Monday, 23 January 2012 10:30

Gordon Allport: Men Of Ideas

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Gordon Allport Gordon Allport

Allport delineated character traits and suggested that individuals tend to have certain traits dominant in their personality structures. Allport contributed to classification of personality types. His most important contribution to psychological discourse is his writings on prejudice.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Gordon Willard Allport (1897-1967) was an American academic psychologist. He pretty much spent his professional career at Harvard University as a professor of psychology. Like many academic psychologists, he really was a cataloguer of knowledge rather than generator of knowledge.

(Is it possible to generate revolutionary ideas while in the academe? Peer pressure makes academics conform to what their peer would review and approve. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, such approvals are seldom conferred on ideas that are not within the approved paradigm of knowledge. Radical thinkers often leave the restricted environment of academia to go do their thinking unlimited by what their so-called peers would approve.)

Allport took issue with both Freudian Psychoanalysis and Behaviorism. He believed that Freud and his disciples tended to postulate a view of what causes peoples problems and instead of looking at each individual and try to understand the factors that caused his own unique set of problems apply the already existing supposed causal factors of problems to him. That is to say psychoanalysts take the tree for the forest. They have their pet theory and without first demonstrating it’s validly proceed to apply it to every comer to their office. If you experienced anxiety and or depression and went to a Freudian psychoanalyst, instead of looking at your situation he would proceed to see how your unconscious dynamic, the role of repressed sexuality, played out in your mind and thus cause your neurosis. These people would not even listen to what their so-called patients were telling them is the cause of their problems and, instead, flippantly concluded that their neurosis had something to do with their psychodynamics and what was repressed into their unconscious minds.

A patient would be asked: did you desire to have sex with your mother. If you said no, instead of taking your answer as true the analyst would say that you are in denial, you are blocking and resisting insight into the content of your unconscious. The idea of desiring to have sex with your mother is so forbidden that you dare not acknowledge it.

This is nonsense, is it not? How about listening to the person and hear him tell you what makes him anxious?

Let us say that the patient is a school boy with stage freight. When he is called to speak in front of the class full of children he feels anxious and feels shamed that he is anxious. He wishes that the ground he stands on would open and swallow him.

Now, why did the shy child feel anxious?  It is very simple. He expected that all the children in his classroom room were looking at him and evaluating his performance. He felt that he was not up to the task at hand, that he would make mistakes. He believed that if he made mistakes that other children would make fun of him, as they do, and reject him, see him as no good etc. Expecting social rejection and wanting social acceptance he felt anxious. That is stage freight.

Of course, we can proceed to find out why a child is afraid of other children’s critical evaluation and rejection. It could be because he inherited a body that makes him feel inferior and inadequate and he lives in a culture that accepts strong, healthy persons and his experience at children’s play tells him that he is not as strong as other children, those with healthy bodies that society accepts. Perhaps, he had been rejected by other children because of his awkwardness at play.

The shy anxious child generally associates performance in public with making mistakes that his peers would not approve and fears public behavior.

The fearful child who is afraid of making mistakes in the classroom hence is neurotic may turn out the best student in doing his school work.

Freud totally missed the boat in his efforts, if that is what they were, to explain neurosis. I do not even know why I am talking about him. I suppose that the reason is that one is reviewing psychologists who were reacting to him.

Allport would rather not bother with Freud’s tendency to project his so-called psychoanalysis to every person and instead observe the person in the here and now. He pioneered the study of human personality traits. He described personality types as they manifest in the real world.

Regardless of what caused them, there are people whose dominate trait is fearfulness (neurotic personalities what we now call avoidant, obsessive compulsive,  deponent personalities); there are people whose dominate trait is suspiciousness (paranoid personality); there are people who are eccentric (schizotypal personality); there are people who like to keep to themselves (schizoid personality); there are people who right from childhood steal (antisocial personality); there are people who think that the entire world exists to admire them (narcissistic personality); there are people who think that other people ought to be preoccupied with their issues or else they make them feel guilty (borderline personality).

Simply stated, folks have personality traits and Allport described them and left it at that.  He did not provide us with a causal hypothesis of personality. It was probably beyond what Allport could do, for each of us is a product of his time. During Allport’s time folk were not looking at the possible biological causation of personality disorders. Now we know that personality disorders have a lot to do with inherited body. Shy, avoidant and other so-called neurotics inherited bodies that interacted with their conditionally accepting society to produce their personalities.

Allport also took issues with behaviorists, those great reducers. Behaviorists believe that everything about human beings is learned.

We learn to think, right? Did we also learn that which thinks in us, the self in us? , May be the self is influenced by society but is it the creation of society? Could it be spirit? One thing is obvious: human beings are more than the sum of their learning.

Allport most famous book is The Nature of Prejudice. That book is still used in social psychology courses, today. No one has done a better job at describing why people are racist. Allport’s students, such as Thomas Pettigrew, went on to do fine work understanding the nature of racism in America. In his book, the Profile of the Negro American, Pettigrew provided us with a useful causal analysis of the black American personality of his time. Black Americans were told by their racist society that they were unintelligent, and worthless. They internalized that negative view and do consequently not see themselves as worthwhile. They treat their fellow black persons as worthless while admiring white folk as godlike…as shown in Kenneth Clark’s experiments where black children preferred white to black dolls.

Fortunately, when self hating black folk come close enough to white folk to know them, as they are, not as they imagine them to be, ideal, they learn that white folk are exactly like black folk and therefore give up their socially induced sense of inferiority and admiration of white folk.

Allport wrote academic books and if you have the patience to sift through his jargon you might learn a thing or two about human beings from him.


Allport, Gordon. (1975) The Nature of Personality. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

Allport, Gordon. (1983) The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley Pub.

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