Research Paper: Gordon Willard Allport

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[. . .] The fact that everyone has these feelings supports the idea that one trait may be dominant in one situation and another in another situation (Allport, 1937a).

In order to connect the traits and dispositions in order to make them work together, Allport developed the concept of the proprium. The proprium is the integrating aspect of personality that other psychologists have referred to as the "self," "ego" and "style of life" (Chaplin & Krawiec, 1968). Propriate comes from the word proprium, which is Allport's name for that essential concept, the self. He had reviewed hundreds of definitions for that concept and came to feel that, in order to more scientific, it would be necessary to dispense with the common word self and substitute something else.

Allport believed that most human behavior is associated with a profound desire for people to function in some way that expresses the self (Allport, 1955). For instance, one form of motivation is the tendency to satisfy biological survival needs, which Allport referred to as opportunistic functioning. Allport characterized opportunistic functioning as either reactive, past-oriented, and, of course, biological (Allport, 1955). But Allport also believed that opportunistic functioning was relatively unimportant for understanding most behavior. Allport believed that most human behavior was motivated by functioning in a manner expressive of the "self" which he termed propriate functioning. Propriate functioning for Allport was characterized as being proactive, future-oriented, and psychological. Thus the person's motives, experiences and traits work together and create his/her sense of identity. Allport later referred to some traits or dispositions as propriate traits. These are the traits that the individual considers important to his/her own sense of identity (Allport, 1955).

As mentioned earlier, Allport did not give a great deal of weight into looking into a person's past in order to understand their current actions. This belief is most strongly evident in Allport's concept of functional autonomy (Allport, 1937b, 1968). Functional autonomy basically states that one's current motivations are independent or autonomous from their original motives. Allport separated the concepts of motive and drive and posited that a drive formed as a reaction to a motive could mature into a motive as a reason for behaving. The drive then becomes autonomous and distinct from the motive. For example a person who attempts to excel at a task such as golf may have originally had motivations resulting from a sense of inferiority engrained in their childhood. But as the person matures the person later gets enjoyment out of jut playing the game for its other benefits and personal mastery of the tasks.

There are two categories of functional autonomy (Allport, 1937b): The first is perseverative functional autonomy. Perseverative functional autonomy refers to habits or behaviors that no longer serve the purpose they were originally intended for and yet still continue. For instance may people may have started smoking cigarettes as a symbol of their adolescent rebellion against adult enforced rules, but they continue to smoke now because it is very difficult to quit. Social rituals such as saying "bless you" after someone sneezes actually had a reason in the past (during the plagues of Europe a sneeze was a far more serious symptom than it is now); however, now this behavior continues in an effort to be polite.

Propriate functional autonomy is more self-directed than habits (Allport, 1961). For instance, a person may play the flute as a child due to being rewarded by parents and teachers, but as the person matures making or playing music becomes rewarding in and of itself. This level of functional autonomy is the highest level and has to do with self values and higher motivations. The concept of functional autonomy represents a reaction of Allport to Freud's and behaviorists theories of motivation that vary from totally past motives (Freudian) to only current conditions (behaviorists). Allport believed that most behavior was personally relevant to the proprium (Allport, 1968).

Allport recognized that some behaviors are not functionally autonomous. These included: (1) biological drives, (2) motives directly linked to the reduction of basic drives, (3) reflexes, (4) constitutional equipment, (5) habits in the process of being formed, (6) patterns of behavior that require primary reinforcement, (7) sublimations that are linked to unpleasant childhood experiences, and (8) certain neurotic or pathological symptoms (Allport, 1937b). Allport emphasized conscious motivation over unconscious motivation or stimulus response reactions; however, he did not completely fail to notice the probable influence of unconscious motives on certain types of behaviors. For example, he believed that certain pathological behaviors (e.g., OCD) are often motivated by unconscious drives (Allport, 1968). However, Allport was interested in the study of psychological healthy individuals and believed that such people are ordinarily consciously in control of their behavior and direct their motives (Allport, 1966). Before Abram Maslow theorized the characteristics of self-actualization, Allport listed six criteria for psychological health: (1) an extension of the sense of self, (2) warm relationships with others, (3) emotional security or self-acceptance, (4) a realistic view of the world, (5) insight and humor, and (6) a unifying philosophy of life (Allport, 1968).

Allport's development of the concept of the proprium eventually expanded into a developmental theory. While one the proprium has seven functions, all of which tend to arise during certain times of development, Allport was not a stage theorist in the sense that Freud was. These represented what Allport believed was the usual sequence of propriate development (Allport, 1961; 1966):

1. A sense of body develops in the first two years of life. We develop an awareness of ourselves, our physical boundaries, pain, touch and movement.

2. A sense of self-identity also develops in the first two years. Somewhere we recognize ourselves as continuing with a past, present, and future. We view ourselves as separate from others.

3. Self-esteem develops between ages two and four years. During this time people recognize that they have value to others and to themselves.

4. Self-extension develops between ages four and six. Certain objects, people, and events come to be thought of as central and essential to one's existence

5. Self-image also develops between ages four and six. We become aware of the impression we make on others. This is the beginning of what other theorists call conscience, ideal self, or the persona.

6. Rational coping is learned between the ages of six to twelve. A child begins to develop the ability to deal with life's problems rationally.

7. Propriate striving usually begins after the child is twelve years old. This is the self as seen in terms of goals, ideal, plans, or a sense of purpose.

Allport's theory of personality then focuses on the uniqueness of the individual, motivation, and the enduring aspects of these for each person. His ideas are regarded as the forerunner to later humanistic theories and would influence many others including Kelly, Maslow, and Rogers (Hall & Lindzey, 1985). One unfortunate aspect of Allport's ideas was his use of the word trait, which of course brought down the antagonism of a number of behaviorists who may have been open to his ideas otherwise. Another critique of Allport's ideas has been his that he did very little empirical research in support for his theories (but neither did Freud or many other famous theorists). Nonetheless, his ideas inspired many others and his theories have become more attractive given the new interest in qualitative research in psychology.


Allport, G.W. (1937a). Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York: Holt and Company.

Allport, G.W. (1937b). The functional autonomy of motives. American Journal of Psychology, 50, 141-156.

Allport, G.W. (1955). Becoming: Basic considerations for a psychology of personality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Allport, G.W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Allport, G.W. (1966). Traits revisited. American Psychologist, 21, 1-10.

Allport, G.W. (1968). The person in psychology: Selected essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Allport, F.H. & Allport, G.W. (1921). Personality traits: Their classification and measurement.

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