Chapter 16: Allport: Trait Theory

Part 3: Religion and Prejudice

Allport was a deeply spiritual man, and he often wrote about the role of religion in personality.  Religion is such an important factor in so many people’s lives, that Allport considered it “thoroughly ridiculous” that psychologists had paid so little attention to it (see Evans, 1981b).  Although Allport acknowledged that there were useful and logical reasons for psychology to establish itself as a scientific endeavor, he felt it was just as illogical to reject religion. Allport made neither assumptions nor denials regarding the claims of revealed religion, and he felt that as a scientist he had no right to do so.  Still, he believed that psychology must examine subjective religion in the structure of personality whenever and wherever religion is involved. So he delivered a series of six lectures on religion, and published them as The Individual and His Religion (Allport, 1950).  The book takes a positive perspective on the role of religion.  Allport acknowledged that religion seems primarily symptomatic of fear and frustration in many people’s live, but he preferred to focus on the psychology, not the psychopathology, of religion.  What he found was that the religious sentiment, as it pertains to personality, is as varied and unique as each individual. His findings echoed those of William James, whose own foray into this area of psychology was published in The Varieties of Religious Experience (James, 1902/1987).

The relation between religion and prejudice seems to stem from a dichotomy within religion itself.  There appears to be an intrinsic value and an extrinsic value associated with religion. The extrinsic or outwardly directed attitude, one that the individual uses for their own purposes, is correlated with prejudice, whereas the intrinsic attitude is correlated with very low prejudice (Evans, 1981b).  In focusing on the positive aspects of the intrinsic religious sentiment, Allport suggested that it was attached to the most elusive facets of becoming, enhancing one’s unifying philosophy of life and a sense of direction, intentionality, and good conscience (Allport, 1955). When fully developed, the religious sentiment is distinct from its developmental origins (it has functional autonomy).  In other words, it is not simply the following of family tradition, or the practice of meaningless rituals, but rather it becomes a unique part of the individual. It becomes morally true for the person, as it engages reason, faith, and love. This was particularly true for Allport. From 1938 to 1966, about twice a year, Allport offered a prayerful meditation during the daily prayers in Appleton Chapel at Harvard University (collected in Bertocci, 1978).

Unfortunately, however, there remains the extrinsic attitude toward religion that is correlated with prejudice.  In many ways, religions encourage bigotry, most commonly through doctrines of revelation or election. Revealed truth is not to be tampered with, and certain people are chosen, or cursed, above all others.  However, these attitudes often follow a very selective reading of the religious texts, and even disagree with other writings. Nonetheless, one cannot deny the horrifying impact that religion can have when perverted for purposes of those who wield power.  Allport relates stories such as the Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels declaring that Hitler was the intermediary between the German people and God’s throne, or the member of the Ku Klux Klan (an allegedly Christian organization) who justified killing Black children by saying that when you kill rattlesnakes you don’t care if they are young or old (Allport, 1960, 1968).  Allport described such people as using religion as they would use any social group, for their own purposes: making friends, influencing people, furthering business pursuits, gaining prestige, etc. It becomes exclusionistic so that only the members of the group benefit, not anyone else. However, although this is a common outcome of religious activity, there remains a minority of people for whom this does not occur.  They serve their religion, not the other way around. They have adopted the creeds and doctrines as an important component of their value system, but included within that value system is the doctrine of human brotherhood (see Evans, 1981b). Religion is, of course, only one factor that leads to prejudice and discrimination. Allport studied those factors in great detail in his classic work on prejudice.

Connections Across Cultures:  The Nature of Prejudice

Since Allport was committed to social ethics throughout his life, his classic study on prejudice did not arise suddenly.  During World War II, one of his projects was to study the effects of rumor.  A rumor, according to Allport’s definition, is a specific proposition for belief, passed from person to person, without any secure standards of evidence.  When a rumor follows some event, the information that people report is based on memory. Important aspects of those memories are often false, and they are false in conjunction with negative stereotypes.  Interestingly, this is much less likely to occur with children, who often fail to identify the racial aspects of scenes they have observed (at least in a research setting). Rumors are particularly dangerous when they incite riots, and Allport and Postman wrote that “no riot ever occurs without rumors to incite, accompany, and intensify the violence” (pg. 193; Allport & Postman, 1947).  In 1943 there were major riots in Harlem and Detroit, in which negative racial rumors played an important role. In Detroit, in particular, according to Allport, if the authorities had listened to the rumors the violence might have been avoided.

The following year, Allport taught a course on minority group problems to the police captains for the city of Boston, Massachusetts.  In 1947 he repeated the course for police officers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One year later, he presented some of his material in a Freedom Pamphlet entitled ABC’s of Scapegoating (Allport, 1948).  This pamphlet later grew (rather dramatically, from 36 pages to 537 pages) into his book The Nature of Prejudice, which was published in 1954 (Allport, 1979).  Despite this preparation, the challenge of a major study on prejudice was still daunting.  The problem of the causes of prejudice was so large that it took Allport several years to work out the table of contents, which ended up being eight pages long, including sections on preferential thinking, group differences, perceiving and thinking about group differences, sociocultural factors, acquiring prejudice, the dynamics of prejudice, character structure, and reducing group tensions.

