Gordon Allport was born in the 1897 and died in 1967. His father was a doctor and he
was raised in a very pious household in which religion was a very important force.
Religion was always a very important force in Allport’s life. They were Protestants and
they emphasized what is called Protestant Piety. There is a phrase that says, “by your
work shall you know them” which basically refers to good people. His family took it to
heart that they should do good things in life. It was not unusual for the Allport kids to
come home and find that their mother had gone out a picked up two street people,
brought them home, gave them a bath and food and they were sleeping off their drunk in
the living room. The family really believed about doing things to help people and that all
people were of equal worth before God. All port very clearly kept this in his mind all
through his life. He was the longest serving Chair of the Department at Harvard. At one
point there was a faculty meeting and he kept them waiting 45 minutes. When they asked
him why he was late, he said that he had the most wonderful philosophical conversation,
and it turned out that it was with one of the janitors.
He was an extremely bright guy. He won all the spelling bees when he was a kid.
Competitors complained that he had swallowed a dictionary. He felt a little inadequate
because he had an older brother who was in many ways more successful than he was. His
brother was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. He was one of the early
Allport was a very warm and caring person. He was known to take hours talking with
freshmen even though he was the chair of the most prestigious department in the world.
He treated each person as if they were as valuable as anyone else which pissed a lot of
people off who thought they were more valuable than other people.
He taught the first course in Psychology in the United States. He wrote the first textbook
with the word Personality as a title. He is regarded as the father of Modern Personality
Psychology as a study independent from Clinical Psychology.
He taught in Istanbul and he studied in both England and Germany. He had an older
brother who was very much a brilliant physicist so he was very closely connected and
informed about what was going on in the world of physics. Now I talked before about the
Einsteinian revolution and how it was popularized in the culture at large and about the
effect in the intellectual world of Russell and Whitehead. The Particle Physicists were a
little bit different.
The most brilliant star of the Particle Physicists was Nils Bohr and he wrote a
dissertation that was rejected completely by his committee and so he was denied his
degree. He then mailed it to Einstein who said that it was absolutely brilliant, so the
faculty were too embarrassed not to give him his degree after that. Bohr was worried
about sub-atomic particles whereas Einstein was worried about big things like gravity,
space and the universe. Bohr came up with an idea that became connected with the idea
If you have a piece of reactive material, like an ounce of plutonium, and it was put it on
the desk, we would soon all be dead. But other than that, if we tried to predict how much
radiation it would give off we would be able to do so with great accuracy. It is very
predicable how radioactive things are. However, we have absolutely no way; even
theoretically, of predicting which particular atoms within that ounce of plutonium will
essentially break into pieces, some of the pieces then becoming radiation.
His theoretical construction changed into anguish. He said that some things are simply
random. There is no causality at some very deep level in physics. Einstein was outraged
by this idea. He is famous for making the comment; “God does not play at dice with the
universe.” But Bohr’s point of view did become the foundation for modern physics. It is
still the hottest thing. There are a few challenges to it but nothing that has any scientific
The other big name in Particle Physics is Heisenberg. Heisenberg was very frustrated.
He was trying to measure sub-atomic particles and their behavior to determine both the
mass and the direction in which electrons were moving from collision of atomic particles.
He found that he could do both, but he could not do both at the same time because doing
one prevented him from knowing the other one. He actually came up with a principle
called Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, which basically states that you cannot
know everything. Whatever you do to measure or learn or to find out about some thing
will prevent you from knowing something else. So how do you construct a theory in a
world that is relativistic, that is, we know that there is no one point of view that is going
to be it, and that logic is both contradictory and not necessarily connected with the way
that the world works, and the world is in some ways random, and finding out or
predicting or measuring one thing will keep you from knowing other things?
So what kind of theory can you come up with in such a world? What Allport says is that
we have to acknowledge that no model is ever going to be adequate. Individuals are way
too complex to be encapsulated or fully predicted by any way of looking at them.
