Allport, Gordon Willard

views updated May 14 2018


(b. Montezuma, Indiana, 11 November 1897; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 9 October 1967)

psychology, psychology of personality, social psychology.

Known as the “patron saint” of personality psychologists (Eysenck, 1990, p. 3), Allport was a major figure in American “personality” psychology. His 1937 textbook Personality: A Psychological Interpretation is widely viewed as an important landmark in the establishment of “personality” as a legitimate subdiscipline in psychology. Intellectually wide ranging, Allport also wrote extensively on the topic of social psychology, and his work on the history of social psychology, prejudice, and religion were widely cited. A critic of both psychoanalysis and behaviorism, Allport championed an eclectic psychology that would respect the scientific method while simultaneously honoring human potential and individual uniqueness—an approach that contributed to the development of humanistic psychology in the 1960s. Although he never established his own “school” of psychology, Allport exercised considerable influence within the field and in a 1951 survey of clinical psychologists he placed second only to Sigmund Freud as the theorist of most direct value in day-to-day clinical work.

Origins and Education. Allport was born in Montezuma, Indiana, in 1897, the youngest son of John Allport, a physician, and Nellie Wise, a homemaker and temperance activist. The Allports were an extraordinarily hardworking and high-achieving family, and both parents became prominent members of the local community. The family were devout Methodists, and Allport grew up in a world of piety and morally based service. Foreign missionaries were regular visitors in the home, as were members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The Christian, service-oriented temper of the Allport home is evident in Allport’s middle name, Willard. The name was in honor of Frances Willard, a leading advocate of higher education for women and a national president of the WCTU.

For much of Allport’s boyhood, the family home doubled as a hospital, an arrangement that made his physician father’s life (and that of his family) a continuous form of service to others. John Allport boasted of never having taken a vacation, and he demanded a similar devotion to work among his family. This uncompromising work ethic generated some resentment within the family, but it left a lasting imprint on Allport, who in his career as a psychologist became renowned for his productivity and extraordinary devotion to work.

Most of Allport’s youth was spent in Cleveland, Ohio, where the family settled at the turn of the twentieth century. Although Allport respected his father’s work ethic, his mother was the more influential figure. Consciously avoiding outdoor “boyish” pursuits, Allport excelled in school and academically oriented extracurricular activities. At the time of his graduation from high school in 1915, he was second in a class of one hundred, editor of the student newspaper, and the faculty choice to read the commencement address.

At the suggestion of his brother Floyd, Allport enrolled at Harvard University in the fall of 1915. Although he had come to reject the Methodist evangelicism of his youth, Allport retained a keen moral earnestness, and he was drawn to academic fields that echoed the themes of morally based social service that his parents had practiced. The Department of Social Ethics was a particular interest. According to the Harvard social ethicist James Ford, social ethics endeavored to “determine what constitutes goodness” and to study the “adoption of social method to the achievement of moral purpose” (1923, p. 1). Inspired by his social ethics studies, Allport undertook an extensive program of social work as a student, including stints at the Boston Juvenile Court, the Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation, and the YMCA.

As an undergraduate, Allport was intrigued by another field with moral potential: psychology. He was introduced to the topic by the famous German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, but it was Allport’s own brother Floyd who was the more important influence. Seven years older than Gordon, Floyd was a graduate student in psychology at Harvard and Münsterberg’s assistant. Allport regarded Floyd as an inspirational figure and he listened attentively to his brother’s personal advice and scholarly observations on psychological issues. A key question that emerged out of their discussions was to dominate much of Gordon Allport’s subsequent work in psychology: could human nature be completely understood through the methods of natural science? Münsterberg thought not, arguing that there was a “purposive” dimension of human experience that transcended the determinism of natural science and could thus only be examined philosophically. In contrast, Floyd Allport argued that all human experience could be grounded in the physical world and ultimately subject to scientific scrutiny. Floyd had little regard for philosophical discussions and he called for the reworking of psychology “in terms of the behavior complex” (Münsterberg, 1914, p. 300).

Allport graduated from Harvard in 1919, lacking professional direction but with his moral idealism still largely intact. In search of a challenging outlet for his benevolent aspirations, he accepted a position as a missionary and lecturer at Robert College in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. Allport emerged from the experience more worldly and less optimistic about the potential for the moral regeneration of society. “People here [in Turkey] are so hopelessly dishonest, indifferent and fatalistic, that all endeavors seem wasted,” Allport remarked in his diary, “Why should one waste his life in addition to the lives of the wretches who will perish ignominiously in spite of all efforts for their improvement?” (1919–1920, p. 137). Increasingly aware of the limitations of social service, Allport developed a clearer sense of his professional ambitions. Academia was to be his calling, and in 1920 he returned to Harvard as a graduate student in the social ethics and psychology departments.

