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Gordon W. Allport's Trait Theory & Cardinal Traits

Updated on June 15, 2020

Personality - Trait Theory

Personality Traits
Personality Traits

Cardinal Traits

A discussion of Gordon W. Allport's Trait Theory is necessary to examine the concept of Cardinal Traits. Allport was a psychologist interested in studying and classifying traits to understand personality.

Cardinal Traits can dominate a person's life, which sometimes lead to world changing personalities and effects.

Gordon Allport was an early pioneer in the study of traits. For Allport, cardinal traits are those that dominate and shape a person's behavior. Central traits are characteristics found in some degree in every person. Secondary traits are those seen only in certain circumstances. These traits combine to provide a complete picture of human personality.


Cardinal Trait - Introduction of Terms

As we begin to understand a Cardinal Trait, we need to define a few terms.

Personality Theory is a branch of psychology that studies personality and individual differences. Wikipedia

Personality consists of a set of characteristics that reflect the behavior or habits of a person called traits.

Traits are any term used to distinguish the behavior of one human being from another. Allport

Cardinal Trait - A basic and dominant characteristic, such as greed or ambition, which controls the behavior of many people, according to a theory developed by psychologist Gordon Allport (1936).


Gordon W. Allport

  • In the early part of the 20th century, Gordon Allport (1897-1967) developed his trait theory of personality. Allport was a psychologist and professor and is considered one of the founder's of this theory.
  • He examined Webster's New International Dictionary (1925) and noted every term that he felt described a personality trait. His list contained over 400,000 separate terms, but in the end settled on 17,953 that could describe a person. This resulted in the development of his Trait Theory.
  • Gordon Allport is a trait theorist.
  • A trait theorist is "a psychologist interested in classifying, analyzing, and interrelating traits to understand personality.” Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior, Dennis Coon, John O. Mitterer p.395)
  • Allport once said of himself: When I was 10, a classmate said of me: “Aw, he swallowed a dictionary!”

Allport's Trait Theory

Trait Theory
Trait Theory

Trait Theory

Trait Theory states that everyone has personality traits that are consistent with the person’s individuality and behavior. Allport concluded that every human being possesses hundreds of traits which can be organized into three categories:

  1. Cardinal Trait

  2. Central Traits

  3. Secondary Traits

Cardinal Trait

Allport states that this trait is rare because most people lack a single theme that shapes their whole lives. All actions or behaviors of an individual that exhibits the cardinal trait are defined by this personality characteristic. This becomes synonymous with the person and is identified by this trait. Most of the person's behaviors can be traced to it. If a cardinal trait did develop, it tended to be later in a person's life. Many historical figures can be defined this way.

Serves as person’s dominant trait.
Thought to be quite uncommon.
For some people, this defines their entire lives.
Shapes a person’s sense of self, emotional make-up, attitudes, and behavior.
Controls and shapes a person's behavior.
Most people lack a single trait that shapes their whole lives.
Dominates an individual's complete personality.
Ruling passions or obsessions are exhibited.
Examples: need for love, money, power or fame.

Mother Teresa -- Altruistic Religious Service


Central Traits

Central traits are ones that make up our personalities. Usually five to ten traits are listed for the individual. Traits such as sensitivity, friendliness, generosity, honesty, and are all examples of central traits. These are general characteristics usually found in every person, to some degree. These would be obvious traits that would be commonly know about a person and used to describe him or her. These would be easily detected to measure and compare.

  • Basic building blocks that shape most of our behavior.

  • Define our personality.

  • Not as overwhelming as a cardinal trait.

  • Most people have somewhere between five and ten of these.

  • Are core traits.

  • Although not dominant, they are inherent in most people.

  • They lay the foundation for our personalities and actions.

  • Found in some degree in every person.

  • Must be included to provide a complete picture of human complexity

Abraham Lincoln -- Honesty

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln | Source

Abraham Lincoln's Cardinal Traits

Beardslee's cardinal traits (central traits).

Abraham Lincoln's Cardinal Traits: A Study in Ethics, with an Epilogue Addressed to Theologians by Clark Smith Beardslee (1914)

These traits explored in depth are more aptly termed, for our purposes in this study, central traits. Beardslee's familiarity with Lincoln's life led him to create this list and describe each in detail.

Lincoln's Cardinal Virtues - C.S. Beardslee


Some of the cardinal traits (central traits) Beardslee attributes to Lincoln.

Reverence for Law
Jealousy for Liberty
Rise from Poverty

Central Traits - Personality

Central Traits - Personality
Central Traits - Personality | Source

Secondary Traits - Personal Choices

Secondary Traits
Secondary Traits | Source

Secondary Traits

These traits may only be present under certain circumstances or conditions. These would be characteristics or behaviors only known by close friends. They are less important and more difficult to detect. Other people may not notice these traits unless they are close acquaintances.

  • These are characteristics seen only in certain circumstances.

  • They are particular likes or dislikes that only a very close friend may know.

  • An example of a secondary trait would be stage fright before a public speaking event

  • Must be included in the study of personality to provide a complete picture of human complexity.

  • Preferences, attitudes, situational traits are all secondary traits.

  • These traits are privately held, and often only revealed in confidence or under certain conditions.

  • Examples could be food preferences, musical tastes, color choices, or reading selections,"likes Chinese food", "jingles his keys when he's nervous", "loves to feel rain on his face".

Cardinal Trait

Do you believe your personality exhibits a Cardinal Trait?

See results

Cardinal Traits Summary

Gordon Allport's Trait Theory includes the concept of Cardinal Traits. Allport feels that this trait is uncommon since this trait tends to dominate a person's life. Everything they do, all behaviors, attitudes and actions, serve the one characteristic that is paramount in that individual's personality.

