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Gordon Willard Allport (November 11, 1897 - October 9, 1967) was an American psychologist. He was born in Montezuma, Indiana, the youngest of four brothers. One of his older brothers, Floyd Henry Allport, was an important and influential psychologist as well. Gordon W. Allport was a long time and influential member of the faculty at Harvard University from 1930 to 1967. His works include Becoming, Pattern and Growth in Personality, The Individual and his Religion, and perhaps his most influential book The Nature of Prejudice.
Allport was one of the first psychologists to focus on the study of the personality, and is often referred to as one of the fathers of personality psychology. He rejected both a psychoanalytic approach to personality, which he thought often went too deep, and a behavioral approach, which he thought often did not go deep enough. He emphasized the uniqueness of each individual, and the importance of the present context, as opposed to past history, for understanding the personality.
Allport had a profound and lasting influence on the field of psychology, even though his work is cited much less often than other well known figures. Part of his influence stemmed from his knack for attacking and broadly conceptualizing important and interesting topics (e.g. rumor, prejudice, religion, traits). Part of his influence was a result of the deep and lasting impression he made on his students during his long teaching career, many of whom went on to have important psychological careers. Among his many students were: Anthony Greenwald, Stanley Milgram, Leo Postman, Thomas Pettigrew, and M. Brewster Smith.
Visit with Freud
Allport told the story in his autobiographical essay in Pattern and Growth in Personality of his visit as a young, recent college graduate to the already famous Dr. Sigmund Freud in Vienna. To break the ice upon meeting Freud, Allport recounted how he had met a boy on the train on the way to Vienna who was afraid of getting dirty. He refused to sit down near anyone dirty, despite his mother's reassurances. Allport suggested that perhaps the boy had learned this dirt phobia from his mother, a very neat and apparently rather domineering type. After studying Allport for a minute, Freud asked, "And was that little boy you?"
Allport experienced Freud's attempt to reduce this small bit of observed interaction to some unconscious episode from his own remote childhood as dismissive of his current motivations, intentions and experience. It served as a reminder that psychoanalysis tends to dig too deeply into both the past and the unconscious, overlooking in the process the often more important conscious and immediate aspects of experience. While Allport never denied that unconscious and historical variables might have a role to play in human psychology (particularly in the immature and disordered) his own work would always emphasize conscious motivations and current context.
Allport's trait theory
Allport is known as a "trait" psychologist. One of his early projects was to go through the dictionary and locate every term that he thought could describe a person. From this, he developed a list of 3000 trait like words. He organized these into three levels of traits.
- Cardinal trait - This is the trait that dominates and shapes a person's behavior. These are rare as most people lack a single theme that shapes their lives.
- Central trait - This is a general characteristic found in some degree in every person. These are the basic building blocks that shape most of our behavior although they are not as overwhelming as cardinal traits. An example of a central trait would be honesty.
- Secondary trait - These are characteristics seen only in certain circumstances. They must be included to provide a complete picture of human complexity.
Allport was one of the first researchers to draw a distinction between Motive and Drive.
He formulated that a drive formed as a reaction to a motive may out-grow the motive as a reason. The drive then is autonomous and distinct from the motive, whether it is instinct or any other. Allport gives the example of a man who seeks to perfect his task or craft. His reasons may be a sense of inferiority engrained in his childhood but his dilligence in his work and the motive it acquires later on is a need to excel in his chosen profession. In the words of Allport, the theory "It avoids the absurdity of regarding the energy of life now, in the present, as somehow consisting of early archaic forms (instincts, prepotent reflexes, or the never-changing Id). Learning brings new systems of interests into existence just as it does new abilities and skills. At each stage of development these interests are always contemporary; whatever drives, drives now."
Gordon W. Allport's book 'The Nature of Prejudice'.
Psychology of religion
In his book The Individual and His Religion (1950), Allport illustrates how people may use religion in different ways. He makes a distinction between Mature religion and Immature religion. Mature religious sentiment is how Allport characterised the person whose approach to religion is dynamic, open-minded, and able to maintain links between inconsistencies. In contrast, immature religion is self-serving and generally represents the negative stereotypes that people have about religion. More recently, this distinction has been encapsulated in the terms "intrinsic religion", referring to a genuine, heartfelt devout faith, and "extrinsic religion", referring to a more utilitarian use of religion as a means to an end, such as church attendance to gain social status. These dimensions of religion were measured on the Religious Orientation Scale of Allport and Ross (1967)
- Allport, Gordon: Pattern and Growth in Personality; Harcourt College Pub., ISBN 0-03-010810-1
Matlin, MW., (1995) Psychology. Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.