Before returning to Cambridge, Allport visited Vienna, where he met Sigmund Freud in his famous home, 19 Berggasse. The story of Allport’s meeting with Freud is one of the best-known anecdotes in the history of psychology, and the meeting was a decisive event in Allport’s life as a psychologist. Having some understanding of psychoanalysis from his undergraduate studies, Allport told Freud about something he had seen on the tram: “A small boy about four years of age had displayed a conspicuous dirt phobia. He kept saying to his mother, ‘I don't want to sit there … don't let that dirty man sit beside me.’” Since the boy’s mother was a “well starched Haus-frau” with a “dominant and purposive” look, Allport expected Freud to make a connection between the mother’s manner and the boy’s phobia. However, to Allport’s surprise, Freud interpreted the story as an expression of Allport’s own character. “When I finished my story,” Allport recalled, “Freud fixed his kindly therapeutic eyes upon me and said, ‘And was that little boy you?’” (1967, p. 8).

Freud may have been quite astute in his observation, but in Allport’s mind the interpretation demonstrated a limitation of psychoanalysis. Freud was too anxious to search for a “deep” unconscious motive and thus apt to go astray in his interpretations. Allport came back to this story repeatedly in his later career, and he developed a reputation as a forceful critic of psychoanalysis and a proponent of a psychology that emphasized the human potential to transcend sexual and environmental forces.

Early Career. Allport’s contributions to the psychological study of personality are second to none. Widely revered as one of the subdiscipline’s founders, he has been described as the “chief pioneer in the development of a psychology of personality” (Jennes, 1979, p. 12). His 1921 literature review on the topic was the first of its kind, and his 1922 dissertation is widely viewed as the first psychology dissertation on personality. He taught one of the first courses on personality in 1924, coauthored one of the first psychometric studies of personality (1928), and authored the first major textbook in the field (1937). Despite all these “firsts,” Allport viewed the field he helped establish with considerable unease, and he developed into a forceful critic of methodological approaches and assumptions that he had himself helped initiate. At the heart of Allport’s discomfort lay the still unresolved question about human nature. Was there an aspect of human nature that transcended natural science? In his earliest work as a psychologist, Allport followed his brother Floyd and answered this question with a resounding no, but as his career unfolded he became increasingly convinced that there remained a fundamental and scientifically uncapturable mystery at the heart of human experience. For all his skepticism, Allport remained enamored with the possibility of scientific mastery over personality. Hoping to strike a balance between the ideals of mystery and mastery, Allport advocated both the quantitative measurement of personality and a qualitative reverence for the unique, individual person.

“Personality” was Allport’s first and enduring love in psychology. He came to the topic fresh from his experience in Turkey, where his idealism had been tempered but not completely destroyed. Indeed, the challenges he experienced in Turkey lent force to the central idea of social ethics. Moral enthusiasm alone was not enough to bring about effective change in an increasingly urban, industrial age. Scientifically based tools and systems of understanding were needed if humanity’s prosperity was to be secured. Within this context, psychology—the science of mind and behavior—clearly had an important role to play.

The choice of “personality” as a PhD dissertation topic was grounded in the logic of scientifically informed social service. Titled “An Experimental Study of the Traits of Personality with Application to the Problems of Social Diagnosis” (1922), the dissertation reflected a growing scholarly fascination with the category. In the 1910s, social workers had written extensively of the need to develop a new, more professional sounding discourse. Older categories—most notably “character”—had begun to sound dated and had associations with Victorian moralism and preachiness. In contrast, “personality” sounded fresh, modern, and scientific; it seemed to connote the person as they actually were and not as they appeared through the lens of Christian ethics. The category had a similar appeal in psychiatric, sociological, and legal circles. Within psychology, “personality” had also come to signal the idea of an “objective self.” The famous behaviorist psychologist John Watson used the term personality to refer to an “individual’s total assets and liabilities on the reaction side” (Watson, 1919, p. 417).

