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Allport’s Theory of Traits

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    This paper reviews Gordon Allport’s theory of traits as well as two of his studies, “Personality Traits”, 1921 and “Letters from Jenny”, 1966. His theory, which is based more on his view of human nature than on research, distinguishes between common traits and individual traits, with emphasis on the individual traits. The two studies illustrate how Allport applies the theory in his research. Finally the paper concludes that although Allport’s trait theory only capture parts of the concept of personality, credit should be given due to the fact that the theory is an early attempt to describe and measure personality.

    Gordon W. Allport (1897–1967) was the first psychologists who gave thorough thought to the concepts of traits. He developed his own trait theory and he continued to view the trait as the most appropriate way of describing and studying personality. He is, by many, actually considered to be the first psychologist dealing with personality at all and was the first to offer a class in this field at Harvard University in 1924 (Schultz, 1976; Pervin & John, 1997). Throughout his life, Allport continued to develop and work with his trait theory and he inspired many other psychologists who also adopted this approach to personality or developed their own trait theory (e.g. Eysenck, McClelland). The aim of this paper is to review Allport’s trait theory as described in his own published material supplemented by comments from other scholars. The paper’s focus is on the theory of traits and Allport’s view of personality. Although much literature has been published on the concept of personality traits, seen from other perspectives, this will not be dealt with. Allport’s other aspects of personality psychology will only be mentioned briefly or in connection to his trait theory. Allport’s View of Personality

    In order to understand Allport’s theory of traits, it is important to know how he approached psychology and in particular the issue of personality. In many ways, his views were opposite from the ones of the psychoanalysts but they were also very different from the behaviourists. Allport viewed psychology as the study of the healthy person. He believed, in contrast to for example the psychoanalysts, that studying the healthy personality is much different and incompatible with that of the pathological personality (Schultz, 1976). Another basic approach he takes, is that of the individual human as unique. Each person is different from the other and should therefore be studied accordingly. Individuals can still be compared but Allport’s understanding of psychology goes beyond just comparison. He emphasises this individuality in virtually all aspects of his psychology, another

    Another radical view of Allport is one regarding the dynamics within the individual. He referred to this as functional autonomy. This aspect of his psychology is probably where Allport differs most from other psychologists of his time, especially psycho-analysts like Freud and Jung but also behaviourists like Skinner (Chaplin & Krawiec, 1968). Allport believes that motivation occurs independent of past experiences. It is the present motives such as interests, attitudes and life style that govern a person’s behaviour. He stresses the close relationship between motives and cognitive processes and argues that all motives are a combination of these. This way the individual’s “cognitive style” is affected by the individual’s self-perception and only indirectly affected by his/her past. We shall later see how the trait theory relates to this concept of motivational autonomy. Keeping these basic approaches in mind, Allport’s theory of traits seems a natural part of his description of personality. We shall now see how he explained traits as the core of personality. Allport’s Theory of Traits

    Allport defines a 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 behaviour” (Allport, 1937, p.295). First one notices that Allport describes a trait as a neuropsychic system. He firmly believes that traits are real and exist within the person. Allport does not mean that a trait is what we today would call genetic, although he does regard some traits as “hereditary” (Pervin & John, 1997). He means that the traits make behaviour consistent and that a trait is still there even if there is no one around to see it. In his book “Personality – A psychological interpretation” from 1937, Allport uses the example of Robinson Crusoe and asks the provocative question: “Did Robinson Crusoe lack traits before the advent of Friday?” (Allport, 1937, p. 289). Still traits can be evoked by a certain social situation. This issue will also be dealt with when discussing the inter-dependence of traits. Second, traits guide the person’s behaviour, and also in this way make the behaviour

    Common and Individual Traits

    The theory is however, more than a definition. When elaborating on his
    definition, Allport explains how every person’s traits are unique to the individual. He gives the example of aggressiveness. Two people can both possess this trait but because of their “different developmental history and the never-repeated external influences that determine each personality” (Allport, 1937, p. 297), their style and range of aggressiveness will always be different. Allport then continues to distinguish between common and individual traits.

