What is Allport's Theory of Personality? - Psychologytosafety (2023)

Allport’s theory is atrait personality theory, which focuses on the specific psychological attributes along which individuals tend to differ in consistent and stable ways. He didn’t believe in the theory of Freud’s theory, psychoanalysis. Thus, Allport’s trait theory of personality emphasized on the conscious rather than the unconscious and the present and future rather than the past. He also chose to study the normal rather than the abnormal personality.

Definition of Personality by Allport

Allport reviewed some 50 definitions ofpersonality, before giving his own. Allport defined personality as:

Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psycho-physical systems that determine characteristic behavior and thought.

Allport, 1961, p. 28

Meaning of the Terms in Allport’s Definition of Personality

  • Dynamic organization: Personality is constantly changing and growing, this growth is organized and not random
  • Psycho-physical: Psychophysical means that personality is a composition of both mind and body functioning together as a unit. It is neither all mental nor all biological.
  • Determine: By determine, Allport means that all facets of personality activate or direct specific behaviors and thoughts.
  • Characteristic behavior and thought: this refers that everything we think and do is characteristic, or typical, of us. Thus, each person is unique.

According to Allport’s trait theory of personality, personality is discrete or discontinuous. Not only are people unique or discrete from one another. But individuals themselves are different from their past. Allport believed that people have two personalities one for childhood and the other for adulthood. The childhoodpersonalitymoves onreflexesand primitive biological urges; while the adult personality is more psychological.

What is Trait?

Trait are distinguishing characteristics that guide behavior. They are measured on a continuum and are subject to social, environmental, and cultural influences. In other words, traits are consistent and enduring ways of reacting to our environment. Allport summarized the characteristics of traits as follows:

  1. Personality traits are real and exist within each of us. They are not theoretical constructs or labels made up to account for behavior.
  2. Traits determine or cause behavior. They do not arise only in response to certain stimuli. They motivate us to seek appropriate stimuli, and they interact with the environment to produce behavior.
  3. Traits can be demonstrated empirically. By observing behavior over time, we can infer the existence of traits in the consistency of a person’s responses to the same or similar stimuli.
  4. Traits are interrelated; they may overlap, even though they represent different characteristics. For example, aggressiveness and hostility are distinct but related traits and are frequently observed to occur together in a person’s behavior.
  5. Traits vary with the situation. For example, a person may display the trait of neatness in one situation and the trait of disorderliness in another situation

Initially, Allport proposed two types of traits: common traits and individual traits. Common traits are the ones which only some people share, such as the members of a culture. They are likely to change over time as social standards and values change. Whereas, Individual traits are unique to a person and define his or her character. However, later Allport revised his terminology and called common traits as traits and individual traits as personal dispositions.

Personal disposition is traits that are peculiar to an individual, as opposed to traits shared by several people. They are of three types:

  • Cardinal traits
  • Central traits
  • Secondary traits.

Cardinal Traits

Cardinal traits are the highly generalized disposition of a person. They are so pervasive and influential that they touch almost every aspect of a person’s life. Allport described it as a ruling passion, a powerful force that dominates behavior. Nearly all action of people is traced to them. Allport was of the view, that all people do not have true cardinal traits

Mahatma Gandhi’s Nonviolence and Hitler’s Nazism are an example of cardinal traits. They are so strong that people associate these traits with the name of a person, such as the ‘Gandhian’ or ‘Hitlerian’ trait.

Central Traits

Central traits also characterize an individual’s behavior but not to the extent cardinal traits do. They are less pervasive in effect but still form a quite generalized disposition. These traits are the ones which we write in a letter of recommendation or testimonials. Allport believed that individuals have less than 10 or 12 central traits. Allport’s examples are aggressiveness, self-pity, and cynicism.

Secondary Traits

Secondary traits are the less generalized, less influential traits of an individual and affect a narrow range of situations. These traits may be so inconspicuous or weak that only a close friend would notice evidence of them. They represent traits, such as, ‘likes sour candy’ or ‘prefers foreign cars’.