Allport’s early approach to “personality” was informed by Watson’s definition and by the ambitions of social workers for scientific instruments that could objectively measure human nature. Personality was envisioned as a product of the interaction between the environment and a set of simple reflexes rooted in the “innate systems of nervous organization” (Allport, 1922, p. 24). For his dissertation, Allport produced an “instrument of individual measurement” that foreshadowed the methodological trajectory of American personality psychology. After experimenting with both electric shock and word-association tests as possible measures of personality, Allport tested and subsequently endorsed what he termed the “method of represented situations” (Allport, 1922, p. 103). In this now familiar technique, participants were asked to respond to a series of questions not by “subjectively worded replies,” but by checking one of several possible answers attached to each question. By the mid-1920s most personality trait tests used a similar paper and pencil procedure.

Two Approaches to “Personality.”. In 1922–1923, Allport undertook a postdoctoral fellowship in Germany that was to have a decisive impact on his thinking. In Germany, he came under the influence of the Hamburg psychologist William Stern, a scholar renowned for his development of the intelligence quotient (IQ) concept. Although much of Stern’s fame rested on his work in quantitative, natural science–oriented psychology, he was in fact a sharp critic of the trend in psychology to limit the study of human nature to the mechanistic language and methods of the natural sciences. Informing Stern’s critique was a distinction between two types of individuality: relational and real. Relational individuality was defined statistically in terms of

deviations from corresponding norms. In contrast, real, or pure individuality referred to a kind of unique, “spiritual” unity that defied scientific capture. According to Stern, psychological measurements of the sort devised by Allport targeted relational individuality, while leaving “real” individuality unaddressed and unappreciated. Stern’s project, known as “personalism,” made the person ontologically fundamental and aimed to show that human experience was characterized by a “synthesizing higher unity. Not a complex of differential forms of psychical phenomena, but a genuine individuality, something indivisibly singular, a personality” (Stern, 1930, p. 348).

“Personalistic” psychology resonated strongly with Allport, and he soon published “The Study of the Undivided Personality,” a paper that highlighted the shortcomings of a psychology based solely on “relational individuality.” In the paper, Allport argued that personality was not the sum of measurable traits, but a “unique quality” that had its “origin in the form in which the traits are combined, and in the manner in which they function together” (1924, p. 132). Allport continued to advance this argument for the remainder of his career, even while continuing his earlier, psychometric study of personality traits.

Allport returned to Harvard in 1924 as an instructor in the Department of Social Ethics. It was here and not in the psychology department that he launched Personality and Social Adjustment, one of the first courses in the United States on personality. In the summer of 1925, Allport married the social worker Ada Gould, and in 1926 the two moved to Dartmouth College, where Allport took up a position in the Department of Psychology. Still interested in the measurement of relational individuality, in 1928 Allport and his brother Floyd published the A-S Reaction Study, a personality scale that measured the traits of ascendance-submission. Allport returned in 1928 to Harvard’s Department of Psychology and Philosophy, where he remained for the rest of his career.

At Harvard, Allport was obliged to operate in a scholarly environment dominated by the kind of mechanistic psychology that he had criticized so forcefully while in Germany. Harvard psychologists such as Edwin G. Boring, Karl Lashley, and Stanley Smith Stevens embraced a hard-nosed empiricism and they regarded Allport’s interest in the qualitative veneration of the unique “real” individual with a suspicion bordering on hostility. Allport’s ability to survive and indeed thrive in this environment is a testament to his people skills as much as it is a tribute to the intellectual force of his arguments. Graceful, diplomatic, and unfailingly courteous, Allport had a talent for befriending people and an ability to fit in. Over the years, these skills helped propel Allport to a number of positions of institutional and disciplinary leadership. In 1936 he was elected to a three-year term on the Council of Directors of the American Psychological Association (APA). He was appointed chair of the Harvard psychology department in 1937, and from 1938 to 1949 he served as editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Rounding out this cavalcade of honors, in 1938 he was elected president of the APA—the first “personality” psychologist ever to hold the office.

