Chapter 16: Allport: Trait Theory

Part 2: Allport’s Psychology of Personality

As a rule, science regards the individual as a mere bothersome accident.  Psychology, too, ordinarily treats him as something to be brushed aside so the main business of accounting for the uniformity of events can get under way…With the intention of supplementing this abstract portrait by one that is more life-like, a new movement within psychological science has gradually grown up.  It attempts in a variety of ways and from many points of view to depict and account for the manifest individuality of mind. This new movement has come to be known (in America) as the psychology of personality. (pg. vii; Allport, 1937)

With these words, in the preface to Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, Allport “officially” established the study of personality as a discipline in the field of psychology.  His goal was two-fold: (1) to gather together the most important research on personality to date, and (2) to provide a framework within which the study of personality might then proceed toward understanding this “endlessly rich subject-matter” (Allport, 1937).

What is Personality and What Are Traits?

Allport provides an interesting history of the use of the term persona, including a set of definitions written by Cicero (106-43 B.C.): as one appears to others (but not as one really is); the part one plays in life; the collection of personal qualities that fits one’s career (or place in life); and distinction and dignity.  These and other definitions of persona represent a contradiction, that persona, or personality in psychological terms, is both something vital and internal and yet also something external and false. Although psychologists came to favor definitions that emphasized an assemblage of personal qualities, Allport noted that no two psychologists could easily agree on one definition for the term “personality.”  So Allport offered a definition of his own: Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his unique adjustments to his environment. (pg. 48; Allport, 1937)

Dynamic Organization:  According to Allport, personality involves active organization, which is constantly evolving and changing, and which involves motivation and self-regulation.  Thus, it is dynamic, not static. Organization also brings with it the possibility of disorganization, and the resulting abnormalities associated with personality disorders and/or mental illness.

Psychophysical Systems:  The term “psychophysical” is meant to remind us that personality reflects both mind and body; the total organism.  The systems include habits, attitudes, sentiments, and dispositions of various kinds. Most important, however, are the traits, which may be either latent or active.

Determine:  In Allport’s view, “personality is something and does something.”  Personality is not synonymous with behavior, but instead, it underlies it and it comes from within the individual.  The systems mentioned above can be viewed as determining tendencies.

Unique:  Naturally, each adjustment by an individual is unique in time, space, and quality.  However, Allport mentioned this aspect in anticipation of his later discussion of individual vs. common traits (see below).

Adjustments to His Environment:  Personality, according to Allport, is a mode of survival, and it has functional and evolutionary significance.  For humans, we are not simply reactive, as plants and animals are, because we can be spontaneous and creative. We can, and do, seek mastery over our environment (both behavioral and geographic).  Unfortunately, once again, the possibility exists for maladaptive behavior that arises under abnormal conditions (such as an abusive home environment).

In 1961, Allport wrote an updated and substantially revised version of his personality text entitled Pattern and Growth in Personality.  He made only one significant change to his definition of personality, which reflected a greater emphasis on cognitive processes.  He changed the phrase “unique adjustments to his environment” to “characteristic behavior and thought” (pg. 28; Allport, 1961). He described “characteristic” in essentially the same way as he had described “unique” so that change was insignificant.  However, the phrase “behavior and thought” was intended to indicate that individuals do more than simply adjust to their environment; they also reflect on it. Thus, the human intellect is an important factor in the manner in which we seek mastery over our environment and, indeed, over our lives.

So now we turn our attention to traits, those special psychophysical systems that are at the center of Allport’s theory of personality.  In 1936, Allport and Odbert had examined the 1925 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary and identified 17,953 words (4½ percent of the English language) that described aspects of distinctive and personal behavior that would commonly be described as traits (see Allport, 1937).  Allport viewed a trait as both a form of readiness and a determining tendency. There are a number of other concepts that share some similarity with traits, such as habits, attitudes, needs, types, and instincts.  In each case, however, these other forms of readiness to engage in certain responses or activities are different than traits, particularly with regard to their specificity and external focus or, as in the case of types, they describe a collection of correlated attributes.  After describing the differences, Allport arrived at the following definition of a trait:

We are left with a concept of trait as a generalized and focalized neuropsychic system (peculiar to the individual), with the capacity to render many stimuli functionally equivalent, and to initiate and guide consistent (equivalent) forms of adaptive and expressive behavior. (pg. 295; Allport, 1937)

The essential aspect of this definition is equivalence, both perceptually and behaviorally.  As the result of a trait, different stimuli are perceived as similar and therefore responded to in similar ways.  This occurs regardless of the nature of the stimuli themselves. Suppose, for example, an individual is paranoid. If someone walks by and says “Hi, how are you today?” the paranoid individual might wonder “What is that supposed to mean?  Why are they pretending to be so nice? What are they really up to?” As illogical as this response might seem, a paranoid trait has the ability to render even a simple hello as a threat.

This is a color photograph of a man standing outside while talking on his cell phone. He is waving to someone with his right hand, as he holds his phone up to his ear with his left hand. He is wearing a tan jacket and a black top.
Image Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels. Retrieved at Licensed under CCO.

Allport also made an important distinction between individual traits and common traits.  Underlying this discussion was another important topic in Allport’s approach to psychology: the distinction between the idiographic and nomothetic approaches to studying psychology.  As psychologists attempted to define their discipline as a scientific endeavor, they pursued a nomothetic approach, one that emphasizes general rules that apply to all.  However, the psychology of personality that Allport was pursuing is inherently idiographic, an approach that emphasizes individuality. Strictly speaking, no two people can have exactly the same trait.  Thus, all traits are inherently individual traits. However, this creates an extraordinary challenge for psychologists, both experimental psychologists who would measure traits and clinical psychologists who would describe an individual as possessing a certain trait (at some level) in order to provide a framework for communication and therapy.  Allport agreed that is was logical to assume the existence of common traits, since normal people in a given culture would naturally tend to develop comparable modes of adjustment. However, Allport cautioned that developing clinical or experimental measures of such traits would at best be approximations of the individual traits present in each person (Allport, 1937, 1961).

Allport described the persona as something vital and internal, yet external and false.  How can this be? Can you think of different aspects of your personality that fit both perspectives, and if so, how do those aspects of your personality fit together?

Personal Dispositions

Having acknowledged that there is logic to the process of examining common traits as opposed to individual traits, Allport then returned to each individual’s unique personality by addressing personal dispositions.  A personal disposition is based on traits, but somewhat more complex, such as in a unique combination of traits (e.g., someone who is tentatively aggressive, as opposed to someone who is belligerently aggressive).  In another important change between the 1937 and 1961 editions of Allport’s general personality text, the latter book discusses cardinal, central, and secondary dispositions, rather than cardinal, central, and secondary traits.

A cardinal disposition is one that dominates an individual’s entire life.  It cannot remain hidden, and the individual will be known by it.  Historically, some commonly used terms have adopted the reputation of famous figures, including at least one that appears in the DSM-V:  the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (named after Narcissus, from Greek mythology). Another example would be to describe someone as Christ-like.  Personalities that possess one cardinal disposition, however, are quite unusual.

This is a color image of a man kissing his reflection in a mirror. He is wearing a black turtle neck top.
Image Source: geralt. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Much more common are central dispositions.  If you were asked to describe a good friend, you would most likely offer a handful of distinguishable central dispositions.  The interesting question, of course, is how many central dispositions does a typical personal have? Allport suggested that a person’s central dispositions would be those things one would mention in a carefully written letter of recommendation, a response that might make sense to someone like a professor, who often writes such letters.

Of lesser importance, according to Allport, are the secondary dispositions.  Secondary traits are those that are not quite as obvious or as consistent as central traits. They are present under specific circumstances and include preferences and attitudes. For example, one person gets angry when people try to tickle him; another can only sleep on the left side of the bed; and yet another always orders her salad dressing on the side. And you—although not normally an anxious person—feel nervous before making a speech in front of your English class. (Psychology, 2014)

In concluding his discussion of cardinal, central, and secondary dispositions, Allport acknowledged that these gradations are arbitrary, and presented primarily for convenience.  In reality, he said, there are many degrees of personality organization, from the most loosely structured and unstable to the most pervasive and firmly structured. The value of these distinctions is to provide a relative measure of the influence of traits and dispositions when discussing personality.