Functional Autonomy of Motives in Allport’s Trait Theory of Personality

In Allport’s trait theory of personality the concept of functional autonomy of motives is the idea that motives in the normal, mature adult are independent of the childhood experiences in which they originally appeared. Allport emphasized the influence of a person’s present situation not only in his personality theory but also in his view ofmotivation. It is the individual’s current state that is important, not what happened in the past during toilet training, school, or some other childhood crisis.

Allport gave the following example of a tree. We can trace the development of a tree back to its seed. Yet when the tree is fully grown, the seed is not a requirement for the nourishment of a source. The tree is now self-determining, no longer functionally related to its seed.

Similarly, when we grow up we become independent of our past. Even though we are related to it but we don’t functionally depend on it. We as adults become independent of the original source, transformed into something autonomous. Therefore, we can’t understand adult motives by exploring the person’s childhood, as Freud believed, but by understanding the current behavior of a person.

Functional autonomy has two levels:

  1. Perseverative functional autonomy
  2. Propriate functional autonomy.

1. Perseverative Functional Autonomy:

This level of functional autonomy is related to behaviors that are low-level and repetitive behaviors, such as habitual ways of performing some routine, everyday task. These behaviors continue or persevere on their own without any external reward and are we don’t consider them as an integral part of one’s personality. For example, when a rat that has been trained to run a maze for food is given more than enough food, it may still run the maze, but obviously for some purpose other than the food.

2. Propriate Functional Autonomy:

This functional autonomy is important and essential for understanding adult motivation. The word propriate is a derivation of the word proprium, which is Allport’s term for the ego or self. Propriate functional autonomy is the level of functional autonomy that relates to our values, self-image, and lifestyle. It determines how we perceive the world, what we remember from our experiences, how our thoughts are directed and these processes are selective. Proprium includes those aspects of personality that are appropriate to our individual emotional life. These aspects are unique to each of us and unite our attitudes, perceptions, and intentions.

Stages of Development of Proprium:

In Allport’s trait theory of personality the 7 stages of development of proprium from infancy to adolescence are as follows:

  1. Bodily self: Stages 1–3 emerge during the first three years. In this stage, infants become aware of their existence and distinguish their bodies from objects in the environment.
  2. Self-identity:At this stage the self-identity is a sense of continuity of one’s identity. Children at this stage realize that they remain the same people despite changes in their bodies and their abilities.
  3. Self-esteem: Self-esteem develops when children discover that they can accomplish things on their own. And they learn to take pride in their accomplishments. If parents frustrate their child’s need to explore at this stage, then the child’s self-esteem can be form humiliation and anger.
  4. Extension of self: Stages 4 and 5 emerge during the fourth through the sixth year. In this stage, children become aware and can recognize objects and people in their environment. They speak of “my house,” “my parents,” and “my school.”
  5. Self-image: Children develop actual and idealized images of themselves and their behavior and become aware of satisfying (or failing to satisfy) parental expectations.
  6. Self as a rational coper: Stage 6 develops during ages 6–12. During this stage, children begin to apply reason and logic to the solution of everyday problems.
  7. Propriate striving: If a person reaches this stage successfully, they will have a stable personality and a positive identity. They will also be emotionally stable individuals. Also, during this stage, they will begin to formulate long-range goals and plans.

If a person goes through all these stages successfully, they become normal, mature adults, who function autonomously and are independent of childhood motives. They function rationally in the present and consciously create their own lifestyles.


Allport was the first to make personality a very important and respectful topic. Personality is guided more by the present and future than by the past. And informing his theory he studied normal functioning theory, opposed toFreud’s psychoanalysis. Allport’s trait theory of personality has criticisms on grounds of its difficult to test empirically as it consists of concepts such as functional autonomy which is difficult to measure. His concept of distinct personalities in childhood and adulthood has also lead to many questions and criticism.


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