The professional success that Allport enjoyed is all the more remarkable given his ongoing commitment to the unique real individual. This interest brought Allport to topics such as Verstehen (intuition; 1929) and graphology (1933)—subjects that lay well outside the domain of mainstream, laboratory psychology. In both of these projects, Allport hoped to follow in the footsteps of Stern by cultivating an appreciation of the “unity and congruence” of the individual person (Allport, 1930, p. 124). Unfortunately for Allport, neither of these interests resonated in a disciplinary environment dominated by positivism and relational individuality. In the 1930s Allport enjoyed greater scholarly success with his psychometrically oriented work. In 1931 he published with Philip E. Vernon A Study of Values: A Scale for the Measuring the Dominant Interests in Personality, a paper-and-pencil test designed to assess an individual’s belief system across six value types. In 1936 Allport and Henry Sebastian Odbert published a study that would ultimately lead to one of the most influential of all the psychometric approaches to personality: the Five Factor Model. Titled “Trait-Names: A Psycho-Lexical Study,” the study was designed to uncover the “underlying structural units of personality” through an analysis of eighteen thousand personality related terms from Webster’s New International Dictionary (Allport, 1937, p. 353).

Allport endeavored to synthesize his scholarly interests in his magnum opus: Personality: A Psychological Interpretation (1937). In this influential text, Allport envisioned the field as the study of both “real” and “relational” individuality. Borrowing a pair of philosophical terms from the German philosopher Wilhelm Windel-band (1848–1915), Allport described personality psychology as both an idiographic and a nomothetic discipline. The idiographic approach, aimed at understanding the unique particulars of an individual case, contrasted with the nomothetic approach, which sought general laws using the procedures of the natural sciences. Though some of Allport’s German mentors believed that these two approaches were antagonistic, Allport saw them as “overlapping and as contributing to one another” (1937, p. 22). The nomothetic search for general laws, he argued, may yield a “law that tells how uniqueness comes about” (p. 558). Allport endeavored to develop such a “law” himself, focusing on the contentious topic of human motivation. Psychoanalysis held that the behavior of adults was rooted in biological needs and early childhood experiences. While acknowledging the importance of these factors, Allport argued that adult motives grew out of earlier systems and eventually became independent of them. Known as the “functional autonomy of motives,” the theory held that adult action was contemporary and not determined by “infantile or archaic” causes. “The life of a tree is continuous with that of its seed, but the seed no longer sustains and nourishes the full grown tree” (p. 194). Described by one pair of commentators as the “best known and most controversial” of Allport concepts (Hall & Lindzey, 1970, p. 269), functional autonomy reflected his religiously inspired belief in the power of the individual personality to become something greater than the sum of its past—a theme that he would later expand on in his book Becoming (1955).

Social and Religious Interests. Although missionary work had tempered Allport’s social idealism, he remained committed to the ideal of scientifically informed social reform. In the 1930s he helped establish the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) and he was chairman of the APA Committee on Displaced Foreign Psychologists, which assisted European psychologists who had been persecuted by the Nazis. During World War II, Allport contributed to the war effort through research on scapegoating, rumors, and prejudice, some of which later appeared in The Psychology of Rumor (1947), coauthored with Leo Joseph Postman. Allport also helped author the “Psychologists Manifesto,” a policy document of humanitarian principles for the postwar world (Murphy, 1945). The most notable reflection of Allport’s commitment to social reform was his 1954 The Nature of Prejudice, a highly influential text, which in its abridged paperback edition became one of the “best selling social psychological books in publishing history” (Pettigrew, 1999, p. 420). Despite the book’s great success, Allport later concluded following a trip to South Africa that his “psychological bias” had led him to “underestimate the forces of history and of traditional social structure” in the development of prejudice (1967, p. 20).

Ever sensitive to current events, Allport’s work on prejudice and indeed his entire approach to psychology was ultimately grounded in a deeply felt religious commitment. A practicing Episcopalian, he brought to psychology an ecumenical concern about the corrosive impact of science and technology on the human condition, and like his mentor Stern he feared that the theories and methods of mechanistic psychology underestimated human potential and individual uniqueness. Sensing a divine presence in his work, Allport confided to his wife that Personality“isn't my book, never have I felt possessive of it. I believe I was appointed by Providence to add a bit of push backward to the rising tide of barbarism and ignorance in psychology” (quoted in Nicholson, 2003, p. 205). Allport’s ongoing spiritual commitments are most apparent in The Individual and His Religion (1950) and in Waiting for the Lord (1978), a posthumously published collection of thirty-three meditations delivered at the Appleton Chapel at Harvard over twenty-nine years.

