Gordon Willard Allport (November 11, 1897 - October 9, 1967) was an American psychologist, who played a major role in shaping the fields of personality psychology and social psychology. A long time and influential member of the faculty at Harvard University, he had wide-ranging interests in eidetic imagery, religion, social attitudes, rumor, and radio. His basic works include Pattern and Growth in Personality and his most influential book, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport proposed a theory that was far removed from the Behaviorism of his day. He saw such attempts at understanding human learning as inadequate without study of the person who was doing the learning. He also rejected the Freudian psychoanalytic approach as relying too much on the effects of the past without giving sufficient attention to issues of the current context.
He rejected extreme "scientific" approaches to understanding personality, recognizing that universal laws alone could never tell the whole story of the diversity and uniqueness of individual human beings, although he strove to find universal personality "traits" that could be combined in various ways to determine the uniqueness of each individual. Infusing a humanist element into his work, Allport strove to understand the human self as a person who had certain attitudes, even prejudices about situations and people, based on both their internal character and their previous experiences. Allport's work laid important foundations for later research.
Gordon Williard Allport, the youngest of four brothers, was born in Montezuma, Indiana, in 1897. One of his elder brothers, Floyd Henry Allport, who had a positive impact on Gordon's professional orientation, was an important and influential psychologist.
Gordon Allport's undergraduate and doctoral degrees were both from Harvard University, where he studied with Hugo Münsterberg, Herbert Langfeld, and William McDougall.
For two years, Allport traveled and studied in Turkey, Germany, and England. Through college, teaching in Turkey, and postgraduate study at the University of Berlin, University of Hamburg, and University of Cambridge during the years immediately after World War I, he became familiar with Gestalt Psychology and other important developments in German psychology. These intellectual experiences and personal contacts had an enduring impact on his own later work and his contributions to American psychology. Apart from a few years at Dartmouth College, Gordon Allport's entire academic career was spent at Harvard. During that period, he received numerous honorary doctorates.
Allport told the story in his autobiographical essay in Pattern and Growth in Personality of his visit as a young, recent college graduate to the already famous Sigmund Freud in Vienna. To break the ice upon meeting Freud, Allport recounted how he had met a boy on the train on the way to Vienna who was afraid of getting dirty. He refused to sit down near anyone dirty, despite his mother's reassurances. Allport suggested that perhaps the boy had learned this dirt phobia from his mother, a very neat and apparently rather domineering type. After studying Allport for a minute, Freud asked, "And was that little boy you?" Allport experienced Freud's attempt to reduce this small bit of observed interaction to some unconscious episode from his own remote childhood as being dismissive of his current motivations, intentions, and experience. Allport remembered that experience as a reminder of the way that psychoanalysis in his view tended to dig too deeply into both the past and the unconscious, overlooking in the process the often more important conscious and immediate aspects of experience. While Allport never denied that unconscious and historical variables might have a role to play in human psychology (particularly in the immature and disordered), his own work would always emphasize conscious motivations and current context.
In 1939, Allport was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA). In 1963, he received the APA's Gold Medal. It bore the inscription: "To Gordon Williard Allport, outstanding teacher and scholar, He has brought warmth, wit, humanistic knowledge, and rigorous enquiry to the study of human individuality and social process."
In his later years, Allport paid special attention to the task of trying to unite psychological knowledge and ethical concerns. At his death, in 1967, he was Harvard's first Cabot Professor of Social Ethics.
Gordon Allport was one of the first psychologists to focus on the study of the personality, and is often referred to as one of the fathers of personality psychology. Allport regarded personality as the natural subject matter of psychology and believed that other standard topics, such as human learning, could not be adequately studied without taking into account the self or the ego, who wanted to learn. He rejected both a psychoanalytic approach to personality, which he thought often went too deep, and a behavioral approach, which he thought often did not go deep enough. He emphasized the uniqueness of each individual, and the importance of the present context, as opposed to past history, for understanding the personality.
Allport realized that there is a fundamental contradiction between the scientific and intuitive views of human beings. These he referred to as the nomothetic and idiographic standpoints. The nomothetist tries to arrive at general laws that apply to all humankind, and his procedures are based on accurate measurements of behavior. Inevitably this involves fragmentation of the individual into measurable variables. The idiographic view, in contrast, sees each particular individual as a unique whole and relies largely on intuitive understanding. Allport believed that the two should be combined.
Throughout his career, Gordon Allport placed greater emphasis on the "idiographic" or "morphogenic" approach to personality research than on the "nomothetic" or "dimensional" study of personality. Morphogenic study stresses the perspective of how traits and other personality variables become integrated into the unique structures of individual persons whereas the dimensional approach stresses the study of one or more variables across a large sample of different persons. The idiographic-nomothetic distinction was especially emphasized by the nineteenth century German theorists Wilhelm Windelband and Wilhelm Dilthey as well as the psychologist William Stern, with whom Allport studied in Germany. Allport's position was not exclusively idiographic, however; he argued that nomothetic research and idiographic methods were necessary complements (Allport, 1962). Consistent with this emphasis, Allport argued for the importance of case studies in personality psychology.
Allport was not given to extremes. He avoided writing dogmatically and provocatively and preferred courtesy to controversy. He could aptly be called one of the first humanists in psychology, but he did not allow humanitarian sentiments to interfere with scientific integrity and logical thinking.