Despite being over 500 pages long, The Nature of Prejudice is concise.  In part, this indicates the magnitude of the problem of prejudice, and also makes it extremely difficult to summarize the book.  Allport begins by asking “What is the problem?” He describes five levels at which people act on prejudice. Most people will only talk about their prejudice with like-minded friends.  If the prejudice is strong, they may actively avoid members of another group, and then they may discriminate against them, engaging in detrimental activities toward the disliked group. More extreme prejudice may actually lead to physical attacks, and ultimately, to extermination, such as lynchings or genocide.  Is this behavior to be expected? According to Allport, the essential ingredients of prejudice, erroneous generalization and hostility, are natural and common capacities of the human mind. What is necessary, however, is the formation of in-groups and the rejection of out-groups. We form in-groups naturally as we develop; we learn to like the things we are familiar with.  This does not require hostility toward out-groups, but it is an unfortunate reality that many people define their loyalty to the in-group in terms of rejecting the values and customs of the out-group. For those people, rejecting the out-group becomes a powerful need.

Although many differences exist between groups, why has race been emphasized?  The answer is, in part, disturbingly simple: we can see race. In addition, most people don’t know the difference between race and ethnic group, or race and social caste.  Thus, it is simply easier to identify out-groups on the basis of race. Making matters worse, of course, is the reality that we can’t even define race that well. Allport discusses research that has suggested as many as thirty different human races or types, yet most of us think in terms of three basic races:  White, Black, and Asian (more recently the number would be four, including Hispanics). Discriminating against one “race,” such as Blacks in America, without even beginning to understand individual character (i.e., personality) or other aspects of culture, such as religion, customs, or national character (which can also be quite complex), is simply an ignorant act.  Yet a point that Allport returns to, as an explanation regarding how natural it is to be prejudice, is that people who are different seem strange, and strangeness is something that makes most people uncomfortable, and it may actually be aversive to many people.

Unfortunately, the victimization of minority groups can enhance the differences and discomfort that exist between groups.  As Allport noted:

Ask yourself what would happen to your own personality if you heard it said over and over again that you were lazy, a simple child of nature, expected to steal, and had inferior blood.  Suppose this opinion were forced on you by the majority of your fellow-citizens. And suppose nothing that you could do would change this opinion – because you happen to have black skin. (pg. 142; Allport, 1979)

Minorities can become obsessively concerned about everything they do and everywhere they go in public.  They develop a basic feeling of insecurity. The simplest response to prejudice is to deny one’s membership in the minority group.  For example, some very light-skinned Blacks have passed as White people. But this can lead to great personal conflict, and the feeling that one is a traitor.  Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, had to fight against prejudice within the Black community itself against those Blacks whose skin was viewed as too light.  Oppressed minority group members might also become withdrawn, passive, or they might act like clowns, trying to make fun of their circumstances. Worse, they may identify with the majority group, leading to self-hate and acting out against members of their own group.  Of course, there are those who will also fight back aggressively, such as Huey Newton and the members of the Black Panthers.

How might we begin to combat prejudice?  Allport discussed an interesting study that addressed the sociological theory of contact between groups.  During the Detroit riots of 1943, both Black and White students at Wayne University (which later became Wayne State University), attended class peacefully during what became known as Bloody Monday.  It has been suggested that when groups of humans meet they go through a four-stage process: contact itself, followed by competition, then accommodation, and finally assimilation. Thus, the initial contact naturally leads to a peaceful progression of the inter-group relationship.  While this is not always the case, there are many examples where it has been. But, it cannot occur without the initial contact. Thus, encouraging contact between groups is an important step in combating prejudice. Allport notes, however, that it is important for the contact to be of equal status and to be in the pursuit of common goals.

Allport also addressed the issue of using legislation to fight prejudice.  Unfortunately, as he points out, laws can only have an indirect effect on personal prejudice.  They cannot affect one’s thoughts and feelings; they can only influence behavior. However, it is also known that behavior can influence one’s thoughts, opinions, and attitudes.  Thus, Allport encourages the continued use of legislation as a significant method for reducing public discrimination and personal prejudice. More important, however, is the need to take positive action toward reducing prejudice, including the use of intercultural education.

In a fascinating study published one year after The Nature of Prejudice, Gillespie & Allport presented the results of a study entitled Youth’s Outlook on the Future (Gillespie & Allport, 1955).  What made the study remarkable was that it included students from the United States, New Zealand, South Africa (both Black and White students), Egypt, Mexico, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Israel.  Included among the questions was the issue of racial equality, whether students desired greater racial equality and whether they expected greater racial equality. A large majority of college students reported that they desired greater racial equality, ranging from 83 to 99 percent.  The notable exceptions were Germany (65 percent), and English speaking South Africans (75 percent) and Afrikaners in South Africa (14 percent – this was during Apartheid). As for the expectation that there would be greater racial equality in the future, students in most of the countries studied said yes between 67 to 73 percent of the time, with notable exceptions being Black South Africans (57 percent), Japanese (53 percent), and Mexicans (87 percent).  Thus, most college students around the world (in 1955) desired racial equality, but a significant portion of them did not expect to see it in the future. Considering the state of the world today, we are far from learning the final outcome of this crucial social issue.