Allport’s criticisms of mechanistic psychology were influential in the establishment of humanistic psychology in the 1960s. Although he attended the 1962 Old Say-brook conference that helped establish humanistic psychology, Allport was reluctant to take on the label, preferring instead to continue his advocacy for an “open system”—a psychology that was both idiographic and nomothetic. In the postwar period his research interests reflected this duality. Allport continued to revise his nomothetic-type personality while simultaneously working on Letters from Jenny (1965)—a detailed analysis of a “unique life” (1967, p. 21).

Allport died of cancer in 1967. Over the years, his scholarly output and personal charm inspired a number of able students including well-known psychologists such as Stanley Milgram, M. Brewster Smith, and Thomas Petti-grew. Devoted to a humane, socially relevant, and methodologically eclectic psychology, Allport remains an influential figure in modern psychology.



“The Journal of Gordon Allport.” 1919–1920. Unpublished manuscript in possession of Robert Allport.

“Personality and Character.” Psychological Bulletin 18, no. 9 (1921): 441–455.

“An Experimental Study of the Traits of Personality with Application to the Problems of Social Diagnosis.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1922.

“The Study of Undivided Personality.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 19 (1924): 132–141.

With Floyd H. Allport. A-S Reaction Study: A Scale for Measuring Ascendance-Submission in Personality; Manual for Directions, Scoring Values, and Norms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.

“The Study of Personality by the Intuitive Method: An Experiment in Teaching from the Locomotive God.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 24 (1929): 14–27.

“Some Guiding Principles in Understanding Personality.” Family(1930): 124–128.

With Philip E. Vernon. A Study of Values: A Scale for Measuring the Dominant Interests in Personality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

———.Studies in Expressive Movement. New York: Macmillan, 1933.

With Henry S. Odbert. “Trait-Names: A Psycho-Lexical Study.” Psychological Monographs: General and Applied 47, no. 1 (1936): 171–220. Also published as a book: Trait-Names: A Psycho-Lexical Study. Albany, NY: Psychological Review, 1936.

Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Holt, 1937. The textbook that helped establish personality as a subdiscipline of psychology.

The Appeal of Anglican Catholicism to an Average Man. Advent Papers no. 3, pp. 1–19. Boston: Advent Press, 1944.

With Leo Joseph Postman. The Psychology of Rumor. New York: Holt, 1947.

The Individual and His Religion: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Macmillan, 1950.

The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954. Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1955.

Pattern and Growth in Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961. A revision of Allport’s classic 1937 textbook on personality.

Masterson, Jenny Gove, pseud. Letters from Jenny. Edited and interpreted by Gordon W. Allport. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.

“Gordon Allport.” In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 5, edited by Edwin Boring and Gardner Lindzey, 3–25. New York: Appleton Century, 1967.

With Peter Anthony Bertocci. Waiting for the Lord: 33Meditations on God and Man. New York: Macmillan, 1978.


Allport, Floyd. “Behavior and Experiment in Social Psychology.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 14 (1919): 297–306.

Barenbaum, Nicole B. “How Social Was Personality? The Allports’ ‘Connection’ of Social and Personality Psychology.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 36 (2000): 471–487.

———. “Four, Two, or One? Gordon Allport and the Unique Personality.” In Handbook of Psychobiography, edited by William Todd Schultz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Elms, A. “Allport’s Personality and Allport’s Personality.” In FiftyYears of Personality Psychology, edited by Kenneth H. Craik, Robert Hogan, and Raymond N. Wolfe. New York: Plenum, 1993.

Eysenck, Hans. Rebel with a Cause: The Autobiography of Hans Eysenck. London: Allen, 1990.

Ford, James. “Introduction.” In Social Problems and Social Policy, edited by James Ford, 1–7. Boston: Ginn, 1923.

Hall, Calvin S., and Gardner Lindzey. Theories of Personality. New York: Wiley, 1970.

Jennes, A. “Gordon W. Allport.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Biographical Supplement, edited by David Sills, vol. 18. New York: Free Press, 1979.

John, O., and R. Robins. “Gordon Allport: Father and Critic of the Five-Factor Model.” In Fifty Years of Personality Psychology, edited by Kenneth H. Craik, Robert Hogan, and Raymond N. Wolfe, 215–236. New York: Plenum, 1993.

Lamiell, James, and Werner Deutsch. “In the Light of a Star: An Introduction to William Stern’s Critical Personalism.” Theory & Psychology 10 (2000): 715–730.

Lunbeck, Elizabeth. The Psychiatric Persuasion: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Münsterberg, Hugo. Psychology: General and Applied. New York: Appleton, 1914.

