Gordon Allport was born on November 11, 1897 in Montezuma, Indiana. He was the youngest of four sons. His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when he was six. Gordon’s father was a country doctor and converted the family home into a private hospital. Gordon was exposed early on to patient care and claimed later that his experience came in observing the wide variety of patients that passed through the family hospital.
Allport’s family valued the Protestant Work Ethic. His industriousness was demonstrated in the founding of his own printing business as a teenager while also serving as editor of the school newspaper. He graduated from high school in 1915. Gordon graduated second in his class and earned a scholarship to Harvard University.
Gordon earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and economics in 1919. He was fascinated by the emerging field of social psychology and personality theory. His led to his volunteer service in a series of social service agencies in Boston.
Gordon returned to pursue a Ph.D. in Psychology in 1920. He was granted two important fellowships while working on his doctorate. One was awarded in response to an innovative book on personality theory he coauthored with his brother, Floyd, who was a prominent social psychologist. His second fellowship enabled Gordon to study psychology in Europe.
Allport returned to teach at Harvard from 1924 to 1926. He introduced perhaps the first course on personality in the United States while teaching at Harvard. After marrying Ada Gould, Gordon taught at Dartmouth College for four years before returning to Harvard for the remainder of his career and until his death in 1967.
Allport’s accomplishments were numerous. He served as editor for the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. He was Director of the Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. He was elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1939 and President of the Eastern Psychological Association in 1943. He served as President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in 1944.
Allport wrote numerous books on personality theory. His later books focused on the individual in relation to religion and the origins of prejudice. Allport’s theories of personality continue to play a role in the study of personality.
Allport reduced the human personality to a collection of traits. He developed a list of 4500 traits found in the dictionary and that describe a person. He organized the traits into three levels. Cardinal traits dominate the personality and shape a person’s behavior. Allport suggested that few people have a cardinal trait because few people are influenced by a single trait in life. Central traits are the general characteristics found at varying degrees in every person. These traits form the foundation of human personality. Secondary traits are unique characteristics found in the person such as likes and dislikes.
The mixture of traits form the unique ways in which the person processes information and approaches life.