Gordon Allport: a Founding Father of Personality Psychology

Professor Gordon W. Allport
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Gordon Allport was a pioneering psychologist often referred to as one of the founders of personality psychology. He rejected two of the dominant schools of thought in psychology at the time, psychoanalysis and behaviorism, in favor of his own approach that stressed the importance of individual differences and situational variables.

Today he is perhaps best-remembered for his contributions to the trait theory of personality.

In a review of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, Allport was ranked as the 11th most eminent psychologist.

Early Life

Gordon Allport was born in Montezuma, Indiana, on November 11, 1897. He was the youngest of four brothers and was often described as shy, but also hard-working and studious. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a doctor who instilled in Allport a strong work ethic. During his childhood, his father used the family home to house and treat patients.

Allport operated his own printing business during his teen years and served as the editor of his high school newspaper. In 1915, Allport graduated second in his class and earned a scholarship to Harvard College, where one of his older brothers, Floyd Henry Allport, was working on a Ph.D. in psychology.

After earning his bachelor's degree in philosophy and economics from Harvard in 1919, Allport traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to teach philosophy and economics.

After a year of teaching, he returned to Harvard to finish his studies. Allport earned his Ph.D. in psychology in 1922 under the guidance of Hugo Munsterberg.

Meeting Sigmund Freud

In an essay entitled "Pattern and Growth in Personality," Allport recounted his experience of meeting psychiatrist Sigmund Freud.

In 1922, Allport traveled to Vienna, Austria, to meet the famous psychoanalyst. After entering Freud's office, he sat down nervously and told a story about a young boy he had seen on the train during his travels to Vienna. The boy, Allport explained, was afraid of getting dirty and refused to sit where a dirty-looking man had previously sat. Allport theorized that the child had acquired the behavior from his mother, who appeared to be very domineering.

Freud studied Allport for a moment and then asked, "And was that little boy you?"

Effect on Approach to Psychology

Allport viewed the experience as an attempt by Freud to turn a simple observation into an analysis of Allport's supposed unconscious memory of his own childhood. The experience would later serve as a reminder that psychoanalysis tended to dig too deeply. Behaviorism, on the other hand, Allport believed, did not dig deeply enough. Instead, Allport chose to reject both psychoanalysis and behaviorism and embraced his own unique approach to personality.

At this point in psychology history, behaviorism had become the dominant force in the United States and psychoanalysis remained a powerful influence. Allport's approach to human psychology combined the empirical influence of the behaviorists with the acknowledgment that unconscious influences could also play a role in human behavior.

Career and Theory

Allport began working at Harvard in 1924 and later left to accept a position at Dartmouth. By 1930, he returned to Harvard where he would remain for the rest of his academic career. During his first year at Harvard, he taught what was most likely the first personality psychology class offered in the United States. His work as a teacher also had a profound effect on some of his students, which included Stanley Milgram, Jerome S. Bruner, Leo Postman, Thomas Pettigrew, and Anthony Greenwald.

Trait Theory of Personality

Allport is perhaps best known for his trait theory of personality.

He began developing this theory by going through a dictionary and noting every term he found that described a personality trait. After compiling a list of 4,500 ​different traits, he organized them into three different trait categories, including:

  • Cardinal traits: These are traits that dominate an individual's entire personality. Cardinal traits are thought to be quite rare.
  • Central traits: Common traits that make up our personalities. Traits such as kindness, honesty, and friendliness are all examples of central traits.
  • Secondary traits: These are traits that are only present under certain conditions and circumstances. An example of a secondary trait would be getting nervous before delivering a speech to a large group of people.

Contributions to Psychology

Allport died on October 9, 1967. In addition to his trait theory of personality, he left an indelible mark on psychology. As one of the founding figures of personality psychology, his lasting influence is still felt today. Rather than focusing on the psychoanalytic and behavioral approaches that were popular during his time, Allport instead chose to utilize an eclectic approach.

Selected Publications

Here are some of Allport's works for further reading:

  • Allport GW. Personality: a Psychological Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston; 1937.
  • Allport GW. The Individual and His Religion. New York: McMillan; 1950.
  • Allport GW. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley; 1954.
  • Allport GW. Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1955.
  • Allport GW. Pattern and Growth in Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston; 1961.


Allport GW. Pattern and Growth in Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston; 1961.

Haggbloom SJ, Warnick R, Warnick JE, et al. The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. Review of General Psychology. 2002;6(2):139-152.