Positivistic models, things like psychoanalysis and behaviorism, he described as absurd
as is any system that presents itself as comprehensive. There will never be a
comprehensive psychology. What we need to do is to adopt theories that work for what
we are interested in. Just as you have to adopt different strategies to measure different
aspects of sub-atomic particles, when we are studying human beings, we have to do it in a
way that gets us the information that we are interested in. What we have to do is we have
to adopt modifiable models acknowledging that they will not always work.
He also suggested that there was a qualitative difference in studying normal and
abnormal behavior. He said we need to focus on normal people and one of the ways that
psychology has fallen into traps in the past is because that it has been focused on ideas
that come from interacting or thinking about abnormal people. Worrying about abnormal
psychology is like straining at a gnat after having swallowed a camel, the camel being
normal psychology. He said that the truth is that we do not understand normal people and
we are pretending that we can describe abnormality and developed theories from that
when we do not even know what normal people are doing.
Allport disagreed with Murray. He said personality is not just an abstract in the mind of
the observer. Our model of it is, but personality really is there. He asked the rhetorical
question, does Robinson Caruso have personality when he is all alone there on the island?
If you were all alone and nobody was watching would you have personality? Of course
you would! Personality is within the individual. There has to be something in each of us
that constitutes our own true nature. What we are doing in personality is trying to
understand the nature of each individual.
We have got to be careful because studying individuals is different than studying groups.
If we study groups we find out some things that may or may not be applicable to the
individual. If we study individuals, we are very likely to find things that will not be true
of people in general. He is saying that no model is accurate and we have to keep them
apart or separate. One of his students said that human beings are at most 50% predictable,
so in the social sciences the closer you get to 50% is the closer you get to perfection.
We really need to understand individuals in depth. One of the things that you need to
understand is exactly what we mean by personality.
Personality: The dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical
systems that determine his characteristic behavior and thought.
Dynamic means that it is always changing and Allport thought that we are always
changing. So personality today is always a little different than personality yesterday. He
also thought that the present was more important than the past. He is breaking
with Murray and many of the earlier ones. It doesn’t necessarily mean that things are
similar or the same as they were awhile ago. Remember that when we were talking about
research on Attachment we find that with age it has less and less effect. It is the effect
that is people who still seem to be caught in negative patterns from their childhood, are
ones who have negative things going on in their life as adults. So if the pattern continues
than the personality continues in that line. If the pattern changes than the personality
changes so personality is dynamic or always changing. Past personality does not always
well predict present personality. It is within the individual. Personality is something basic
to the individual and it is a psycho-physical system. You have to look at both
psychological and physical aspects. They are not separate.
What personality does is determine characteristic behavior and thought. So it is that
basic nature within us constantly changing both physical and mental which determines
what we usually do and think.
He once said about this, “Personality both is something and does something.” That is it is
a psychophysical system that is always changing and does something or determines what
we do in particular our repetitive or characteristic behavior and thought. He said that if
you want to understand somebody, you have to understand why they do it because two
people can do the same thing, engage in the same act, for radically different reasons.
Example: Why would you help someone push a car that broke down? It could be that
you felt bad for them or that you were trying to show off how strong you were, or
because it was fun to do. The same action can have different motivations so what we
have to do is we have to understand the motivation. You can think of motivations either
on the personal level or on the group level and they are really different things. On the
personal level he talked about Dispositions and on the group level he talked about Traits.
Dispositions: A tendency to act in particular ways. It is both a structure and a process.
Traits: Reasonable ways of comparing people within a given culture in which they are
likely to be different and that difference is meaningful within the culture.
It is important to get the cultural difference here. In one culture it is appropriate for a son
to be violently aggressive with their father. They admire above all else the trait of
aggression. Compare that culture with American culture. We have a trait in American
culture which we talk about which is aggressiveness but it is the same? Would anybody
from the other culture not have the trait of aggressiveness? No, so it doesn’t make sense
to compare them in that way. Can we use the same traits to describe the people? Not very
well, we need a cultural specific set of traits, although between cultures some sets of
traits will work. So the trait is a common behavioral tendency upon which it makes sense
to compare people within a culture. A disposition on the other hand, is something unique
to the individual.
