Allport’s Personality Trait Theory Explained


Traits are a specific way that a person behaves and are part of each personality. How that person implements those traits depends on their comfort level in social situations, what they feel is important to their life, and other various contexts.

Gordon Allport identified personality traits as fitting into three levels within a hierarchy. There are cardinal traits, central traits, and secondary traits that each person has with their personality. Then Allport, with Henry Odbert, when through the current dictionary of the time and came up with 18,000 different words that could be used to describe a person’s personality.

From that list, the two developed a list of about 4,500 adjectives that they believed could be observable and become semi-permanent attributes of a personality.

How Allport’s Personality Trait Theory is Organized

The three different levels in the hierarchy of traits with Allport’s theory are essentially levels of preference that are found within the individual. Those three levels can be summarized in the following way.

  • Cardinal traits. These are the traits that shape a person’s behavior and dominate their thinking patterns. They are at the top of the hierarchy and form the basis of what is called a person’s “master control.” This trait becomes the person’s one passion. Scrooge McDuck, for example, loves money. His greed for treasure would be a cardinal trait.
  • Central traits. These are the generic traits that every person has at some level. Everyone is loyal, for example, or kind. They are honest, friendly, and sometimes grouchy. Some people are grouchier than other people. Some are more honest than others. The combination of these generic traits works with the cardinal trait to shape a majority of each person’s individualized behaviors.
  • Secondary traits. These traits are at the bottom of the hierarchy and may not always be present, consistent, or obvious. They are still available in a plentiful way, but are typically only present when something has triggered them. You may love your friend, for example, but feel like you hate them when they begin to only post political rants on their Facebook page.

The combination of these traits allows for people to be aware of their personality, making it a predictable example of “who we are.” These traits can also change over time, which helps to explain why someone in their 20s might have a different personality than “who they are” when they reach their 50th birthday.

What Can Cause a Personality to Change?

Although the cardinal traits define each personality at a core level, it isn’t something that is written in stone. Personalities can change over time because of the experiences and influences a person is exposed to receiving each day.
Allport suggests in his personality trait theory that there are external and internal forces that can influence personalities and behaviors. He referred to these influences as being phenotypes and genotypes.

A phenotype is an external force that changes how a person relates to their surroundings. The people with whom someone surrounds themselves is another example of an external force. How people accept these forces and acknowledges their influence will create larger or lesser impacts on a person’s personality.

Someone who is extremely rich may be unhappy because they are lonely and feel like they work all the time. Someone in extreme poverty may be very happy because they’re working hard to provide hope for their children to have a better future.

Genotypes are the internal influences that can alter a personality. These internal forces relate, according to Allport, to the way a person retains information. The data that is retained is then used to interact with others in the world.

Someone who can’t remember the name of someone they just met might feel awkward and uncomfortable, so they assign nicknames to each person and feel anxious about whether they are creating an offensive conversation. Someone who has a photographic memory might feel confident in meeting strangers, but feel anxious when they are at a social gathering if no one wishes to speak with them.

What We Can Learn from Allport’s Personality Trait Theory

“Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristics and behavior.” – Gordon Allport

Allport wanted to emphasize the uniqueness of each person within his personality trait theory. He believed that people, with the correct descriptions, could identify their core personality traits. That could lead to a desire to develop them, which could impact their habits, attitudes, skills, and even intelligence.

Each person has their own unique traits. By recognizing and then implementing them, everyone has the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the world.