According to Allport's Personality-trait Theory, the individual's personality traits are the key to the uniqueness and consistency of his or her behavior. One of Allport's early projects was to go through the dictionary and locate every term that he thought could describe a person. From this, he developed a list of 3000 trait like words. He organized these into three levels of traits.
Cardinal trait—This is the trait that dominates and shapes a person's behavior. These are rare as most people lack a single theme that shapes their lives. Central trait—This is a general characteristic found in some degree in every person. These are the basic building blocks that shape most of our behavior although they are not as overwhelming as cardinal traits. An example of a central trait would be honesty. Secondary trait—These are characteristics seen only in certain circumstances. They must be included to provide a complete picture of human complexity. Allport was one of the first researchers to draw a distinction between "motive" and "drive." He suggested that a drive formed as a reaction to a motive may out-grow the motive as a reason. The drive then is autonomous and distinct from the motive, whether it is instinct or any other. Allport gives the example of a man who seeks to perfect his task or craft. His reasons may be a sense of inferiority ingrained in his childhood but his diligence in his work and the motive it acquires later on is a need to excel in his chosen profession.
Allport's work on intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to religion laid the foundation for many subsequent studies of religious styles, and his critiques of behaviorism set a pattern that is found today is some of current critiques of the medical model in psychology.
On psychology of religion
In his book, The Individual and His Religion (1950), Gordon Allport illustrated how people may use religion in different ways. He makes a distinction between a "mature" religious orientation and an "immature" religious orientation. A person with a mature religious orientation would have an approach to religion that is dynamic, open-minded, and able to maintain links between inconsistencies. In contrast, a person with an immature religious orientation would be self-serving and generally would embody the negative stereotypes that people have about religion. More recently, this distinction has been encapsulated in the terms "intrinsic religion," referring to a genuine, heartfelt, devout faith, and "extrinsic religion," referring to a more utilitarian use of religion as a means to an end, such as church attendance to gain social status. These dimensions of religion were measured on the Religious Orientation Scale of Allport and Ross (1967).
On psychology of prejudice
Allport devised a scale—referred to as Allport's Scale of Prejudice and Discrimination, Allport's Scale of Prejudice, or simply Allport’s Scale—as a measure of prejudice in a society. He first published the scale in The Nature of Prejudice (1954).
Allport’s Scale of Prejudice is measured from 1 – 5.
Scale 1, Antilocution Antilocution means a majority group freely make jokes about a minority group. Speech is in terms of negative stereotypes and negative images. This is also called hate speech. It is commonly seen as harmless by the majority. Antilocution itself may not be harmful, but it sets the stage for more severe outlets for prejudice. Examples are jokes about various ethnic groups and so forth.
Scale 2, Avoidance People in a minority group are actively avoided by members of the majority group. No direct harm may be intended, but harm is done through isolation.
Scale 3, Discrimination Minority group is discriminated against by the denying of opportunities and services and thus, putting prejudice into action. Behaviors have the specific goal of harming the minority group by preventing them from achieving goals, achieving education, or jobs. The majority group is actively trying to harm the minority.
Scale 4 Physical Attack The majority group vandalize minority group materially; they burn property and carry out violent attacks on individuals or groups. Physical harm is done to members of the minority group. Examples include lynchings of blacks, pogroms against Jews in Europe, tarring and feathering of Mormons in the 1800s.
Scale 5 Extermination The majority group seeks extermination of the minority group through genocide. They attempt to liquidate the entire group of people (Native American populations, "Final Solution of Jewish Problem," "[[Ethnic Cleansing" in Bosnia, and so forth).
Gordon Allport's personality theory put him at odds with the vast majority of American psychologists, who had been indoctrinated by behaviorist empiricism. Nevertheless, they respected his viewpoint. He dealt with the bewildering complexity of personality by positing "personality traits" as the basic units. A trait is a generalized type of behavior that characterizes an individual and distinguishes that person from others. It is a real and causal neuropsychic structure, not merely "biological"—that is, deriving from impressions of people who observe the individual. This concept has been attacked by later writers who pointed out the frequent inconsistency, rather than the generality, of people's behavior in different situations. Unfortunately, Gordon Allport did not live long enough to answer these criticisms.
Gordon Allport played an important administrative and editorial role in twentieth century American psychology. He served a long term as editor to the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. He was a founder of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). In the years after World War I, he was a major channel for the spread of European concepts and approaches. At a distance as well as directly, Allport was a mentor to many twentieth-century psychologists. In the years before World War II, he helped establish refugee psychologists fleeing Nazi Germany.
Gordon Allport's contribution reflected a broad-based style of doing social psychology. He proposed attitude as the central organizing concept of the field. He defined attitude as a "mental and neural state of readiness … exerting a directive or dynamic influence upon the individual's response to all objects and situations with which it is related" (Allport, 1935, p.810).
Allport's most enduring contribution to personality study was his intellectual stance of eclectic humanism, maintained in polite but determined opposition to the more doctrinaire approach of both psychoanalysis and behaviorism.
Allport had a profound and lasting influence on the field of psychology, even though his work is cited much less often than other well known figures. Part of his influence stemmed from his knack for attacking and broadly conceptualizing important and interesting topics (such as rumor, prejudice, religion, character traits, and so forth). Part of his influence was a result of the deep and lasting impression he made on his students during his long teaching career, many of whom went on to have important careers in psychology. Among his many students were: Anthony Greenwald, Stanley Milgram, Leo Postman, Thomas Pettigrew, and M. Brewster Smith.
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