Murphy, Gardner. Human Nature and Enduring Peace. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945.

Nicholson, I. “To ‘Correlate Psychology and Social Ethics’: Gordon Allport and the First Course in American Personality Psychology.” Journal of Personality 65 (1997a): 733–742.

———. “Humanistic Psychology and Intellectual Identity: The ‘Open’ System of Gordon Allport.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 37 (1997b): 60–78.

———.Inventing Personality: Gordon Allport and the Science ofSelfhood. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003. A detailed biography of the first half of Allport’s career.

———. “From the Book of Mormon to the Operational Definition: The Existential Project of S. S. Stevens.” In Handbook of Psychobiography, edited by William Todd Schultz, 285–298. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Pettigrew, T. “Gordon Willard Allport: A Tribute.” Journal of Social Issues 55, no. 3 (1999): 415–427.

Schafer, R., I. Berg, and B. McCandless. “Report on Survey of Current Psychological Testing Practices.” Supplement to Newsletter, Division of Clinical & Abnormal Psychology, American Psychological Association 4, no. 5 (1951).

Stern, William. “William Stern.” In A History of Psychology inAutobiography, vol. 1, edited by Carl Murchison, 335–388. New York: Russell & Russell, 1930.

Watson, John B. Psychology from the Standpoint of the Behaviorist. Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1919.

Ian Nicholson

Allport, Gordon Willard

views updated May 08 2018

Gordon Willard Allport

American humanist psychologist who developed a personality theory that emphasized individuality.

Gordon Willard Allport was one of the great personality theorists of the twentieth century. His work was a synthesis of individual personality traits and the traditional psychology of William James , which emphasized psychological traits that are common among humans. He also examined complex social interactions. As a humanistic psychologist, he opposed both behavioral and psychoanalytical theories of psychology. Above all, Allport believed in the uniqueness of the individual. A prolific and gifted writer, he was the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Allport, born in 1897 in Montezuma, Indiana, was the youngest of four sons in the family of John Edwards and Nellie Edith (Wise) Allport. He was educated in Cleveland, Ohio, where the family moved when he was six years old. John Allport was a physician with a clinic in the family home and, as they were growing up, his sons assisted him in his practice. Gordon Allport's mother, a former school teacher, maintained a home environment that emphasized religion and intellectual development. As a teenager, Allport ran his own printing business and edited his high school newspaper. Following graduation in 1915, scholarships enabled him to join his brother Floyd at Harvard College. Although his education was interrupted for military service during the First World War, Allport earned his A.B. degree in 1919, with majors in philosophy and economics. Following a year of teaching English and sociology at Robert College in Istanbul, Turkey, Allport returned to Harvard with a fellowship to study psychology. He was influenced both by his brother Floyd and by the noted experimental psychologist Hugo Münsterberg. He coauthored his first publication, "Personality Traits: Their Classification and Measurement," with his brother in 1921. Allport received his M.A. degree in 1921 and his Ph.D. in 1922, for his study of personality traits under the direction of Herbert S. Langfeld.

A Sheldon Traveling Fellowship enabled Allport to spend two years studying in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, and in Cambridge, England. He then returned to Harvard as an instructor in social ethics from 1924 to 1926. Allport married Ada Lufkin Gould in 1925. Their son, Robert Bradlee Allport, grew up to become a pediatrician. After four years as an assistant professor of psychology at Dartmouth College, Allport returned to Harvard where he remained for the rest of his career. He became an associate professor of psychology in 1937 and a full professor in 1942. He served as chairman of the Psychology Department and helped found Harvard's Department of Social Relations. In 1939 he was elected president of the American Psychological Association and, in 1964, received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of that society. In 1963, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation.

Publishes theory of personality

Allport's first major book, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation (1937), distinguished between traits that are common to many people, such as assertiveness, and personal dispositions which are traits that are characteristic of the individual. The latter were classified according to their degree of influence on an individual personality. Allport also identified how individuals develop self-awareness throughout childhood and adolescence . One of Allport's most important concepts, functional autonomy, encompassed his theories of motivation . Finally, he attempted to define the mature personality. Personality: A Psychological Interpretation remained the standard text on personality theory for many years. In 1961, following years of study and research, Allport published a major revision of this work, Pattern and Growth in Personality. He also helped to develop methods of personality assessment, including the A-S Reaction Study (1928), with his brother Floyd Allport.

