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Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport (1897-1967) was born in Montezuma, Indiana, in 1897.

Allport received his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1922 from Harvard. His career was spent developing his theory, examining such social issues as prejudice, and developing personality tests.

Allport is one of those theorists who was so right about so many things that his ideas have simply passed on into the spirit of the times. His theory is one of the first humanistic theories , and would influence many others, including Kelly, Maslow, and Rogers. One unfortunate aspect of his theory is his original use of the word trait, which brought down the wrath of a number of situationally oriented behaviorists who would have been much more open to his theory if they had bothered to understand it.

One thing that motivates human beings is the tendency to satisfy biological survival needs , which Allport referred to as opportunistic functioning. He noted that opportunistic functioning can be characterized as reactive, past-oriented, and, of course, biological. Most human behavior, he believed, is motivated by something very different -- functioning in a manner expressive of the self -- which he called propriate functioning. Propriate functioning can be characterized as proactive, future-oriented, and psychological. Proprium, which is Allport’s name for that essential concept, the self.

Putting so much emphasis on the self or proprium, Allport wanted to define it as carefully as possible. He came at that task from two directions, phenomenologically and functionally.

First, phenomenologically, i.e. the self as experienced: He suggested that the self is composed of the aspects of your experiencing that you see as most essential (as opposed to incidental or accidental), warm (or “precious,” as opposed to emotionally cool), and central (as opposed to peripheral).

His functional definition became a developmental theory all by itself. The self has seven functions, which tend to arise at certain times of one’s life:

  • Sense of body - develops in the first two years of life. We have one, we feel its closeness, its warmth. It has boundaries that pain and injury, touch and movement, make us aware of.
  • Self-identity - There comes a point were we recognize ourselves as continuing, as having a past, present, and future. We see ourselves as individual entities, separate and different from others.
  • Self-esteem - develops between two and four years old. There also comes a time when we recognize that we have value, to others and to ourselves. This is especially tied to a continuing development of our competencies.
  • Self-extension - develops between four and six. Certain things, people, and events around us also come to be thought of as central and warm, essential to my existence.
  • Self-image - develops between four and six. It is the beginning of what conscience, ideal self, and persona.
  • Rational coping - is learned predominantly in the years from six till twelve. The child begins to develop his or her abilities to deal with life’s problems rationally and effectively
  • Propriate striving - This is my self as goals, ideal, plans, vocations, callings, a sense of direction, a sense of purpose.

Allport does recognize that within any particular culture, there are common traits or dispositions, ones that are a part of that culture, that everyone in that culture recognizes and names. In our culture, we commonly differentiate between introverts and extraverts or liberals and conservatives.

There are also secondary traits, ones that aren’t quite so obvious, or so general, or so consistent. Preferences, attitudes, situational traits are all secondary.

Then there are cardinal traits. These are the traits that some people have which practically define their life.

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Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12