If it were possible to achieve a world in which people were not prejudice, what attitude should replace it?  This question was recently addressed by Whitley and Kite (2006), and they identify the two most commonly raised options: color-blindness and multiculturalism.  The color-blind perspective suggests that people should ignore race and ethnicity, acting as if they simply don’t exist, whereas the multicultural perspective considers ethnic/racial identity as cognitively inescapable and fundamental to self-concept.  Color-blind proponents argue that as long as race is an issue, there will be some forms of discrimination.  Multicultural proponents argue in favor or retaining one’s cultural heritage, thus preserving integrity, while also encouraging group interaction and harmonious coexistence.  Does one approach appear to be more effective at reducing prejudice? To date, the evidence favors the multicultural approach. Whitley and Kite suggest that reducing prejudice is most likely to occur as a result of individuals both changing their own attitudes and working to help others change their attitudes as well.  It is important to reflect on one’s own thoughts and behaviors, and to help others become aware of their attitudes and behaviors. In addition, it is important to learn more about other groups, and to actively participate in inter-group contact (Whitley & Kite, 2006). In other words, multiculturalism works best when it actually exists; people need to associate with people of other races, religions, and cultures.  Only then can ignorance, as in simply not knowing about other people and their cultural differences, be replaced by knowledge and acceptance.

When Allport published his study on prejudice, it was important that the topic was even being addressed.  Today, it is more common to examine the nature of cultural differences and to pursue positive aspects of the value of multicultural settings.  A number of recent studies have emphasized various aspects of the differences between people from various cultures, the importance of not feeling so different, and how interactions between groups can prove valuable.  For example, the Chinese tend to anticipate change more readily than Americans, they predict greater levels of change when it begins, and they consider those who predict change to be wise (Ji, Nisbett, & Su, 2001). Asian Americans, South Koreans, and Russians are more likely than Americans to adopt avoidance goals, but the adoption of those goals is not a negative predictor of subjective well-being in those collectivist cultures, as it is in individualistic cultures (Elliot et al., 2001).  The Japanese appear to be subject to cognitive dissonance effects in a “free” choice paradigm, but only in the presence of important others. Americans, in contrast, are less affected by social-cue manipulations in a “free” choice situation (Kitayama et al., 2004). Although social stereotyping typically results in an over-generalized tendency to include people in groups, under certain circumstances it can also lead to excluding certain individuals from their apparent in-group (Biernat, 2003).  Particularly for young people, in-group connection is very important. Low-income, high risk African American and Latino teens who do not “look” like other members of their in-group are at a much higher risk for dropping out of school, but the ability to fit in has a protective effect (Oyserman et al., 2006). Even when significant contact between groups does occur, it may only reduce certain aspects of prejudice, and may do so only for the minority group (as opposed to any change in the majority group; Henry & Hardin, 2006).  So how can contact between different cultural groups begin to reduce prejudice and discrimination in such a complex issue? It has been shown that when college students are placed in racially diverse groups, they actually engage in more complex thinking, and they credited minority members with adding to the novelty of their discussions (Antonio et al., 2004). Perhaps most importantly, multiculturalism can also foster the development of a character strength described by Fowers and Davidov (2006) as openness to the other.

However, multiculturalism is not without its challenges.  Working in diverse teams can lead to social divisions, increasing the likelihood of negative performance teams.  Accordingly, it is essential to examine the types of diversity that come into play, since some favor and exploit a wider variety of perspectives and skills, whereas others more readily lead to conflict and division (Kravitz, 2005; Mannix & Neale, 2005).  Within the field of psychology, a discipline actively encouraging the growth of minority group membership, there has been a lag in successfully moving students beyond the bachelor’s degree to the doctoral level (Maton et al., 2006). The challenges faced by minority graduate students and faculty are, not surprisingly, as diverse as the individuals themselves (see Vasquez et al., 2006).  Thus, we have a long way to go in understanding and overcoming prejudice and discrimination. However, within a framework first established in detail by Allport, our examination and understanding of the major issues is rapidly growing.

Are you prejudiced?  Now that you have probably answered no, think again.  Are there times, or situations, where you find yourself having thoughts that make you uncomfortable when you stop to really think about them?  What do you think is more important, eliminating prejudice, or enacting laws against discrimination?

Supplemental Materials

An Introduction to Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice

This video [3:30] briefly explains the key ideas from Allport’s, The Nature of Prejudice.



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

Macat.  (2015, May 19).  An introduction to Gordon Allport’s the Nature of Prejudice-A macat psychology analysis.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality 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.