Allport: Psychology of the Individual

  1. Overview of Allport’s Psychology of the Individual

As a 22-year-old student, Gordon Allport had a short but pertinent visit with Freud in Vienna, a meeting that changed Allport’s life and altered the course of personality psychology in the United States.  In Allport’s mature theory, his major emphasis was on the uniqueness of each individual.  Allport built a theory of personality as a reaction against what he regarded as the non-humanistic positions of both psychoanalysis and animal-based learning theory.  However, Allport was eclectic in his approach and accepted many of the ideas of other theorists.

  1. Biography of Gordon Allport

Gordon W. Allport was born in Indiana in 1897.  He received an undergraduate degree in philosophy and economics from Harvard.   After receiving a PhD from Harvard, Allport spent 2 years studying under some of the great German psychologists, but he returned to teach at Harvard.  Two years later he took a position at Dartmouth, but after 4 years at Dartmouth, he returned to Harvard, where he remained until his death in 1967.

III.    Allport’s Approach to Personality Theory

Answers to three questions reveal Allport’s view of personality theory. (1) What is personality?  What is the role of conscious motivation?  (3) What are the characteristics of the psychologically healthy person?

  1. What Is Personality?

Allport defined personality as “the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine [the person’s] behavior and thought.”  This definition includes both physical and psychological properties and both stability and flexibility.  Also, personality not only is something but it does something; that is, it includes both behavior and thinking.

  1. What is the Role of Conscious Motivation?

More than any other personality theorist, Allport recognized the importance of conscious motivation.  His emphasis of conscious motivation probably began with his short-lived discussion with Freud, when Allport had not yet selected a career in psychology.  Rather than viewing Freud’s comments as an expression of an unconscious motive, Allport believed that Freud missed the point of Allport’s story.  Whereas Freud would attribute an unconscious desire in the story of the young boy on the tram car, Allport saw the story as an expression of a conscious motive.

  1. What Are the Characteristics of a Healthy Person?

Several years before Maslow conceptualized the self-actualizing personality, Allport listed six criteria for psychological health.  These include  (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.

  1. Structure of Personality

To Allport, the most important structures of personality are those that permit description of the individual in terms of individual characteristics, and he called these individual structures personal dispositions.

  1. Personal Dispositions

Allport distinguished between common traits, which permit inter-individual comparisons, and personal dispositions, which are peculiar to the individual.  He recognized three overlapping levels of personal dispositions, the most general of which are cardinal dispositions that are so obvious and dominating that they can not be hidden from other people.  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 less conspicuous than central traits.

  1. Motivational and Stylistic Dispositions

Allport further divided personal dispositions into (1) motivational dispositions, which are strong enough to initiate action and (2) stylistic dispositions, which refer to the manner in which an individual behaves and which guide rather than initiate action.

  1. Proprium

The proprium refers to all those behaviors and characteristics that people regard as warm and central in their lives. Allport preferred the term proprium over self or ego, because the latter terms could imply an object or thing within a person that controls behavior, whereas proprium suggests the core of one’s personhood.

  1. Motivation

Allport insisted that 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.

  1. A Theory of Motivation

To Allport, people not only react to their environment, but they also shape their environment and cause it to react to them.  His proactive approach emphasized the idea that people often seek additional tension and that they purposefully act on their environment in a way that fosters growth toward psychological health.

  1. 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. Allport recognized two levels of functional autonomy: (1) perseverative functional autonomy, which is the tendency of certain basic behaviors (such as addictive behaviors) to perseverate or continue in the absence of reinforcement: and (2) propriate functional autonomy, which refers to self-sustaining motives (such as interests) that are related to the proprium.  According to Allport, a behavior is functionally autonomous to the extent that it seeks new goals, as when a need (eating) turns into an interest (cooking).  Not all behaviors are functionally autonomous, and Allport listed eight such processes: (1) biological drives, such as eating, breathing, and sleeping; (2) motives directly linked to the reduction of basic drives; (3) reflex actions such as an eye blink; (4) constitutional equipment such as physique, intelligence, and temperament; (5) habits in the process of being formed; (6) patterns of behavior that require primary reinforcement; (7) sublimations that can be tied to childhood sexual desires, and (8) some neurotic or pathological symptoms.

