Gordon W. Allport's Trait Theory & Cardinal Traits
Personality - Trait Theory
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). Dictionary.com
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 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:
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 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'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
Secondary Traits - Personal Choices
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".
Do you believe your personality exhibits a Cardinal Trait?
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.
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
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.)
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