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Gordon Allport, Scenes from His Life

Gordon Allport is one of the first humanistic theory-makers. He showed common sense about many things, and influenced Abraham Maslow and Carl R. Rogers. Those who knew him remembered him warmly.

Gordon Allport Story

Gordon Allport
Gordon Allport

When Gordon Allport (1897–1967) was 22, he travelled to Vienna. There he had arranged to meet with Sigmund Freud. When he arrived in Freud's office, Freud sat waiting for Allport to begin. After a little while, Allport could not stand the silence, and blurted out something he had observed on his way to meet Freud: On the bus he had seen a little boy who was very upset at having to sit where a dirty old man had sat previously. Allport thought this was likely to be something the boy had learned from his mother; she seemed to be a very neat and rather domineering type.

Instead of taking it as a simple observation, Freud took it to be an expression of some deep, unconscious process in Gordon's mind and said, "And was that little boy you?"

Theses – Life

In 1963, fifty-five of Gordon Allport's former students, or PhDs, and close friends surprised him with a testimonial gathering in Washington, DC. They gave him two bound volumes with the dedication: "From his students – in appreciation of his respect for their individuality."

Allport was moved as former students one by one rose to express their individual appreciation for his support throughout their careers. They were especially grateful for his patient help on their dissertations.

Then European psychologists began to speak. "You thank him for your theses," remarked one middle-aged woman, "but I thank him for my life."

Others rose with similar stories. The unassuming Gordon Allport had aided them all – in many cases persuaded them – to flee Nazi Germany, and had worked hard to find them employment in North America.


Allport's Proprium

Gordon Allport, a US psychologist and educator, developed an original theory of personality. He set forth that the self organises you deep inside, and accounts for such as unity of personality and continuity of personal memories. The adult personality has something unique about it.

Allport sought to understand human behavior and believed that most human behaviour is aligned to a deep desire to function in some way that expresses the self. This he calls propriate functioning. Propriate functioning can be future-oriented too.

Propriate comes from the word proprium, which is a self-concept: Doing things in keeping with what you really are, that is propriate functioning. But the word proprium never caught on.

It may be postulated that your deep self may take in the aspects of your experience that you come to feel are most essential (as opposed to incidental).

Functional autonomy with Allport means "perseverative functional autonomy" and consists mainly of habits. Propriate functional autonomy is somewhat more self-directed than habits.

Allport's understanding of the deep and often hidden desire to function so as to self-express oneself became a developmental theory. In it, the self has seven functions that tend to arise at certain times of one's life: For example, the self-image can rise between years four and six. The the time periods Allport allots for his proprium stages are very close to the time periods of Freud's stages of libido development.

Allport thinks that as the proprium develops, we can develop personal traits or personal dispositions, that is, concrete behaviour consistencies that can be quite easily recognized. And according to him there are common traits or dispositions within any particular culture. Some traits are more closely tied to the proprium (oness self) than others. Such central traits are the building blocks of your personality, and practically define your life. A modern test of personality, the OCEAN, also called the Big Five, developed statistically after his initial, heuristic take in the 1950s, has largely confirmed that part of Allport's thinking.

If you have a well-developed proprium and a rich, adaptive set of dispositions, you are psychologically mature. He speaks of these seven characteristics of such maturity:

  1. Involvement understood as extensions of self.
  2. Dependable, technically well enough performed relating to others.
  3. Acceptance of oneself, engendering emotional security and propriety.
  4. Realistic perception (as opposed to defensiveness).
  5. Problem-centredness and development of problem-solving skills.
  6. Self-insight - also into one's own behavior with the ability to laugh at oneself.
  7. A unifying philosophy of life and a personalized conscience.

The idea of values lead Allport and his associates Vernon and Lindzey to propose several values. Among them are:

  • The aesthetic: an artist naturally values beauty.
  • The theoretical: a scientist, for example, values truth.
  • The social: a nurse may have a strong love of people.

That is how it should be in an ideal world! In actual practice, however, things may be otherwise, and prepare for that. For example, not every nurse is loving. Not every cheating scientist loves truth, and not every artist values beauty. It is not as simple as Allport idealised, but anyway, most of us have several values at our disposal, some perhaps at moderate levels. And we could do good to ourselves and our future by living up to the high ones expeditiously.


Gordon Allport and Roald Amundsen

- against blunt, stupid conformity without common sense.

Are groupies all alike? Are there not individual differences enough to outdo conforming group pressures that may be at the bottom of much affixed characterisation? How far persons share conform traits with in groups and large groups of persons, is debatable.