Personality Development, Functional Autonomy, and the Mature Personality

According to Allport, a newborn infant has no personality, for it has not experienced the world in which it will live and it has had no opportunity to develop its distinctive modes of adjusting to that environment.  According to Allport, personality exists only later, after the common elements of human nature have interacted and produced the unique, self-continuing, and evolving systems that form the individual’s personality. The basic aspects of growth, following the infant’s initial random and diffuse behavior, involve differentiation, integration, maturation, and learning.  As the child’s nervous system develops, it gradually gains finer control over its movement.  Little by little, the young child differentiates more efficient and adaptive patterns of behavior, including vocal behavior.  Psychologically, this differentiation involves more than just behaviors themselves; it also includes the ability to control the initiation of those behaviors.  Very young children have little capacity for delaying their actions; they want to do things now! As the child’s behavioral repertoire increases, it becomes just as necessary and adaptive to begin integrating some of those behaviors into coordinated actions.  Once again, if applied to psychological and cognitive processes, the development of traits and dispositions begins with the integration of life’s experiences.  As these processes are occurring, the child is also maturing physically.  Allport did not view maturation as something that contributed directly to personality, but it does indirectly by bringing out every inherited feature of the individual, including temperament, intellectual capacity, physical features, etc.  All of these factors, plus the extensive contribution of different types of learning, contribute to the manner in which the individual experiences their environment (Allport, 1937).  However, we can never truly know the personality that develops.

As a sense of self develops, these developmental processes of childhood progress through a series of stages:  (1) a sense of bodily self, (2) a sense of continuing identity, (3) a sense of self-esteem or pride, (4) the extension of self, (5) a self-image, (6) a sense of self as rationally able to cope, and finally, in adolescence, (7) a sense of “directedness” or “intentionality.”  Allport described these seven aspects of selfhood as a sense of self-relevance that we feel. When combined, they create the “me” as felt and known. In order to identify this sense of “me” or “I,” Allport recommended the term proprium.  Proprium is derived from the Latin term proprius, and it refers to a property common to the members of some class, but which is not part of the definition of that class.  In other words, everyone has a personality, but no one’s personality is part of the definition of what it means to be a person. But why not simply use the word “self?” Allport felt that many psychologists use the words “self” and “ego” to mean only one or two aspects of the entire proprium.  Also, Allport wanted to distinguish between the self as an object and the self as the “knower” of that object. The proprium refers specifically to the self as an object, whereas self refers both to the object and the “knower.” We can be directly aware of the proprium in a way that we can never be fully aware of the “knower” (Allport, 1961).

As the child matures, both physically and psychologically, the individual’s interests and motives become stable and predictable.  A special type of psychological maturity (as opposed to genetic/biological maturity) takes place, which Allport termed functional autonomy.  Functional autonomy regards adult motives as varied, and as self-sustaining systems that are unique to the individual.  They may have arisen out of developmental processes and experiences, but they are independent of them. This means that any tie between adult motives and early childhood experience is historical, not functional.  This is a radically different view than that of Sigmund Freud and most psychodynamic theorists who considered early childhood experiences to be the driving force behind adult behavior, especially neurotic behavior.  Allport offers the example of a good workman. Such a workman feels compelled to do his best work, even though his income no longer depends on maintaining high standards. Indeed, doing his very best on every job may actually hurt him financially, but his personal standards and his motivation demand nothing less (Allport, 1937, 1961).  When viewed a different way, functional autonomy serves another important motivational role. If one considers early childhood experiences to be the determining factors in personality, then all adult motives must have some infantile source. However, by separating adult motives from their childhood antecedents, then there does not need to be anything childish about what motivates adults.  This allows for entirely new sources of motivation to be relevant during adulthood, motives that might have been completely beyond the intellectual and cognitive capacities of children.

