functional autonomy.
2. Propriate Functional Autonomy
The other level is propriate functional autonomy, which refers to self-sustaining motives that are related to the proprium. Examples of propriate functionally autonomous behaviors include pursuing interests that one holds dear and important.
3. Criterion for Functional Autonomy
Present motives are functionally autonomous to the extent that they seek new goals. That is, functionally autonomous behaviors will continue even after the motivation behind those behaviors change.
4. Processes That Are Not Functionally Autonomous
listed eight processes that are not functionally autonomous: (1) biological
drives, (2) motives directly linked to the reduction of basic drives, (3)
(4) constitutional equipment, (5) habits in the process of being formed,
(6) patterns of behavior that require primary reinforcement, (7) sublimations
that are linked to unpleasant childhood experiences, and (8) certain neurotic or pathological symptoms.
C. Conscious and Unconscious Motivation
Allport emphasized conscious motivation more than any other personality
theorist, he did not completely overlook the possible influence of unconscious
motives. Pathological behaviors are often motivated by
unconscious drives, but healthy individuals are ordinarily consciously in
control of their behavior.
VII. The Psychologically Healthy Personality
Years before Maslow identified the characteristics of the self-actualized person, Allport listed his criteria for psychological health. To Allport, the psychologically healthy person would possess six characteristics: (1) an extension of the sense of self, (2) warm relationships with others, (3) emotional security or self-acceptance, (4) a realistic view of the world, (5) insight and humor, and (6) a unifying philosophy of life.
VIII. The Study of the Individual
Allport strongly felt that psychology should develop and use research methods that study the individual rather than groups.
A. Morphogenic Science
Traditional psychology relies on nomothetic science, which seeks general laws from a study of groups of people, but Allport used morphogenic procedures that study patterns of traits within the single case. Allport accepted self-reports, such as diaries, at face value.
B. The Diaries of Marion Taylor
During the late 1930’s, Allport and his wife became acquainted with personal documents, including diaries, of a woman they called Marion Taylor. Although the Allports analyzed much of this information, they never published an account of Marion Taylor’s story.
A short time later, the Allports analyzed and published a series of letters they had received from an older women named Jenny. These letters constitute Allport’s best-known example of morphogenic science in that they reveal one person’s pattern of behavior. Two of Allport’s students, Alfred Baldwin and Jeffrey Paige, used a personal structure analysis and factor analysis, respectively, whereas Allport used a commonsense approach to discern Jenny’s personality structure as revealed by her letters. All three approaches yielded similar results, suggesting that morphogenic studies may be reliable.
IX. Related Research
Allport believed that a deep religious commitment was a mark of a mature person, but he also saw that many regular churchgoers did not have a mature religious orientation and were capable of deep racial and social prejudice. In other words, he saw a curvilinear relationship between church attendance and prejudice.
This insight led Allport to develop and use the Religious Orientation Scale to assess both an intrinsic orientation and an extrinsic orientation toward religion. Allport and Ross (1967) found that people with an extrinsic orientation toward religion tend to be quite prejudiced, whereas those with an intrinsic orientation tend to be low on racial and social prejudice. A review of later studies (Trimble, 1997) found that prejudice is positively related to an extrinsic religious orientation but unrelated to an intrinsic religious orientation.
B. Religious Orientation and Psychological Health
Research by Ralph Hood (1970) and others (Hansen, Vandenberg, & Patterson, 1995; Kosek, 1999; Maltby, 1999) has found that people who score high on the Intrinsic scale of the ROS tend to have overall better personal functioning than those who score high on the Extrinsic scale. In general, these studies have found that some highly religious people have strong psychological health, whereas others suffer from a variety of psychological disorders. The principal difference between the two groups is one of intrinsic or extrinsic religious orientation; that is, people with an intrinsic orientation tend to be psychologically healthy, but those with an extrinsic orientation suffer from poor psychological health.
X. Critique of Allport
Allport wrote eloquently about personality, but his views were based more on philosophical speculation and common sense than on scientific studies. As a consequence, his theory is quite narrow, being limited mostly to a model of human motivation. Thus, it rates low on its ability to organize psychological data and to submit itself to falsification. It rates high on parsimony and internal consistency and about average on its ability to generate research and to help the practitioner.
XI. Concept of Humanity
Allport saw people as thinking, proactive, purposeful beings who are generally aware of what they are doing and why. On the six dimensions for a concept of humanity, Allport rates higher than any other theorist on conscious influences and on the uniqueness of the individual. He rates high on free choice, optimism, and teleology, and about average on social influences.