Gordon Allport Personality Trait Theory Explained

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Under the Gordon Allport personality trait theory, it is proposed that an individual will possess certain personality traits and that these traits form a partial foundation for their behavior.

A trait is a specific way of behaving. It is an identifiable characteristic or habit. Some people, for example, are introverts. Others are extraverts. Many people find themselves somewhere between the two extremes. Where the person falls on this continuum is based on how they respond to specific contextual situations.

Unlike the other personality trait theories that have been proposed, Allport suggests that the traits people have can be organized into three levels of hierarchy. He refers to them as central traits, cardinal traits, and secondary traits.

What Are Cardinal Traits?

Cardinal traits are on the first level of Allport’s hierarchy. They are the traits that shape a person’s behavior and are the dominate traits of the person. These are the traits that rule a person’s passions and are the most powerful component of the personality. Although one trait is often identified, such as the self-sacrifice of Mother Theresa, it is rare for an individual to have a personality dominated by one cardinal trait.

Most personalities are composed of multiple traits that have an equal influence on personality development at the top of the hierarchy. Because there are multiple traits present, it is possible for an individual to pursue multiple passions.

What Are Central Traits?

Central traits are the second level of the hierarchy in Allport’s personality trait theory. These are the basic characteristics that are found in the average person. Everyone can be kind, loyal, friendly, devious, angry, grouchy, and so forth. Each of these traits is used as a building block to shape each person’s behavior.

If someone has a central trait emphasis on being kind and friendly, then their behavior will reflect these building blocks. They are more likely to reach out to strangers, offer help, or form social networks when compared to an individual who has building blocks based on anger and deviousness.

The latter individual would be more likely to isolate and be pessimistic of strangers. To them, the idea of being kind and friendly would seem like a foreign concept in the same way that someone who is kind and friendly would feel like anger and isolation are a foreign concept.

It is through these building blocks that every person tends to shape their own behavior.

What Are Secondary Traits?

These traits are at the bottom of the hierarchy. For many people, Allport notes that they are not consistent traits and may not even be obvious ones. They are plentiful, but only present during specific situations. Secondary traits might involve an attitude, a preference, or a bias.

Think of it like this: a person might be kind and friendly in their central traits, but someone changing the channel on them while they’re watching a TV show becomes a trigger that makes them angry. That anger would be classified as a secondary trait because it is not present in most interactions.

The same could be said of anxiousness. People can be outgoing and build vast social networks, but be deathly afraid of making a public presentation. In the same way, an introverted person who is shy and avoids social situations may be an incredible public speaker because their anxiousness doesn’t involve crowds, but one-on-one situations.

The Genotypes and Phenotypes of Allport’s Personality Theory

Allport theorized that there were many different forces at work that would influence the thoughts and feelings of an individual in any given situation. Those thoughts and feelings would be turned into behaviors, then the behaviors into specific actions. Based on the outcome of those actions, an individual’s personality would follow a specific path of development.

Allport categorized those influences into two primary categories: genotypes and phenotypes.

In the personality trait theory, genotypes are the internal influences that influence personal thoughts and feelings at any given time. These forces help each person retain information, draw conclusions about the world, and create the circumstances that create interactions. Internal forces are often shaped by the “normality” of a person’s environment.

To demonstrate genotypes, let’s take two extreme family environments. On one hand, we have a child growing up in a home that views white supremacy has a valid society. On the other hand, we have a child who grows up in a home that sees religious preferences as a superior way of life. “Normal” to these children is a place where white people are better in the former and where a specific religion makes someone better in the latter.

In the general population, neither are accepted as normal, but that doesn’t matter to these two children. Their normal is what dominates their personality traits because of their genotypes. Unless there is another influence that can act upon their thoughts and feelings, their decisions will be based on what they learned in their home environment.

Now let’s take those two children and put them into the general society. Societal forces would be an phenotype in Allport’s theory, or an external influence. The first child learns that diversity creates more community strength than white supremacy, so their thoughts and feelings change. The second child discovers that there are several different ways to approach their religion instead of just one, so a focus of inclusion instead of exclusion becomes part of their thoughts and feelings.

As the thoughts and feelings take shape and turn into behaviors, the actions of each child will eventually change as well. The actions go through the hierarchy of personality traits to the point where a cardinal trait must be in play. Here is where the strength of the influence must be considered.

Some internal and external influences are strong enough to overwhelm a person’s cardinal traits, as described in the examples above. Some influences are too weak to exhibit such an influence. If the cardinal traits do not experience a change, then the influences placed upon the person will not be retained.

The information gleaned will be ignored in favor of what the individual’s traits suggest is the proper way to think, feel, and act.

How Many Personality Traits Are There?

In total, the Gordon Allport personality trait theory proposes that there are more than 4,500 different traits that are possible within each person. Over time, these traits have been re-examined and synonyms have been removed, but there are still around 200 identifiable personality traits that can be present in any combination.

These different combinations come together to form a unique person. Although we may have the same traits, we have them in different quantities, and that is what makes each of us special. By recognizing how we are the same, along with how we are different, it becomes possible to find common ground on any subject.

In doing so, we become stronger than if we remain apart.