In considering what constitutes a mature personality, Allport considered the writings of Sigmund Freud, Richard Clarke Cabot, Erik Erikson, and Abraham Maslow.  He also considered the length of each man’s list. Allport settled on a list of six ideal characteristics of the mature personality. He described the list as an ideal, because he freely acknowledged that no one is perfect, even the “sturdiest of personalities have their foibles and their regressive moments; and to a large extent they depend on environmental supports for their maturity” (pp. 282-282; Allport, 1961).

Extension of the Sense of Self:  The mature person focuses on more than simple needs or drive-reduction; they develop strong interests outside of themselves.  By truly participating in life, they give direction to their life.

Warm Relating of Self to Others:  The mature person is marked by two kinds of warmth.  On one hand, through self-extension they are capable of great intimacy in their capacity for love, whether it involves family members or friends.  On the other hand, they avoid gossipy, intrusive, or possessive relationships with other people. They respect other persons as persons, they express tolerance and the so-called “democratic character structure.”

Emotional Security (Self-Acceptance):  Mature individuals demonstrate emotional poise; they have the ability to avoid overreacting.  Especially important, according to Allport, is that they possess the quality of “frustration tolerance.”

Realistic Perception, Skills, and Assignments:  Generally speaking, the mature person is in close contact with what we call the “real world.”  They see things, including people, for what they really are.

Self-Objectification – Insight and Humor:  In describing this characteristic, Allport quoted Socrates:  “know thyself.” In Allport’s psychology classes, 96 percent of his students thought they had average or better than average insight (by definition, only 50 percent can be above the average).  So people think they have good insight, but this is often not the case.  There does appear to be a high correlation between insight and humor.  People who truly know themselves are able to look at themselves objectively, and to laugh at their own failings and mistakes.

The Unifying Philosophy of Life:  According to Allport, humor may be essential, but it is never sufficient.  Maturity requires a sense of life’s purpose. This sense of purpose can be found in having a clear direction to one’s life, in a strong orientation to values, within one’s religious sentiment, or through a generic conscience.  Allport found it quite interesting that many people consider their desire to serve society was a more important generic motive than the fulfillment of any sense of religious or spiritual duty. He concluded that an integrated sense of moral obligation can provide a unifying philosophy of life regardless of whether or not it is tied to one’s religious sentiments.

Consider Allport’s definition of a mature personality.  Do you know anyone who fits all of the criteria? What are they like as a person, and do you consider them a friend (or, do they consider you a friend)?

The Assessment of Personality

Personality is so complex a thing that every legitimate method must be employed in its study. (pg. 369; Allport, 1937)

Previously in this text, we examined the common procedures used to assess personality today, and Allport reviewed similar concepts, as well as procedures that were available at the time.  It is interesting to note that, in his 1937 text, the very first topic in Allport’s survey of assessment methods is the importance of evaluating the cultural setting. Two other topics were also of particular interest to Allport: the study of expressive behavior and the use of personal documents.

Allport’s first two books, Studies in Expressive Movement (Allport & Vernon, 1933) and The Psychology of Radio (Cantril & Allport, 1935), both addressed what Allport considered to be the second level at which personality is evaluated (the first level consists of the traits, interests, attitudes, etc., that compose the “inner” personality).  He considered the study of expressive movement to be a more direct analysis of personality since it is based on observation and does not require the use of tests that only indirectly address the inner dispositions revealed in the first level of analysis.  For example, what a patient says or writes while taking the Rorschach test is projective, but how they say or write it, the tone of their voice or the style of their handwriting, is expressive (Allport, 1961).  Perhaps the primary value of expressive behavior is that it is freely emitted by the person being observed.  It can include all aspects of behavior, including walking, talking, handwriting, gesturing, shaking hands, sketching, doodling, etc.  Cantril and Allport examined a variety of curious aspects of radio voices. For example, a natural voice is more revealing of personality than a voice transmitted over the radio.  They also found that blind people are not better at judging personality from voices than other people, perhaps dispelling the common belief that when people lose one sense they enhance their ability to rely on other senses.  Much of what they found was difficult to interpret, however. Voice definitely conveyed accurate measures of personality, but there are no characteristics of personality that are always revealed correctly.  Most people preferred to hear a male voice on the radio, but no one could actually explain why, and there were a variety of differences based on the specific aspects of the message or its content (Cantril & Allport, 1935).  As for handwriting analysis, Allport felt that through careful research, it could become a valid tool for personality analysis. He acknowledged that this was a difficult and complex task, but he concluded that both handwriting and gestures reflect essentially stable and consistent individual styles (Allport & Vernon, 1933).

