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Gordon Allport’s Personality Trait Theory Essay


Allport describes personality as a human being’s dynamic organization, and what is determined by the psychophysical system determines. In this case it means their thoughts and behavior. This results from the environment and heredity, and it is finally separated from the person’s experiences during childhood (Schultz & Schultz, 2009).


In his theory, Allport insists that on of the major things that motivate human beings is the propensity of having the need to satisfy their biological needs for survival (Maddi & Costa, 2008). This was termed as opportunistic functioning. It can be further characterized into past oriented, reactive, and biological (Maddi & Costa, 2008). However, it was not of importance in comprehending the behavior of humans. He believed that the human attributes was triggered off by an aspect, which differed from its functioning, in an expressive way. He referred to this as the propriate functioning (Carducci, 2006). This means that most of the behaviors or activities we do in life, determines who we are. Propriate functioning can be described as future oriented, psychological and proactive.

Dynamic organization

Allport describes a trait as being organized dynamically. This means that they can be easily recognized or determined. Some traits in an individual can take up some form to describe them according to their behavior. This is because of influences from the environment or within, which are dynamically organized (Schultz & Schultz 2009).

Psychophysical systems

Psycho means aspects of the mental, whereas physical means aspects that can be touched or seen. Therefore, psychophysical system is the interaction between the physical and the internal stimuli, which results into a mental state. The internal stimuli are the reaction of an individual, towards the environment (Carducci, 2006).

Characteristic behavior and thought

On characteristic behavior and thought, Allport’s trait theory focused on the uniqueness of an individual. Therefore, from his definition, this refers to an individual having the ability to separate his thoughts from his behavior, thus becoming an independent thinker. This kind of thought is what makes the individual unique (Carducci, 2006). Behavior could also be related to thought in that actions are because of the seed of thought in an individual’s mind.

Concept of Propriate Functioning

Allport’s description of the concept of propriate functioning is derived from the important concept of self. He described this concept from a functional view and a phenomological view. First, the phenomological view describes the self as experienced, things that humans see as essential, central and warm (Cloninger, 2004). The functional view grew into a theory of development itself and has seven functions that normally occur at certain periods in human lives. They include self-identity, sense of body, self-esteem, self-image, self-extension, propriate striving and rational coping (Cloninger, 2004). It is clear that the way Allport describes these developments, they are the same as stages of development as described by Sigmund Freud.


As the self develops, an individual also develops traits at the same time. However, Allport’s description of trait was quite different from the rest of the trait theorists. He went on further to explain that the existence of a trait is more ostensible, it is generalized more than a habit, it is determinative or has a dynamic behavior, and finally, its existence can be ascertained empirically.

Furthermore, a trait does not go hand in hand with social or moral justice (Maddi & Costa, 2008). This refers to behaviors like loyalty, jealousy or even truthfulness. These are subject to the social judgment, and yet they still represent the traits of personality (Cloninger, 2004). Traits in an individual can be discovered, and described later. Additionally, a trait can be seen in the light of the general distribution in the population or the personality that has it (Cloninger, 2004). This means that, just like autoeroticism, a trait has both the common and unique factors. Allport explains that habits or behaviors that are not consistent with a certain trait, is not a proof that a trait does not exist.

For example, an individual could appear very neat in terms of physical appearance, and everyone would assume that he or she has a trait of neatness. However, this is just an assumption based on the physical, but the individual could also possess a contradicting trait, whereby, their belongings are cluttered all over or are sloppy. This brings the question of why there exists contradicting traits on individuals.

Types of Traits

This brings us to the types of traits that Allport described, which the pervasiveness is found inside a personality. These traits include cardinal traits, central traits and secondary traits. First, cardinal traits are those traits that individuals possess and define their lives. These are individuals who constantly look for fortune, sex or fame (Schultz & Schultz, 2009). Examples of these individuals include Mother Teresa, who sought religious services, Machiavelli who portrayed political ruthlessness, Joan of Arcadia who depicted self-sacrifice and was heroic, and Don Scrooge who was very greedy, among others. Not everyone in the human population has this trait.

Central traits are less pervasive but still have general characteristics; these are the so-called building blocks of personality (Cloninger, 2004). These traits describe an individual. Verbs like sociable, smart, dumb, vivacious or sentimental are normally used to describe people possessing this trait. This trait is the tendency, which, an individual portrays, and those around him can easily detect

Secondary traits are traits or dispositions that are less noticeable, inconsistent and less generalized. This therefore means that these traits are irrelevant in defining the personality of an individual (Schultz & Schultz, 2009). For instance, things like attitudes, preferences and other attributes that are determined in a situational aspect fall under the secondary traits. An example of a secondary trait is whereby an individual is assertive and dominant in his interpersonal encounters, but the same person could also display a trait of being submissive, incase he is on the wrong side of the law. This therefore answers the question as to why people possess contradicting traits. It is because of the secondary traits that can be found within individuals.

Allport also further made a distinction between individual and common traits. Common traits, also known as dimensional traits, are any generalized trait that most individuals possess within a given culture (Carducci, 2006). This can be explained by having people from the same environment going through the same changes and influences, therefore; their traits can be roughly the same. Functional autonomy and the mature healthy personality

Functional Autonomy is basic to Allport’s original idea of trait theory, where he stated that personality is a system that is growing dynamically or by motivation (Cloninger, 2004). Allport did not concentrate on an individual’s past, to comprehend their present status. He stated that the past is the past, and today’s motives are autonomous from the past. This means that an efficient theory of an individual’s motivation needs to meet four requirements; contemporanity of motives, pluralistic theory, whichever allows for several types of motives, cognitive process need to be assigned to the dynamic force of an individual and lastly it needs to allow for uniqueness of motives (Maddi & Costa, 2008).

Functional autonomy can be further divided into propriate and perserverative functional autonomy (Carducci, 2006). Propriate is directed towards self, where personal values are of essence. For instance, being punished for selfishness in the past, does not overshadow from the generosity of today. conversely, perserverative autonomy gears towards habits. For example, the habit of drinking in the past as a sign of rebellion, but still goes on even into adulthood.

It is clear that functional autonomy arose from the inconsistencies of behavioral theory by Sigmund Freud. As a result, test values and categorization values came about. A mature and healthy personality can be explained if an individual has a developed proprium and a set of traits that can adapt to any situation (Cloninger, 2004). Allport came up with seven attributes that could be used to check if a person has attained personality maturity. They include extension of self, emotional security, being warm to others, problem centeredness, realistic perception, philosophy of life and self-objection.


Gordon Allport’s theory was right in almost every way, and his ideas have been used by other theorists to support their studies. However, his original use of the term trait, did not go well with behaviorists whose theories were based on situational orientation, and this has always proved to be a weakness in describing psychology and personality.


Carducci, B. J. (2006). The psychology of personality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cloninger, J. (2004). Theories of personality: Understanding persons. New York: Prentice Hall Publishers.

Maddi, S.R., & Costa, P.T. (2008). Humanism in personology: Allport, Maslow and Murray. New Brunswick, N.J: Aldine Transaction.

Schultz, D.P. & Schultz, S.E.. (2009). Theories of personality, 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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