    Common traits are traits that are shared among many persons within a culture. They are measurable on a scale; meaning person A can have more of one trait than person B (Cartwright, 1974). Although Allport does not consider the common traits as “true” traits, it is important to be able to measure traits and compare individuals, and Allport therefore prefers to keep the common trait as an important factor of personality.

    Individual traits, which he later in his career also refers to as personal dispositions, are traits unique to the individual in the sense that each trait only describes few people. Allport uses the example of paranoia. Only a few individuals can be said to possess this trait but in the few that do, the trait may be “the very core of their personality” (Allport, 1937, p. 302). Individual traits are difficult to measure because they are often rare, but Allport defends the concept of personal dispositions as one way of studying the uniqueness of the person. Since he does not believe psychology is just about comparing individuals, Allport still sees this kind of trait as one that can be studied and analysed. In one sense, Allport argues, referring to the example of aggressiveness above, all traits are individual. But in order to be able to measure and compare, the common trait is useful and it is therefore necessary to consider this as well.

    In order to describe the concept of trait, Allport compares it to the concepts of habit and attitude. A habit can function as a trait but a trait is not always a habit. He also explains how a habit can become a trait later in life using the example of the young child brushing his teeth. At first it seems like a habit, but later, as the habit persists, the child can be said to possess personal cleanliness as a trait. Allport explains that a trait is a “fusion of habit and endowment rather than a colligation or chain of habits alone” (Allport 1937, p. 293). The transformation of habit to trait is simply when the motivation shifts from simple conditioned responses to a sheer liking of the activity as motivation. Then “the trait has become autonomous” (Allport, 1937, p. 293). A trait can also function as an attitude. Just like an attitude can guide behaviour, so can a trait. Allport argues that the two concepts are very similar but that they differ in three ways. First, an attitude always refers to something either material or conceptual and is therefore more specific than traits. Second, traits are often more general attitudes towards many similar things. Where traits are a more widely extended attitude, an attitude can still be situational. Third, attitudes are usually favourable or unfavourable towards something, a characteristic that a trait not necessarily possesses. Allport stresses that it is important to distinguish the two concepts and keep them separate even when the two are overlapping.

    Cardinal, Central and Secondary traits

    Allport reasoned that some traits have less significance to a person than others do. He therefore divided traits into three levels. He referred to them as cardinal, central and secondary traits. A cardinal trait is one so pervasive that most of the person’s behaviour and activities can be traced to this particular trait. Only few people possess a cardinal trait but for the ones who do, this trait may be the ruling of their personality. Central traits are easily detected characteristics within a person, traits that all people have a certain number of, five to ten on average according to Allport (Schultz, 1976). These traits are the ones to measure and compare and he emphasises the central traits throughout his theory.

    Although Allport strives to name all the traits, he does not believe they exist independent of each other within the person. He regards them as highly inter-connected and often related. No trait works alone and which one is “triggered” depends highly on the situation. Allport also argues that guilt-behaviour and feelings of ambivalence might sometimes be due to two contradictory traits. He uses the argument of everybody having these feelings as support for the fact that one trait may be dominant in one situation and another in another situation (Allport, 1937). In order for the individual to connect the traits and make them work together, Allport talks about the concept of the proprium. This is the integrating mind that other psychologists refer to as for example the “self”, “ego” and “style of life” (Chaplin & Krawiec, 1968). This is where the person’s motives, experiences and traits work together and create his/her sense of identity. This is also why some traits are referred to as propriate traits. These are the traits that the individual considers important to his/her own sense of identity (Allport, 1955).Allport believes that traits can be found and measured by both experimentation and observation. Talking about experimentation, he says that “whenever diverse tasks set in the laboratory are responded to in uniform ways, whenever many stimuli and many responses are found to be equivalent, a trait is safely inferred” (Allport, 1937, p. 315). According to observation, Allport is of the opinion that a certain accumulation of observation also gives a good inference of a trait, for example in regards to children. Another way to discover traits is the statistically based test. Allport argues that if certain behaviour or responses are positively correlated with another behaviour or response, the test

