Gordon Allport Biography

Professor Gordon W. Allport
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Gordon Allport was a pioneering psychologist often referred to as one of the founders of personality psychology. He rejected two of the dominant schools of thought in psychology at the time, psychoanalysis and behaviorism, in favor of his own approach that stressed the important of individual differences and situational variables.

Today he is perhaps best-remembered for his contributions to the trait theory of personality.

He also taught many other influential psychologists including Stanley Milgram and Jerome S. Bruner.

In a 2002 review of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, Allport was ranked as the 11th most frequently cited psychologist.

Best Known For:

Birth and Death:

  • Gordon Allport was born November 11, 1897.
  • He died on October 9, 1967.

Gordon Allport's Early Life

Gordon Allport was born in Montezuma, Indiana in 1897. He was the youngest of his four brothers and was often described as shy, but also hard-working and studious. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a doctor who instilled in Allport a strong work ethic. During his childhood, his father used the family home to house and treat patients.

Allport operated his own printing business during his teen years and served as the editor of his high school newspaper.

In 1915, Allport graduated second in his class and earned a scholarship to Harvard College, where one of his older brothers, Floyd Henry Allport, was working on a PhD in Psychology.

After earning his A.B. degree in Philosophy and Economics from Harvard in 1919, Allport traveled to Istanbul, Turkey to teach philosophy and economics.

After a year of teaching, he returned to Harvard to finish his studies. Allport earned his PhD in Psychology in 1922 under the guidance of Hugo Munsterberg.

Meeting Sigmund Freud

In an essay entitled Pattern and Growth in Personality, Gordon Allport recounted his experience of meeting psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. In 1922, Allport traveled to Vienna, Austria to meet the famous psychoanalyst. After entering Freud's office, he sat down nervously and told a story about a young boy he had seen on the train during his travels to Vienna. The boy, Allport explained, was afraid of getting dirty and refused to sit where a dirty-looking man had previously sat. Allport theorized that the child had acquired the behavior from his mother, who appeared to be very domineering.

Freud studied Allport for a moment and then asked, "And was that little boy you?"

Allport viewed the experience as an attempt by Freud to turn a simple observation into an analysis of Allport's supposed unconscious memory of his own childhood. The experience would later serve as a reminder that psychoanalysis tended to dig too deeply. Behaviorism on the other hand, Allport suggested, did not dig deeply enough. Instead, Allport chose to reject both psychoanalysis and behaviorism and embraced his own unique approach to personality.

At this point in psychology history, behaviorism had become the dominant force in the United States and psychoanalysis remained a powerful influence. Allport's approach to human psychology combined the empirical influence of the behaviorists with the acknowledgement that unconscious influences could also play a role in human behavior.

Gordon Allport's Career and Theory

Allport began working at Harvard in 1924, and later left to accept a position at Dartmouth. By 1930, he returned to Harvard where he would remain for the rest of his academic career. During his first year at Harvard, he taught what was most likely the first personality psychology class offered in the United States.

His work as a teacher also had a profound effect on some of his students, which included Stanley Milgram, Jerome S. Bruner, Leo Postman, Thomas Pettigrew, and Anthony Greenwald.

Allport is perhaps best-known for his trait theory of personality. He began developing this theory by going through a dictionary and noting every term he found that described a personality trait. After compiling a list of 4,500 different traits, he organized them into three different trait categories:

  • Cardinal traits: A trait that dominates an individual's entire personality. Cardinal traits are thought to be quite rare.
  • Central traits: Common traits that make up our personalities. Traits such as kindness, honesty, and friendliness are all examples of central traits.
  • Secondary traits: These are traits that are only present under certain conditions and circumstances. An example of a secondary trait would be getting nervous before delivering a speech to a large group of people.

Contributions to Psychology

In addition to his trait theory of personality, Gordon Allport left an indelible mark on psychology. He is often described as one of the founding figures of personality psychology, and his lasting influence is still felt today. Rather than focusing on the psychoanalytic and behavioral approaches that were popular during his time, Allport instead chose to utilize an eclectic approach.

Selected Publications by Gordon Allport

Allport, G. W. (1937). Personality: a psychological interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Allport, G. W. (1950). The individual and his religion. New York: McMillan.

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA:Addison-Wesley.

Allport, G.W. (1955). Becoming: Basic considerations for a psychology of personality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Allport, G.W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.


Allport, G.W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Pettigrew, T. F. (1990). A bold stroke for personality a half-century ago: A retrospective review of Gordon Allport's Personality: A psychological interpretation. Contemporary Psychology, 35, 533-536.