But if the conditions for personal growth are present, the person may rise or cultivate himself or herself. According to the findings of Gordon Allport (1897-1967) the self has seven functions, which tend to arise at certain times of one's life:

  1. Bodily sense.

  2. Self-identity: The process involves more than reminiscence (Allport 1955, 43).

  3. Ego-enhancement: The proprium has other facets and functions than those of selfishnes. (Allport 1955, cf 44-45).

  4. Self-extension: "A mark of maturity seems to be the range and extent of one's feeling of self-involvement in abstract ideals", writes Allport (Allport 1955, 45).

  5. Rational agent: The rational nature of personality, Persona est substantia individua rationalis naturae (with Boethius) (Allport 1955, cf 46).

  6. Self image: The imaginary aspect of proprium-also in the form of an insightful cognitive map-helps us brings our view of the present into line with our view of the future (Allport 1955, 47). Hence, problems can be dealt with rationally and effectively.

  7. Propriate striving: Surmounting one's obstacles-fatigue, hunger, ridicule, and danger-much like Roald Amundsen who never wavered until at the end he lost his life in trying to resque the explorer Nobile from death in the Arctic (Allport 1955, 49). Propriate striving makes for unification of the personality, writes Allport further (Allport 1955, 50). Along with striving he also mentions interest, tendency, disposition, expectation, planning, problem solving, and intention among the states of mind that fit it (Allport 1955, 51).

  8. The knower (thinking agent) "rides" on top of them. The thinker is different from his or her thoughts, is Allport's stand, contrary to William James, who ridiculously maintains that "The thoughts themselves are the thinker" (Allport 1955, cf 51). Kant's position in Critique of Pure Reason is different. He postulates a thinking I (soul) (Allport 1955, 52n).

Allport considers self-insight or self-objectification one of the most important characteristics of maturity in personality:

The self-image and the ideals resident in the extended ego play their part. It is not unlikely that the tangled process will arouse one's sense of humor, if one has it. Humor is a remarkable gift of perspective by which the knowing function of a mature person recognizes disproportions and absurdities within the proprium in the course of its encounters with the world (Allport 1955, 56-57.

Allport asks, "Is not "proprium" a mere synonym for self?" (Allport 1955, 60). He answers: "Person and personality are far broader conceptions than proprium . . . At birth we start with an organism (or individual) which develops unique modes of adjusting . . . The proprium is not a thing . . . The proprium develops in time (Allport 1955, 61).

He goes further about propriate striving, and mentions that most theories of motivation in his day had a common assumption, namely that all behavior tends toward drive reduction (Allport 1955, 65)

Here seems to be the central characteristic of propriate striving: its goals are, strictly speaking, unattainable. Propriate striving confers unity upon personality, but it is never the unity of fulfillment, of repose, or of reduced tension [Cf Sisyphos] (Allport 1955, 67).

Conscience is a crucial agent in the growth of personality (Allport 1955, 68)

The existentialist view of man developed in Europe is more pessimistic than the corresponding American view . . . (Allport 1955, 80-81).

The developed religious sentiment . . . is not a mere matter of dependency or of reliving the family or cultural configuration . . . these and many other factors . . . form a comprehensive attitude whose function is to relate the individual meaningfully to the whole of Being (Allport 1955, 94).

The process of becoming continues throughout life . . . Most religious people claim that it is also metaphysically true because . . . engaging reason, faith, and love [can bring what is called] supernatural assurance (Allport 1955, 95).

Maintaining one's moral linked to Being

In the words of Gordon Allport, "When the individual is dominated by segmental drives, by compulsions, or by the winds of circumstances, he has lost the integrity that comes only from maintaining major directions of striving", and "Do we not in addition have a cognizing self-a knower . . .?"

He goes further: "Some writers . . . have argued that since a sense of moral obligation is phenomenologically so different from a collection of childhood "musts" it would be safer to assume that there is an innate capacity to form a sense of obligation independent of the coercions of parents and tribe."

Allport still further sets up what should be the normal aim in a developmental perspective: "To feel oneself meaningfully linked to the whole of Being". (Allport 1955, 50-51, 74n, 94)


Gordon Allport, learning theorist, Literature  

Allport, Gordon. 1955. Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955. Repr, 1966.

Bloom, Benjamin, et al. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. New York: McKay.

Allport, Gordon Willard. 1979. The Nature of Prejudice. Boston: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company (1954).

Allport, Gordon. 1961. Pattern and Growth in Personality. New York: Holt.

Mischel, Walter, Yuichi Shoda, Ozlem Ayduk. 2008. Introduction to Personality: Toward an Integrative Science of the Person. 8th ed. Hoboken NJ: John Wiley and Sons. 8th ed.

Cervone, Daniel, and Lawrence A. Pervin. 2013. Personality. 12th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Ryckman, Richard M. 2008. Theories of Personality. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

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