    Allport’s theory of traits is not based on empirical research per se. Reviewing his writings it seems more likely that the theory is based on a believe regarding human nature. When arguing for the trait as the most valid concept for the description of personality, Allport continuously reasons that we in our everyday lives use characteristics/traits to describe other people. This factor is often neglected in scientific research and in his opinion does not get the attention and credit that it deserves within psychology (Allport, 1937).

    Allport did conduct research in order to put names and concepts to all these traits. It was his firm belief that even if an individual possesses a trait that is indescribable, it does not mean that the trait is not there. It simply means that language is lacking the proper term. Allport then collected, together with Odbert, a complete list of 17,953 terms that could each describe a trait. Allport admits that naming traits is a very complex task that requires a serious approach. However, naming traits is one thing, identifying them is another.

    Allport published little research to support his theory. Most of his research utilised his approach and the rest of his published literature discussed or defended his theory (as well as his other approaches and concepts of personality). However, his first publication is interesting for more than one reason. Written together with Allport’s older brother Floyd Allport, who was a social psychologist, it accounts for Allport’s initial thoughts regarding traits. It also measures 55 college students on a number of central traits. The two authors conclude, on the basis of this investigation, that these traits are indeed measurable in most, if not all, individuals. Last the paper is a historical document because it is the first publication that considers traits to be a considerate part of personality
    (Pervin & John, 1997). It should be noted that Allport re-evaluated his theory all through his life and the theory described previously, was not published before 1937.

    Allport and Allport’s aim is first of all to study and describe personality. The paper conducts a mini-study where a number of male students rate each other and themselves. The authors then compare these ratings to see if a consistency actually exists. They claim that the criterion of personality is to be found in social interaction, an important viewpoint to remember when they later use three close associates’ ratings as the measure of the individuals “true” personality (as opposed to the individual’s self-rating). According to Allport and Allport, many aspects of personality do not surface before the person interacts with others.

    The authors supplied 55 male college students with three Personality Rating Scales that they were to pass on to three associates with the request to rate the student. Furthermore, the students were given a questionnaire with the purpose of measuring “self explained behaviour” in regards to the same characteristics to which the associates were to respond. Allport and Allport point out the importance of developing a “behaviouristic” questionnaire, asking for behaviour in different situations, as opposed to an introspective questionnaire requiring a general self-rating. They argue that asking an individual if he/she is honest, thoughtful etc. can invoke carelessness, rationalisation and defence reactions (Allport & Allport, 1921). The concepts/traits that Allport and Allport include in the study had already been used in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory as working basis. They consist of four themes: Intelligence, Temperament, Self-Expression and Sociality, where all have five or less items of measurement. What is
    interesting in terms of the method is the way Allport and Allport consider the three associates’ ratings as the true measure of traits.

    One of the main purposes with the study is, according to Allport and Allport, to develop a measurement scale of personality. The authors partly use tests already developed by other psychologists (e.g. W. F. Dearborn’s Group Test of Intelligence) and partly tests developed exclusively for the present study. Besides noting that the items measured have also been used in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory, Allport and Allport do not argue for the items chosen, except claiming that they seem to be fairly exclusive of one another. These are the categories and items Allport and Allport measure:

    After describing the test and mentioning that any correlation below .25 has resulted in dismissal of the individual’s score for that trait, Allport and Allport take a closer look at some of the personalities. This approach reflects Gordon Allport’s view of personality at an early stage; “Each one is a unique mixture of varying degrees of divers traits” (Allport & Allport, 1921, p. 23). They draw out extreme personalities, for example ones with highly contradictory traits. An example of such a personality is the introverted social type. Evaluating this individual, Allport and Allport conclude that there is evidence of almost a pathological character within this person. Allport and Allport conclude by stating that characteristics of Intelligence and Temperament are most likely to be inborn, where Self-expression and Socialty are probably acquired upon social surroundings,
    but still on the basis of hereditary structure. Finally they state the importance of isolating these fundamental traits in order to refine the ratings of individuals as well as developing the tests. A Case Study