Examines the nature of prejudice

Allport was a man of diverse interests. During World War II, as a member of the National Research Council, he began studying the social problem of spreading rumors. In 1947 he published The Psychology of Rumor with Leo Postman. Allport also was concerned with racial and religious prejudice. His 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, was a milestone study. As a visiting consultant at the University of Natal in South Africa in 1956, Allport predicted that the white supremacist cultures of both South Africa and the American South would be overthrown. Like his predecessor William James, Allport also examined the psychology of religion in The Individual and his Religion: A Psychological Interpretation (1950), in which he warned of the prejudices that could be fostered by institutionalized religions.

During his career, Allport published 12 books and more than 200 papers on psychology and held important positions in American and foreign psychological associations. Allport was editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology from 1937 until 1949. Boston University awarded him an honorary L.H.D. degree in 1958. He also held honorary doctorates from Ohio Wesleyan University, Colby College, and the University of Durham in England. He died of lung cancer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1967.

See also Personality development; Prejudice and discrimination; Religion and psychology

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Allport, G. W. "Autobiography." In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, edited by E. Boring and G. Lindzey. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.

Evans, Richard I. Gordon Allport, the Man and his Ideas. New York: Dutton, 1971.

Maddi, Salvatore R. and Paul T. Costa. Humanism in Personalogy: Allport, Maslow, and Murray. Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1972.

Allport, Gordon

views updated May 11 2018

Allport, Gordon 1897-1967


Gordon Willard Allport was a leading personality and social psychologist of the mid-twentieth century. His initial fame came from his central role in establishing the scientific study of personality as a major component of academic psychology. In 1924 he taught at Harvard University what was probably the first personality course in North America. But it was his 1937 volume, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, that firmly grounded the field. Immediately hailed by reviewers as a classic, this unique work offered a counter to the then-rising popularity of Freudian theory. The book legitimized personality as a scientific topic, and shaped the agenda for the study of personality for the ensuing decades.

Allport vigorously advocated an open-system theory of personality with emphases upon individual uniqueness, rationality, proaction, consciousness, and the united nature of personality. He stressed human values, dynamic traits, and the self. He focused more on the mature adult than on the early years of childhood. As such, Allports position was less anti-Freudian than it was a correction to right the balance in the conception of personality. This is illustrated by his proposition that the bulk of human motives and the personal attributes of adult persons become functionally autonomous from their likely developmental roots.

In 1954 Allport published his second classic work: The Nature of Prejudice. It too shaped its field for half a century. This book departed from previous conceptions of prejudice and advanced an array of new insights later supported by research. Two theoretical stances proved especially important. Allport held that intergroup contact under favorable conditions could substantially reduce prejudice and offer a major means of improving intergroup relations. Research throughout the world, as well as such events as the ending of apartheid in South Africa, support the theory. Allport also countered the then-fashionable assumption that group stereotypes were simply the aberrant cognitive distortions of prejudiced personalities. Advancing the view now universally accepted, Allport insisted that the cognitive components of prejudice were natural extensions of normal processes. Stereotypes and prejudice, he concluded, were not aberrant but all too human.

Though known principally as a theorist, Allport also had an active empirical career. In his efforts to forge a broad psychology, he employed a range of methodsfrom the study of personal documents to nomothetic tests and ingenious experiments. His most famous test measured basic values. His influential experiments opened up research on eidetic imagery, expressive movement, radio effects, and rumor.

Critics of Allports personality theory regard it as too static and overly oriented to the sane and mature. Social science critics regard Allports work as too individualistic and detached from social factors. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most cited writers in the social psychological literature.

Allports lasting influence is based on three interwoven features that characterize all his work (Pettigrew 1999). First, he offered a broadly eclectic balance of the many sides of psychology. Second, he repeatedly formulated the disciplines central problems and proposed innovative approaches to them. Typically, his suggested solutions were loosely sketched out and not readily accepted. Years later, however, his ideas often gained acceptance and were expanded with new concepts. Finally, Allports entire body of scholarly work presents a consistent and seamless perspective both forcefully advanced and elegantly written.

SEE ALSO Developmental Psychology; Erikson, Erik; Personality; Prejudice; Self-Esteem; Self-Identity


Allport, Gordon W. 1937. Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Henry Holt.

Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Pettigrew, Thomas F. 1999. Gordon Willard Allport: A Tribute. Journal of Social Issues 55 (3): 415-427.

Thomas F. Pettigrew