Gordon Allport’s Theory Of Personality

The American psychologist devised one of the most respected corpus of theory on personality.

Throughout history, the set of characteristics that make people different from each other, having a distinctive way of interpreting, acting and living life have been thoroughly studied. This distinctive pattern is what we commonly know as personality. Being an abstract concept, personality can be interpreted from a large number of approaches.

Among these approaches, some consider that the personality is a unique configuration in each person, with no two being the same. Thus, each person is totally unique, although some similarities with others may be found. This point of view is what we consider to be an idiographic approach, being the maximum exponent of this Gordon Allport and his theory of personality.

What makes us do what we do?

The fact that we behave, or that we respond to the world in one way or another is due to a wide group of variables and factors.

The situations we live in, what they demand of us and how we interpret both the situation and what we may be able to see are very relevant elements when deciding one action plan or another. However, not only does the situation control behavior, but there are a series of internal variables that govern along with the environmental demands that we make and even think specifically.

The latter correspond to the set of characteristics that make up our personality, which according to the principle of functional autonomy of the motives, is a force that causes us to motivate ourselves to act in a certain way, this action being in turn motivating due to activation of the patterns learned throughout the life cycle.

The Propium and its configuration in the personality

Personality has been conceptualized in very different ways according to the author, theoretical current and approach that has dealt with it. In the case of Allport, this important psychologist considers that the personality is a dynamic organization of the psychophysiological systems that determine the way of thinking and acting characteristic of the subject. Through these elements, Allport creates a theoretical system aimed at explaining the behavior style of individuals.

However, the personality needs a backbone element in which the different characteristics of the personality are structured. This axis is what the author calls propium , this being the self-perception of being a differentiated entity. It is about the subject’s perception of himself as being integrated by different characteristics, experiences and desires, being the self-perception of being a differentiated being.

In Allport’s personality theory, this perception of the entity itself is considered to be formed by different factors. The elements that make up this skeleton of mental life, which are acquired throughout psychic maturation, are the following.

1. Body ego

This part of the propium is basically the experience of the corporal and perceptual sensations, which allow the experience with the external environment. It is the component of consciousness about the parts of the body and the way it feels when it comes into contact with external stimuli.

2. Identity

It is about the idea that we are a “something” in a continuous way, that goes through different experiences throughout life. It can be understood as the backbone of our own life history, the way in which we interpret the journey that we have been making and, from this, the conclusions we draw about ourselves.

3. Self-esteem

The perception that we are not passive entities, but that we modify our experience and our life with our actions, is a very important part when it comes to integrating the personality. We see ourselves as valuable beings.

4. Self-image

It is a comparative element, which takes into account on the one hand the performance itself and on the other the reaction of the environment to it. In other words, it is what you think others think of yourself.

5. Extension of the self

This part of the self refers to the perception that the person has specific interests, these elements being important to us. These objectives and goals form a vector of action that guides behavior.

6. Rationality

Self-perception of the ability to find adaptive solutions to the different problems and demands that the environment can provide. It is closely related to self-confidence.

7. Intentionality

The most complex element of propium, the creation of an intentional self supposes the self-awareness of being a being with its own objectives and goals, the ability to motivate oneself and strive to achieve

The structure of personality

Personality is an element that can be understood as a kind of organized system that generates behavioral patterns from the subject’s activity. To explain its organization and allow the study and prediction of behavior, it is necessary to take into account the main and most basic of the elements that make it up: traits.

Traits are that element that allows us to assess different stimuli as a set to which we can respond in a similar way, our behavior being adaptive to them in some way.

Traits are understood as the point of union between mental processes and physiological components, this union being responsible for our performance. Thus, Allport establishes that traits provoke the tendency to always act in a similar way.

Traits in Allport’s personalistic theory

As the main exponent of the idiographic approach, Allport considered that the behavioral patterns of each person are unique and different between subjects. Despite this, it is considered that human beings generally possess the same types of traits, such as dependency, aggressiveness, sociability and  anxiety, so it is not uncommon for similar patterns to exist. What makes each individual have their own personality is the relationship that exists between the  personality traits and which ones stand out in each one.

Personality traits can be classified according to how identifiable it is to the general behavior of the subject, considering the author three main types of traits

1. Cardinal features

Cardinal traits are considered those personality traits that are part of the person’s own core, affecting and defining most of the person’s behavioral repertoire. In other words, they are the ones that have more weight in the way of being of each individual.

2. Central features

The central features are those sets of characteristics that have an influence on the behavior of the person in different contexts. They participate in our performance and the tendencies we have despite the fact that they influence a more restricted set of behavior, such as socialization, being generally independent of each other.

3. Secondary traits

These are some elements that, although not part of the general personality of the subjects, may arise at certain times, such as when facing a specific situation.

All this set of factors makes Allport’s theory a complex element that tries to give a meaning to the personality from a structural point of view, the main characteristics of the personalistic theory being the fact that each person is configured through a composition of different features unique to each person and the fact that the human being is an entity that is not limited to remaining static while life passes, but actively participates in its environment to build, experiment and meet goals and objectives.

What kind of theory is Allport’s?

Allport’s personality theory is interesting not only because of its content, but also because of the confluence of various ideologies and theoretical perspectives.

Regardless of whether it is limited to an idiographic point of view, in which the variables that make each person unique and different are highlighted, the theory established by Allport indicates that although the configuration of each person is unique, there are patterns of behavior common, because personality traits are generally shared innate elements.

In the same way, although his theory is of an innate nature, it does not ignore the influence of situational factors when explaining behavior, thus approaching interactionist positions that see behavior as a combination between the biological and the environmental.

Finally, Allport’s theory is part of the structuralist theories of personality. These theories are based on the idea that personality is a configuration of characteristics organized with a specific structure, which allows predicting future behavior as the individual tends to act according to said structure.

However, it also shows a certain interest in the procedural, that is, in the process by which it is developed and not only its structure, in analyzing how the propium is formed.

Bibliographic references:

  • Allport, GW (1961). Pattern and Growth in personality. New York: Holt.
  • Bermúdez, J. (1996). GW Allport’s personalistic theory. In Bermúdez, J. (Ed.) Psychology of personality. Madrid: UNED.
  • Hernangómez, L. & Fernández, C. (2012). Personality and Differential Psychology. CEDE Preparation Manual PIr, 07. CEDE: Madrid.

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