Disposition Definition: A Disposition is a Neuro-psychic structure able to render many
stimuli functionally equivalent and to guide equivalent behavior.
Neuro-Psychic=it is something that is there. It is an organization. It is in both mind and
the physiology of the brain
Render many stimuli functionally equivalent=every experience in life is unique. There
are no repeated experiences, but at the same time we regard many things as equivalent.
So we see a table and if you think about it, if you are looking at the table and someone
else is looking at the table we are really seeing radically different things. That is, the light
that hits our retina would be quite different. But we all agree because we have a way of
understanding things that makes many things seem the same even though the experience
is quite different. This is particularly important in our more complex interactions with the
world. So one of the things that happens is that we interact with human beings and human
beings are all unique and they keep changing each and every one of them, but we tend to
group them together. For instance Leroux is the only one in the room talking and that is a
very strange and unusual social reaction. So why is this happening? We are perceiving
the situation with a particular structure. Leroux’s job is to stand up there and talk to you
about this stuff and you listen because you want to understand and get good grades. So
what happens is that we are seeing this situation as the same as both the general class of
situations and many other ones which we believe to be similar. Every experience is
unique, but we organize them into groups so what a disposition does is that it affects the
grouping that we see. We perceive things in a particular way because of our personal
organization and it guides our behavior so it leads us to act in particular ways. So we
have a neuro-psychic structure a structure in both mind and body that leads us to see the
world in particular ways and to act within the world in particular ways.
He says that everybody has lots of dispositions and we do not know how many. Maybe a
few dozen maybe several dozen, maybe a hundred but most people can be understood
most of the time by understanding their five to ten Central Dispositions. All of us have
some that are more important than others. If you want to understand someone,
understanding their Central dispositions will do a very good job, at least as good of a job
that can be done, at predicting what they are going to do, how they are going to react and
how they are going to understand things.
A few people have a Cardinal Disposition: When the personality is dominated by one
particular disposition, kind of like Ebenezer Scrooge. His Cardinal Disposition was
greed. Captain Ahab’s was to hunt the white whale. You will find people, even though
they are rare, that are like this when one disposition is so important it dominates all the
others. But this is less than one percent of folks. Most of us have Central ones and that
really is the most important things in determining what we do. They are important
because if we have to make a choice between dispositions, we choose to act on these
rather than others. They are also important because they are more frequently called into
play. Some dispositions rarely appear because our situation is such that they are not
important so Central Dispositions tend to dominate others and to be called into play with
great frequency. We need to remember however that dispositions are independent of one
another so people frequently have contradictory dispositions to do A and B.
Secondary Dispositions: Dispositions that are infrequently called into play or tend to be
relatively neglected. It is possible to have a disposition that dominated a situation but
only a rarely occurring situation. The frequency and strength of a disposition are not
necessarily identical. There can be infrequently utilized ones that are very powerful when
the situation calls them into play. They are secondary because they are not as important at
Most people most of the time know why they are doing things. Nobody knows everything
and the more mentally unbalanced someone is the less they understand why they are
doing things. Most people most of the time understand and can consciously say why they
are doing it in the vast majority of cases.
Remember, the unconscious is a theoretical construction. It is not very important to most
of the people most of the time. Worrying about the unconscious is like worrying about
abnormal psychology. Worrying about normal human function is what we need to do
first. When we begin to understand that then we will begin to understand deviations from
Personality development is largely a process of learning. If you look at really little kids,
he called them “unsocialized horrors. Self-love, it is obvious, remains always positive
and active in our nature, my theory holds only that it need not remain dominant” He said
that “the motives of children and adults differ in kind as well as degree.” Adult motives
are different in kind than the motives of very small children. You see a wide break with
Murray, Freud and almost everybody else here. Adult motives are not the same as child
hood motives because what happens is that our motives as adults are ones that we think
up, they are intellectual creations. Whereas childhood motivations are more closely tied
to biology, not that we do not have biological motives, but most of our motives are
because of the way we understand, the way we have learned about ourselves and the
world, not because of our biology.