  1. The Study of the Individual

Allport strongly felt that psychologists should develop and use research methods that study the individual rather than groups.

  1. Morphogenic Science

Allport favored morphogenic procedures over nomothetic ones.  Morphogenic investigations study only one person at a time person and are opposed to nomothetic methods that study large numbers of people.  Presently, nearly all psychology studies investigate groups of people. Allport’s two most famous morphogenic reports were the diaries of Marion Taylor and the letters from Jenny.

  1. The Diaries of Marion Taylor

In the late 1930’s, Allport and his wife became acquainted with diaries written by a woman they called Marion Taylor.  These diaries, along with descriptions on Marion Taylor by her mother, younger sister, favorite teacher, friends, and a neighbor provided the Allports with a large quantity of material that could be studied using morphogenic methods.  However, the Allports never published this material.

  1. Letters From Jenny

Even though Allport never published data from Marion Taylor’s dairies, he did publish a second case study—that of Jenny Gove Masterson, whose son had been Gordon Allport’s college roommate.  During the last 11 1/2 years of her life, Jenny wrote a series of 301 letters to Gordon and Ada Allport (although Allport tried to hide the identity of the young couple who had received these letters). Two of Gordon Allport’s students, Alfred Baldwin and Jeffrey Paige, used a personal structure analysis and factor analysis respectively, while Allport used a common-sense approach to discern Jenny’s personality structure as revealed by her letters.  All three approaches yielded similar results, suggesting that morphogenic studies can be reliable.

VII.   Related Research

Allport believed that a deep religious commitment was a mark of a mature person, but he also saw that many regular church-goers 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. That is, people who score high on the Intrinsic scale of the Religious Orientation Scale (ROS) tend to have overall better personal functioning than those who score high on the Extrinsic scale.  Early studies found that some highly religious people had high levels of psychological health, whereas others suffered from a variety of psychological disorders.  The principal difference between the two church-going groups is one of intrinsic versus 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.

  1. The Religious Orientation Scale

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 Michael 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.

  1. Religion, Prayer, and Health

Recent research has fond a consistent relationship between religious involvement and health.  Attending church regularly tends to be associated with feeling better and living longer (Powell, Shahabi, & Thoresen, 2003).  Kevin Masters and his colleagues (2005) studied religious orientation and cardiovascular health.  They found that, as they predicted, those with an intrinsic religious orientation did not have the same increases of blood pressure in reaction to moderate stress as those with an extrinsic orientation did.  These results demonstrated that an intrinsic religious orientation serves as a buffer against the stressors of everyday life.  Timothy Smith and colleagues (2003) reviewed all the research on religion and depression to see whether religion could also serve as a buffer against depression.  Their findings generally supported Allport’s view that there are good and bad ways to be religious:  The more intrinsically oriented toward religion a person is, the less likely the person is to experience depression; the more extrinsically oriented, the more likely a person is to be depressed.  The conclusion is that while religion can be good for one’s health, it is important to be religious for the right reasons in order to derive health benefits.

  1.   Prejudice Reduction: Optimal Contact

Allport conducted some research himself on the topic of reducing prejudice, and he proposed the contact hypothesis, stating that more contact under optimal conditions was one of the most important components to reducing prejudice (Allport, 1954).  Thomas Pettigrew, one of Allport’s students, has continued the work on prejudice that Allport began (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005).  Pettigrew and Linda Tropp reviewed more than 500 studies testing Allport’s contact hypothesis.  They found that the four specific criteria originally outlined by Allport are indeed essential to reduction of prejudice.  They also found that while the concept of optimal contact was originally a way to reduce racial prejudice, it also works to reduce prejudice toward the elderly and the mentally ill (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).  While Allport’s ideas continue to enrich research in personality psychology, his methods for prejudice reduction additionally have enriched the lives of people who have benefited, perhaps without knowing it, from his deep commitment to reducing prejudice in our society.

VIII.  Critique of Allport

Allport wrote eloquently about personality, but his views are based more on philosophical speculation and common sense than on scientific studies. As a consequence, his theory rates low on its ability to organize psychological data and to be falsified.  It rates high on parsimony and internal consistency and about average on its ability to generate research and to help the practitioner.

  1. 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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s