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Placing Allport in Context: The Beginning of Trait Theory

Gordon Allport is viewed by many as the founder of trait theories of personality. In addition, because of his specific focus on personality itself, he is also viewed as the founder of personality psychology as a distinct discipline. His entire approach to psychology, and more specifically to personality, was born of his strong devotion to social ethics. He was a profoundly spiritual man, who challenged the negative aspects of religious dogma and championed the positive aspects of having a spiritual direction in one’s life. Because his psychology carried with it that devotion to social ethics, he wrote one of the most famous books on prejudice, in which he suggested that the future role of psychology in understanding this disturbing inclination of people everywhere must be based on values.

Since his approach to studying and teaching psychology emphasized the value and uniqueness of each person, he is considered to have been a humanistic psychologist, even though he is seldom grouped with Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow (instead, he is grouped with other trait theorists). Always aware of the future challenges facing those who would study personality, Allport hoped that movements toward individual, humanistic, and existential psychology would continue:

I’m quite certain there will be a strong movement toward what is called a third force which will be neither behavioristic nor psychoanalytic. But I wouldn’t be willing to predict that it will dominate the field, though I can say I do hope it will develop sturdily and result in fruitful new methods to approach molar and complex levels of personality structure and social behavior…Human nature is such a hard nut to crack that no one should be denied a chance to contribute to it at any level. (pg. 112; Allport cited in Evans, 1981b)

Allport’s Psychology of Personality

As a rule, science regards the individual as a mere bothersome accident. Psychology, too, ordinarily treats him as something to be brushed aside so the main business of accounting for the uniformity of events can get under way…With the intention of supplementing this abstract portrait by one that is more life-like, a new movement within psychological science has gradually grown up. It attempts in a variety of ways and from many points of view to depict and account for the manifest individuality of mind. This new movement has come to be known (in America) as the psychology of personality . (pg. vii; Allport, 1937)

With these words, in the preface to Personality: A Psychological Interpretation , Allport “officially” established the study of personality as a discipline in the field of psychology. His goal was two-fold: (1) to gather together the most important research on personality to date, and (2) to provide a framework within which the study of personality might then proceed toward understanding this “endlessly rich subject-matter” (Allport, 1937).

What Is Personality and What Are Traits?

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Source:  OpenStax, Personality theory in a cultural context. OpenStax CNX. Nov 04, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11901/1.1
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