Gordon Allport: Biography of the Father of Personality Psychology

In addition to his theory of personality, Gordon Allport contributed very important knowledge to the psychological in the fields of motivation, prejudice and religion of individuals.


Gordon Allport was an American psychologist who went down in history to lay the foundations of personality psychology. His theory of personality has been considered one of the first humanist theories for his conception of the human being as an autonomous entity with free will. Allport argued that people are motivated not only by instincts and impulses and not governed by the past.

His work, moreover, is narrated in a very didactic way, it is quite entertaining, interesting and attractive for the general public. Undoubtedly, an author who deserves to be read not only by experts in psychology, but by anyone who wishes to quench their thirst for knowledge and concerns linked to the field of psychology.

In addition to his theory of personality, Gordon Allport contributed very important knowledge to the psychological in the fields of motivation, prejudice and religion of individuals. In this way, his legacy is very broad and he has become a really interesting figure in the field of psychology. Throughout this article, we will reveal some of the particularities and contributions of this psychologist. Are you accompanying us to discover it?

Early life

Gordon Allport was born in Indiana in 1897, although his family moved to Ohio when Gordon was still very young. His father was a doctor, but he worked at home. Therefore, Gordon Allport and his brothers were participants in the world of medicine since childhood. This approach to medicine sparked interest in studies and, especially, in psychology.

However, his first steps in academic life were not linked to medicine or psychology. Allport graduated in Economics and Philosophy, although he always showed great interest in social psychology. Allport lived a fairly quiet life, quiet and without too many surprises.

Finally, he trained as a psychologist at Harvard and, after this period, undertook a trip to Europe, specifically, to Vienna. This trip is one of the most significant events of his life, as it meant the approach to Sigmund Freud. Although, from this encounter, it does not seem to have arisen a great admiration towards the father of psychoanalysis, but rather the opposite. Gordon Allport, like many other psychologists who made up the humanist school, considered Freud’s theories quite limiting.

His work

Upon his return from Europe, he began his work as a professor of psychology at Harvard University, where he remained until his death. During his stay in the same, he was part of numerous committees and taught truly innovative courses for his time. He was editor, member of the faculty and, in 1939, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association.

He published several books in which his main research is collected. Among them, highlights Basic considerations for the psychology of personality, one of the most recognized and acclaimed works of Allport. He received numerous awards in life in recognition of his work and contributions to the field of psychology. The American Psychological Association awarded him the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, a highly coveted award in the profession.

Gordon Allport put a strong emphasis on the motivations and conscious thoughts of individuals, causing great interest in the development of personality. Allport tried to find a balance between the main currents of the moment. Behaviorism was incomplete, superficial; while psychoanalysis was too complex. Following the encounter with Freud, the interest to develop his own theory is strengthened.

Contribution to psychology

Gordon Allport is known to be very influential in many areas of psychology, his theory of traits being especially known. This theory determines that each human being has hundreds of traits. He classified 4,500 words that define a person and grouped them into three levels:

  • Cardinal trait: is the dominant feature of a person and is what shapes the identity, emotions and behavior of the individual.
  • Central feature: they are main features, although not dominant. They are inherent to most people and lay the foundations of personality and actions.
  • Secondary feature: they are private features, particular to each individual.

The legacy of Gordon Allport

In addition to its Trait Theory, it identified the genotypes and phenotypes; in other words, the internal and external conditions that motivate a person’s behavior. In his work Personality: a psychological interpretation (1937), defines personality as: “the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine their adaptation to the environment.”

In addition, he stressed that this personality is different in each individual. He was also interested in the nature of the will, motivation and determination of the people. He stressed the importance of learning, the behaviors and thoughts of an individual are the product of a whole life story. That is to say, what an individual thinks at a moment is the fruit of his past, but also of his present.

Gordon Allport promoted the “interdisciplinary movement” of Harvard University, where the social sciences department led by Talcott Parsons arose. Beyond his contributions, he also criticized Freud’s psychoanalysis and radical behaviorism. In turn, he developed the concept of propium, that is, the part of the personality that seems to play an intimate and central role for the person.

He also addressed other issues such as prejudice and religion. Allport makes a thorough analysis about the issue of prejudice, exemplifying and deepening the discrimination suffered by Jews and African-Americans. All this is reflected in one of his most recognized works: The nature of Prejudice.

Finally, after a life dedicated to study, Allport died on October 9, 1967. After his death, he left an unmistakable legacy in the field of psychology. Considered one of the pioneers of humanistic psychology, Allport is undoubtedly an important figure of the twentieth century.