There are many types of personal documents, including letters, diaries, recorded interviews, and autobiographies.  Perhaps the richest of these sources, personal letters, may well become a thing of the past. Letter writing has become much less formal with the advent of phone calls and email.  Today, text messages don’t even rely on whole words. Politicians often rely on speech writers, so even their written words aren’t necessarily their own. Of greater concern, according to Allport, is that personal documents are not representative samples and they are not objective (Allport, 1942, 1961).  However, if they can still provide insight into the nature of an individual’s personality, then why shouldn’t they be used with caution? Allport had a unique set of letters that had been written over a number of years by a woman, between the ages of 58 and 70, to a young married couple. The young husband had been her son’s college roommate.  Seeing value in the letters as a source of psychological material, the couple made them available for publication, and they came into Allport’s possession to be published. For many years he used the letters to provide examples in his own classes, and eventually Allport published them again, along with his analysis of the woman’s personality, in Letters from Jenny (Allport, 1965).  Of particular interest, is that Allport interpreted the letters in a variety of ways, including existential, Jungian, Adlerian, and Freudian perspectives.  Allport concluded by addressing whether or not Jenny was normal, a point on which some people disagreed. Using his six characteristics of a mature personality, he assigned relatively low scores to Jenny based on her letters, but he also found some strengths within each characteristic.  Thus, although Jenny appears to have been troubled, Allport concludes that it is not a simple matter to say she is normal or abnormal, but “her tangled life has contributed stimulus and challenge to posterity” (pg. 223; Allport, 1965).

Supplemental Materials

Trait Theories of Personality

This video [10:43] begins by introducing Allport’s cardinal, central, and secondary traits, and then goes on to discuss the Big-Five and Cattell’s theory on personality.



Trait Theory

This video [10:00] describes trait theory, focusing on the work of Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, Hans Eysenck, and the Big Five.



Trait Theory Part 1

This video [12:32] provides a brief overview of trait theories, including a discussion on Allport, Cattell, and Eysenck’s theories.  The lecturer describes the difference between cardinal, central, and secondary traits, providing an example of each.



If You Know Nothing About Personality 02: Modern Trait Theory

This video [8:44] briefly explores the work of Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, Hans Eysenck, William Sheldon, Henry Murray, and McCrae and Costa.



Which Personality Traits Matter?

This video [7:09] describes several approaches to narrowing down personality traits into a manageable number of ways of thinking about how people differ.  These include Gordon Allport’s hierarchy of cardinal dispositions, central traits, and secondary traits, the use of factor analysis and Raymond Cattell’s 16PF test for source traits, and Hans Eysenck’s two (and later three) dimensional model of introversion/extraversion and neuroticism (and later psychoticism).



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Psychology.  (2014). OpenStax College.  Retrieved from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Lisa Fosbender.  (2013, March 7). Psychology 101: Trait theories of personality.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Desai, Shreena.  “Trait theory.” Khan Academy.  Retrieved from

East Tennessee State University.  (2014, September 9). Personality: Trait theory part 1.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Ken Tangen.  (2010, January 14).  If you know nothing about personality 02: Modern trait theory.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

PsychExamReview.  (2017, July 27). Which personality traits matter? (Intro psych tutorial #137).  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.