    Another of Allport’s studies, contrasting the previous, is a case study from 19661. It analyses a series of letters written by Jenny Masterson from 1926-1937. The interpretation shows Allport’s developing view of personality (evidently affected by his 30 years of professorship at Harvard University). This is evident in the way that he evaluates and interprets the letters from different viewpoints. He includes Freudian, Jungian as well as Adlerian analysis in his publication as well as his

    The study is different in nature from the previous mentioned study, it is therefore not possible to compare the two. However, it is an example of how Allport believes in every human as unique and that the essence of this is the important part of personality, hence the part to study. In 1941, Allport published a book defending the use of personal documents within psychology. He believes that these documents possess a great value to psychology and that these sources are often overlooked. Twenty-four years later he then shows how personal documents can be applied to several theories. Here, for apparent reasons, the trait theory will be the only interpretation evaluated. Letters from Jenny, 1966

    Jenny Masterson lived from 1868 to 1937. She wrote, through the last eleven years of her life, over 300 letters to two friends, a married couple named Isabel and Glenn, whom she knew through her son Ross. These letters are the personal documents that Allport uses for his analysis. In order to maintain quantitative validity, Allport asks thirty-six people to characterise Jenny in terms of her traits. They used a total of 198 trait names that Allport classifies into eight clusters.

    Second, although some of the traits mentioned and classified within the cluster are contradictions (e.g. witty versus humorless, voluble versus reclusive), Allport argues that this only supports the already noticed factor that people often experience ambiguous feelings and that this often stems from the possession of two opposite traits. Moreover, traits are often situational; one trait can surface in one situation and its counterpart in another situation. Allport admits that his trait classification of Jenny is inconclusive. He refrains from characterising the traits as other than central. Although it would be reasonable to characterise some as secondary, especially because the material is so detailed and the number of found traits is so high, Allport
    does not stay with his original structure. Studying the letters of Jenny one could also question if Jenny does not possess the cardinal trait of paranoia or self-pity, at least in her later years. At this point of his career, Allport had disregarded the sharp distinction between individual traits and common traits. The common trait is no longer considered a true trait, it is merely a measurable version of an individual trait (Cartwright, 1974). He does therefore not mention the concept of common traits. Instead of analysing according to his “original” theory, Allport continues his interpretation by offering a content analysis. The reason for mentioning this analysis is because it is closely related to the trait approach.

    Allport uses the computations of Jenny’s letters made by Jeffrey Paige for his thesis (not yet published in 1966). Paige utilises a very modern, at least by 1966 standard, method where a computer (IBM 1401-7094) computes the first 56 letters into a quantitative analysis. The procedure allows the computer to count the occurrence of words, phrases or sentences expressed in regard to a certain subject or emotion. The method requires that these trait categories have been identified and grouped first, but otherwise the computer makes the analysis.

    One amusing detail to notice is how impressed Allport is with this new method of analysis. Although it certainly requires more effort than “manual” content analysis, or possibly even manual counting of the occurrence of the categories, Allport talks impressed about this method: “The method allows not only for a wide base of categories, but also permits the coder to indicate when each tag word [the words associated with each category] represents the subject, verb, or object in a sentence”

