Allport’s Trait Theory

Gordon Allport was one of the first modern trait theorists. Allport and Henry Odbert worked through two of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language available and extracted around 18,000 personality-describing words. From this list, they reduced the number of words to approximately 4,500 personality-describing adjectives which they considered to describe observable and relatively permanent personality traits.

Allport mentioned two types of traits;

  • Common traits
  • Personal traits

Common Traits

Common traits are the traits found in the majority of persons living in a society or culture. Thus people of a society or culture can be compared to that trait. For example. If X shows a trait of cooperativeness in his behaviours in various situations, and if similar behaviours are obtained in a large number of persons from that community or culture, this trait will be considered a common Trait. Common traits thus are those which are reflected in the behaviour of most of the persons in a society or a community or culture.

Personal Traits

This refers to the unique characteristics of a person and not shared by other members of the society or community or culture. Such a personal trait is not comparable with those of others in that culture. These traits are inculcated by a person more in the process of socialisation and thus many of the do’s and don’ts of the parents or caregivers become part of the personality and these traits are unique to this individual. Another important aspect is that these traits are highly consistent and can be seen in almost all behaviours of this individual irrespective of the situation concerned. To give an example, a trait of parsimony is something which an individual will show in almost every aspect of his behaviour whether he is at home or office or school or anywhere. He will for example put off the lights to economies on electricity consumption whether at the office or at home. Similarly, he would be very careful not to waste paper and will use it for rough work on side pages in the office as well as at home.

Allport further divided personal traits into three subcategories:

  • cardinal dispositions,
  • central dispositions, and
  • secondary dispositions.

a) Cardinal dispositions:

Such traits have an overriding and overwhelming influence on the behaviour of a person in that they manifest themselves in all that a person does and guides the behaviour of that person. For example, Mahatma Gandhi had
a firm belief and conviction in peace and non-violence. The message of peace and nonviolence was explicitly seen in whatever Mahatma Gandhi did in his life, whether at home or abroad.

b) Central dispositions:

This is found in all persons and one can have 5 to 10 central dispositions. These are not equivalent to cardinal traits but one can assess the personality of an individual in terms of these traits. These traits actually define the personality of a person. Let us take an example of a person who has the traits of honesty, punctuality, parsimony, cleanliness and generosity. Such a person will be always on time to the office, and keep the scheduled meetings on time and never will
waste anyone’s time, will be always straightforward and deal directly with his employer and employees and would ensure that nothing is wasted and will make sure others do not waste anything and whenever someone comes for help would be generous enough to offer help and solve the problem.

c) Secondary dispositions:

These traits of a person are less consistent, less explicit and less meaningful for the person and hence are called secondary traits. These traits are of not much help in explaining the personality. For example, hairstyle, dressing sense, eating pattern or preferences etc.


A careful analysis of the theory reveals certain merits and demerits which are:


Allport developed his personality theory in academic settings instead of psychoanalytic settings. For this reason, this theory gained much importance and recognition among academic psychologists.

According to Allport present and future are more important in understating personality than the past of an individual. The motivations and behaviour of an individual can be better understood in the present and future. This characteristic of Allport’s theory helps understand the structure of personality more scientifically.

Allport’s idiographic approach to personality research is quite praiseworthy as it aids understanding and detailed analysis of personality.
Allport made an important contribution to the field of psychology through his explanation of personality in terms of traits.


Feist criticized Allport’s theory saying that it is grounded more in philosophical speculations and common sense than in scientific research.

Psychoanalysts objected to Allport’s concept of proprium which puts more emphasis on the present and future and ignores his past. They say that such ignorance of the past hinders complete understanding of personality. Past events and experiences that went into the shaping of present personality can’t be totally delinked from the present personality.

Allport’s theory describes the functionally autonomous motives of a psychologically healthy person but the motive of children, psychotics and neurotics do not find any mention in his theory. Allport in his theory failed to explain their behaviour.

Allport in his theory does not mention how an original motive develops into a functionally autonomous motive. For example, discipline and hard work which originally acted as a means to get rich and famous become functionally autonomous once the person is rich and famous. Thus it is difficult to predict which motive of childhood develops into an autonomous motive during adulthood.

Critics also point to the idiographic approach taken to the personality taken by Allport. According to them nomothetic approach requires the study of several persons at the same time and subjecting the data so gathered to statistical analysis is the only right method for studying personality.

Allport’s theory is based only on the study of normal and psychologically healthy persons and does not take account of neurotics and others. This fact limits its applicability.

Some of the concepts in Allport’s theory do not lend themselves to empirical testing. For example, functional autonomy is a concept that can’t be manipulated in experimental conditions.

Psychologists also refute Allport’s claim of discontinuity in the personality of children and adults and normal and abnormal.
Further, Allport does not make mention of the impact of a social factor on personality.

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