A Cardinal Trait, according to Allport's theory, is rare. If it does appear as a characteristic later in a person's life, then it must be a culmination of ones total choices, attitudes and experience.

  • Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun that devoted her complete existence to serving the poor of Calcutta. One could describe her as being Christ-like. Her service was so epic, her speech and example so inspiring, her name has become used as a symbolic cardinal trait.
  • Abraham Lincoln is an example of this, also. He continuously failed in business law, and government. His drive and personality developed so that a cardinal trait manifested itself. Not just as Honest Abe, but as a man committed to establish freedom and keep the Union together. As President of the United States, his singular love of truth and justice moved the country to monumental decisions and outcomes.

Current Applications of G.W. Allport's Trait Theory

As I pursued research into this topic: "Cardinal Trait - Psychology", I discovered several recent applications of Gordon Allport's Trait Theory. These were applied to 3 diverse topics. This leads me to conclude that Allport's theory has enduring substance, content and meaning in the contemporary setting.

1) Shopping

The influence of cardinal-, central-, and surface-level personality traits on consumers' bargaining and complaint intentions

(This study investigates the possibility that a limited set of basic personality traits may underlie dispositions to bargain and to complain)

Psychology & Marketing Volume18, Issue 11, pages 1155–1185, November 2001 Eric G. Harris, John C. Mowen

2) Gaming

A Methodology for Incorporating Personality Modeling in Believable Game Characters

(Trait theories introduce continuum of a characteristic rather than binary (‘have-it-or-not’), like Allport’s cardinal, central and secondary traits.)

3) Workaholism

The Long Work Hours Culture: Causes, Consequences and Choices edited by Ronald J. Burke, Cary L. Cooper (Allport cited on p. 90)

Current authors have seen fit to apply Trait Theory and the Cardinal Trait to the lives of shoppers, gamers and workaholics. For some, a cardinal trait may have surfaced in their personalities and may not be as rare as Allport has theorized,

© 2013 AJ Long


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    • ajwrites57 profile imageAUTHOR

      AJ Long 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      reza, no need for apologies, your English if great. I understand you completely. Yes, putting other things aside to focus on one thing is difficult for many to do. Martin Luther King is a great example. Good luck in your studies. I can help you if I can. :o)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks a lot

      It was a good answer, but I think when something is not high or low is good for example money, fame and other things .When you have a trait that is great may be it means to put aside other traits especially those that are oppose to cardinal trait. Martin Luther King had put aside many traits to improve his strong sense of justice. But when we see him and other black men together, he frees a lot of people from segregation. Like you these are my personal opinion and may be correct or not.

      These days I am reading counseling so I have a lot of questions about theories of personality and psychotherapy .I will be glad if you help me to find the answers.

      Unfortunately I don't know English very well, excuse me for the mistakes

    • ajwrites57 profile imageAUTHOR

      AJ Long 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      REZA, thanks for reading and asking an intriguing question. I believe that some people they are just born with the "super-gift" of a Cardinal Trait. I believe others are born with the potential to develop a Cardinal Trait. This can be developed with focus, sacrifice and commitment. Still others may be born with one but never realize their potential in the Trait. Is it good to have one? Yes, I believe it is good to have one and if one is developed it may make for a happier and more successful life. The fruit of a Cardinal Trait in practice has led to great benefits for the person and for the word at large. (Or for harm, as in the case of Hitler). I hope this answers your question REZA. This is just my opinion.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Allport said, it's rare to have a cardinal question is this, is it good to have a cardinal traits or not? Why?

      Thanks you a lot

    • ajwrites57 profile imageAUTHOR

      AJ Long 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Dear Readers, have you found this information helpful? Have you been inspired to re-think your personality traits based on reading this Hub? Thanks for your input in advance!

    • ajwrites57 profile imageAUTHOR

      AJ Long 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      mydubstepstudio , thanks so much for reading and commenting. Yes, when I started to research, I found it quite fascinating! Is there a Cardinal Trait that drive your personality? I'm glad you found it so, too!

    • mydubstepstudio profile image

      Paul Perry 

      7 years ago from Los Angeles

      very interesting hub!

    • ajwrites57 profile imageAUTHOR

      AJ Long 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      LauraD093, thanks so much! I'm glad you found it interesting. I found it to be fascinating also! I had studied the concept of personality before and when I discovered it as an Exclusive Hub, I decided to write about it. Thanks again!

    • LauraD093 profile image

      Laura Tykarski 

      7 years ago from Pittsburgh PA

      I found this hub really interesting.I never heard the concept of personality broken down like this. Looks like Allport and you may have a new follower.

    • ajwrites57 profile imageAUTHOR

      AJ Long 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Kaiyan717, thanks for your kind comment. Allport does discuss the role of environment but was out of the scope of this discussion. Later theorists comment in greater detail on the role of environment and culture than Allport does. I think Hitler is another good example of the role culture and circumstances helped shape his evil choices. Thanks for stopping by!

    • kaiyan717 profile image


      7 years ago from West Virginia

      To me, personality is shaped by circumstance, culture, and choices. Take Martin Luther King Jr., he may not have turned into the man he was if he was born, say now. The circumstances that his life was thrust in, made him who he was. I think our personality is born in some sense, but as we age, life and circumstance present situations for choices to further shape us. Good breakdown of this psychological theory.

    • ajwrites57 profile imageAUTHOR

      AJ Long 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks for you comments dahoglund. When I saw the title, I vaguely recollected the concept from my college days. It was interesting to research. It has me thinking about living a fragmented life versus a unified life and how to further develop my dominant trait(s). G. W. Allport was an interesting person! Personality theory in general has a lot to say about how we interact with the world and how we see ourselves i it.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      This is the firwst I have read about traits as a systematic method of personality. However, we are always using traits to examine character in an informal way. Interesting hub.


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