3 Main Categories of Allport’s Theory of Personality

Gordon Willard Allport

was an American psychologist who focused on the study of ‘Personality’. He is also known for being one of the founders of ‘Personality Psychology’. Gordon Allport’s Theory of Personality is considered to be one of the more scientific theories which have put forward the concept of traits in understanding personality. He takes the biological approach to an extent and mentions how children are born with reflexes. As they use the reflexes continuously, in course of time these reflexes become a habit. Habits by indulging in them continuously turn into traits.

What is Personality?

“Personality” word came from the Latin word “persona” which means a mask worn by an actor.

According to American Psychological Association, “Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.” For elaboration – Click here for Personality – Definitions and Nature

What are Traits?

Traits are relatively permanent entities in the individual. They are reflected in the individual’s many behaviors in different situations. The trait approach focuses on the specific psychological attributes along which individuals tend to differ in consistent and stable ways. For example, one person may be less shy, whereas another may be more; or one person may be less friendly, whereas another may be more. According to Allport, traits constitute the basic unit of individual’s personality. He defined traits as the predisposition to respond and react in the same or similar manner to stimuli in the environment. Some of the important characteristics of traits are as given below:

  • Traits are not theoretical structures or constructs but are real and found within the individual.
  • It guide and direct behavior and enable the individual to behave in a particular manner.
  • Traits are verified empirically.
  • Different traits are not absolutely independent of each other but have overlapping functions,
  • Stable traits can also change over time

To summarize, (a) traits are relatively stable over time, (b) they are generally consistent across situations, and (c) their strengths and combinations vary across individuals leading to individual differences in personality.

Allport’s Definition of Personality 

Gordon Allport (1938) gave one of most comprehensive definition of personality, “Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psycho-physical systems that determine his unique adjustment to his environment.”  This definition leads us further to look deeper into the following aspects-

i) Psychophysical Systems

Personality is an interactive system between the psychological and physical aspects. At the physiological level, the endocrine system and the various glands in our body are the interacting factors. On the other hand, psychological aspects include traits, emotions, intellect, temperament, character, and motives. All these contribute to personality development and behavior. 

ii) Dynamic Organization 

Different elements of the aforementioned psycho-physical system are subject to change. They are constantly changing and developing, however, this change can gradually take place over a long period.

iii) Unique Adjustment to Environment

 Every individual is characterized by a dynamic organization of psychological traits that makes his adjustment. The reason for this is that experiences of every person are unique and therefore their reaction to the environment is also unique. It is well known that the identical twins though are from the same fertilized egg, do show considerable variations in their behavior because of such unique aspects within them.

Allport’s Theory of Personality

Gordon Allport and his colleague Henry Odbert listed around 17953 words in the English language that refers to personality. These words could be used to describe people. This study (1936) became the empirical and conceptual base of the Five-Factor Theory at a later stage. Based on their investigation (Allport reduced the listed words to 4500 trait-like words), they formulated  ‘Allport’s theory of personality ‘. According to their theory, three types of traits govern our personality. They named these three categories of traits as cardinal traitscentral traits, and secondary traits. Allport organized these traits in a hierarchy.

1. Cardinal Traits: 

These are the dominant traits of one’s personality. They stand at the top of Allport’s trait hierarchy. These traits are the master controller of one’s personality. These traits may dominate one’s personality to such an extent that the person becomes known for those traits only.

Such as Mother Teresa for altruism and M.K. Gandhi for his honesty.

Almost all of a person’s activities are traced to this trait’s influence. For instance, Compassion can be a cardinal trait in one person. This compassion manifests in almost all aspects of the individual’s behavior. If he sees a child begging, he will offer her some eatable or money. Such a person may also join many NGOs that are dealing with orphans and poor people. He would write in newspapers and magazines about the conditions of such people and call for help. So his behavior will be reflecting this unique disposition of compassion dominantly in his behavior.

Thus, Cardinal traits have an overwhelming influence on the behavior of the individual. These traits are at the very core of the personality. According to Allport, these traits are rare i.e., very few people have personalities dominated by cardinal traits. A majority of people have a personality composed of multiple traits.

2. Central Traits:

They come second in the hierarchy. According to Allport, every person possesses 5-10 central traits in varying degrees. These are also called the building blocks of personality.

To cite an example, a person being outgoing, sociable, etc. In other words, central traits are those tendencies that a person often expresses.

People around the person can easily notice these kinds of traits. Are responsible for shaping our personality. When you describe someone, you are likely to use words that refer to these central traits: aristocratic, street smart, intelligent, loyal, dependable, timid, aggressive, arrogant, etc. One of these is indeed dominant while others do dominate but do not have the overriding influence on the person’s behavior.

Through such traits, one can define the personality of the individual concerned. These central traits reveal the structure and organization of personality.

3. Secondary Traits: 

These traits are less generalized, less consistent, and less relevant as compared to cardinal or central traits. These are called secondary traits. To give an example, the food preferences of an individual are quite varying in different times and situations. Or an aggressive child may not speak much in front of his/her teacher.

These are less relevant traits of personality. These are situational or circumstantial traits. Are responsible for behaviors that are incongruent to an individual’s usual behavior.

According to Allport’s theory of personality these are “aroused by a narrower range of equivalent stimuli and they issue into a narrower range of equivalent responses”. These are not overwhelming like the cardinal traits. Yet it can reflect in the various preferences and attitudes of the individual concerned.

These traits are specific to situations. These are rather too general and are not as consistent as the cardinal traits. They can also change in certain special situations. In Allport’s theory of personality, he considered traits more like intervening variables that occur between the stimulus situation and response of the person.

Functional Autonomy

Allport did not believe in looking too much into a person’s past in order to understand his present. This belief is most strongly evident in the concept of functional autonomy: Your motives today are independent (autonomous) of their origins. In other words, the path/means which we choose to achieve a goal is now itself a goal.

For example, a person develops and inculcates discipline and hard-work in his life to become rich and famous. But even after becoming rich and famous he continues to live with discipline and hard-work. Actually discipline and hard-work are no longer the means for being rich and famous but they have replaced the goal. ‘What is now’ (present) is more important than the past or the future.

A person may have been persuaded by parents to become a lawyer. As the individual practiced law, it was interesting and satisfying. At one point there was no need for the parents to convince him any more. Being a lawyer and practicing law by itself has become a goal for this individual. To check your understanding of the topic take this short test – Click here for MCQ test on Allport’s Personality Theory

Criticism on Allport’s Trait Theory of Personality

The concept of trait theory has been criticized by later writers who pointed out inconsistency. They opined that more  than the generality of people’s behavior in different situations, they have found difference and inconsistency of traits.

For example , Although a person may score high on the observation and evaluation of a particular trait, he/she may not always behave the same way in every situation.


  • Ciccarelli, S. K.; White J. N. Adapted by Girishwar Misra (2018). Psychology (5th Edition). Pearson.
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