Gordon Allport's Personality Theory

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  • 0:00 Personality Traits Defined
  • 1:39 Gordon Allport
  • 2:49 Cardinal Traits
  • 4:29 Central Traits
  • 5:34 Secondary Traits
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Kinder
Learn about Gordon Allport and his impact on psychology. Understand what traits and trait theory are. Explore different types of traits with some real life examples.

Personality Traits Defined

Do you know Jane? Jane rarely has a bad word to say about anyone. When visitors come to her home, a fresh cup of coffee is offered to them as soon as they walk in the door. In conversations, Jane loves to play the devil's advocate and really enjoys debating hot topics. She loves to travel and often does so alone. She's known to find great airline tickets to places in the world she has never been, pack a suitcase, and jump on a plane on short notice. However, if you cross her, she'll give you a look to make you feel sufficiently scolded without saying a word. Despite the fact that you have never personally met Jane, the above description allows you to get to know Jane's personality based on the characteristics she possesses; it gives you information about her personality traits.

According to trait theorists, like Gordon Allport, your personality is made up of the traits you possess. A trait is a personal characteristic we have which stays generally the same overtime and is resistant to changing. Jane has several identifiable traits that relate directly to her personality. She could be described as kind, welcoming, feisty, independent, and adventurous. These traits shape her thoughts, feelings, and the way she behaves on any given day.

So how do we develop the traits that characterize our personalities? At one time, it was thought that personality was either shaped by unconscious (outside of our awareness) motivations, or solely determined by environment. To see personality as a continually-shaped combination of traits the way that we do now was somewhat radical. That change in perspective can be credited to Gordon Allport.

Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport was a highly-regarded and influential American scholar in the field of psychology. Born in 1897, he came from a hard-working family who valued health and education. This translated into Allport's decision to understand human motivation, drives, and personality. After earning his undergraduate degree from Harvard, Allport took a trip that would end up shaping his career and contributions to American psychology; he traveled to Vienna, Austria, and met Sigmund Freud.

After that experience, Allport went back to Harvard to earn his PhD in psychology. Throughout this career, which spanned the first half of the 20th century, he made significant contributions to psychology theory, not the least of which was the development of his ideas on personal traits, which he later called personal dispositions.

According to Allport, these traits are influenced by our childhood experiences, our current environment, and the interaction between the two. In Allport's time, the idea that your personality traits could be shaped by both past and current forces was novel. Allport believed that your personality was made up of three types of traits: cardinal, central, and secondary.

Cardinal Traits

Cardinal traits are characteristics that dominate your personality and strongly influence your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They are so pervasive and defining of your personality that you might have a reputation based on this trait. Cardinal traits are often so strong that they impact or even control other people. Allport believed that not everyone has a cardinal trait and that their existence is relatively rare. Instead, he believed most peoples' personalities are shaped by multiple important traits versus one powerful and all-encompassing one.

Popular historical examples of cardinal traits can be seen in Hitler and Mother Teresa, each clearly possessing opposite cardinal traits of ruthlessness and selflessness. As seen with these examples, cardinal traits clearly and profoundly shape a person's life and their relationships with others. However, cardinal traits can be found in regular people, too.

For instance, everyone at the office knows Mark can't be trusted. Given the opportunity, he will stab you in the back to get ahead. Several times, he has overheard your ideas at lunch and then passed them off to the boss as his own. One time, he intentionally sabotaged your presentation before the CEO just to make you look incompetent and then swooped in with his own presentation to save the pitch. He also sucks up by picking up his boss' dry cleaning and coffee. He tells the boss everything he hears other employees say. Mark is so filled with greed that he will step on anyone to get ahead, even you, and maybe even his own wife and kids. Mark clearly has a cardinal trait that drives the majority of his actions and drives others far away from him.

Central Traits

Central traits are the characteristics that combine to shape most people's personalities. They're much less dominating and pervasive than cardinal traits. These general traits are found in most people but on different levels. For example, we are all either more or less shy or more or less conscientious. Allport believed each person's personality is generally determined by five to ten of these central traits. These traits are somewhat influenced by the environment you are in but tend to be fairly consistent. Central traits are those characteristics that easily come to mind when describing a friend that you have.

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