    The whole essence of the material must be considered in order to identify these two concepts. Allport admits to this lack but counter argues by referring to the number of words found, that can be labelled “overstating” (e.g. never, always, impossible). These could be interpreted as evidence of a dramatic intense personality. Another limitation of this method is one of rather humorous character. When searching to find positive statements in the documents, Allport stumbles over a number of sarcastic statements and has to conclude that this is another limit of the computer assisted analysis. To conclude on Allport’s trait analysis of Letters from Jenny, assisted by a computer and Jeffrey Paige, one has to keep in mind that at this point Allport’s trait theory had received much criticism and even Allport had realised the potential of other approaches as supplementary analysis (Allport, 1966). However, Allport’s interpretation clearly supports his argument for analysing the individual person. This approach is very different from other trait approaches, and even other personality approaches, but it identifies subtleties about human nature that a quantitative trait questionnaire for example, would not discover. It also
    enlightens a very extreme personality which, by this approach, can be analysed in depth as to see what lies beneath the discovered traits; that is where they surface and in which situations. Unfortunately Allport does not dwell on this subject, in this case his aim is merely to identify traits and describe Jenny’s personality utilising these. Discussion

    The two reviewed studies are very different and, as mentioned before, impossible to compare. What is comparable however, is Allport’s approach to traits. It changed a great deal over the years but kept its basic foundation such as the individual as unique. Whereas Allport started by developing personality tests based on outsiders’ ratings of the individual, his later view is much more subjective. The traits Jenny possesses do not only dependent on her social interaction with others, Allport regards her intimate and personal letters as good descriptions of her personality as well. The latter approach contrasts Allport’s initial claim that many traits do only surface with social interaction. An argument could be that Jenny in her letters often describes social action and that letters in a way act as just another

    Allport’s theory should also be seen in the light of his time. Not much literature had been published in regards to human personality and a trait theory seems as a reasonable place to start. As Allport argues, characteristics are contributed to people every day and no real scientific thought had been given to this before. Allport continuously warns against drawing quick conclusions on the account of other people’s traits and with his theory, he strives to prevent this fallacy. It is Allport’s aim to develop a broad acknowledged way of measurement and with its success he hopes to decrease the likeliness of people judging upon stereotypical prejudice. This is a noble thought but somehow it gets caught in subjectivity of the concepts. Many of the traits are difficult to measure due to their different perceptions among people. This is also evident from
    later developed trait theories, where a much smaller number of traits are attempted to measure (e.g. the trait theory of Eysenck). Although Allport never completely abandoned his trait theory (he defended it as late as 1966, one year before his death), his emphasis takes a turn with his book “Becoming” of 1955. His later view of personality emphasises humans’ strive towards a higher level as the motives of human personality. Other psychologists (e.g. Maslow and Adler) also describe this concept. Becoming, as Allport names the concept, is the ultimate goal of human beings.

    He continue to believe that the trait is the best way of describing personality throughout his career, but admits in 1966 that some of his previous statements were rather bold. Much of his early writings was however, written in “an age of psychological innocence” (Allport, 1966, p. 1), supporting the argument that the concept of traits is a good place to start when describing personality. Finally he states, what he also used as the argument of developing the trait test in 1921, that by identifying the traits of an individual “we can succeed in knowing [personality]at least in partbeyond the level of unaided common sense” (Allport, 1966, p. 9). Even in his last considerations this argument seemed to be one of the driving motives for using traits to describe personality.

    Allport’s theory did not have great impact on later trait theorists beyond probably giving initial inspiration. Eysenck and Cattell for example, hold considerably different theories, although still employing the concept of traits (Pervin & John, 1997). Another critique of his theory is the already noted fact that Allport did very little research in support for his theory. Even his first publication measures traits without defining them in detail, one can just hope that others perceive the concepts the same way as Allport. If not, his aim to assist in people’s “judgement” of others has failed. Although this might seem as a rather harsh critique, it does make some of his work obsolete. Collecting 17,953 words for traits is only useful if people connect these words with the same behaviour, feelings and expressions.

    Finally one could ask if we actually do come closer to the essence of personality by describing the individual in words. How about underlying emotions, motivations and changes, are they all just due to the personal characteristics that we possess? Even though many other well supported theories of explaining personality have been proposed, Allport continued to regard this as true. He believed that by describing a person we could learn about him or her. For describing personality, traits may be very useful, but when explaining a person’s behaviour and motivations, one should probably ask for a much deeper theory.

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