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Why should we care about Gordon Allport?

A talk given at the March 14th, 2001 Allport Award Dinner to the St. Olaf Psychology Department Faculty and Students
By Chuck Huff

Gordon Allport was born in Montezuma, Indiana on November 11th, 1897. He attended Harvard as an undergraduate. He was not a psychology major. He taught sociology in Turkey, then returned to Harvard to learn how to teach Psychology. After receiving his Ph.D., he traveled to Berlin, Hamburg, and Cambridge for additional study, spent 4 years teaching at Dartmouth, and returned to Harvard for the rest of his career.

Interesting, but hardly exceptional. Our own Olaf Millert seems more widely traveled and has a more interesting personal history. So, we must look elsewhere for why we should care about Gordon Allport.

He published widely, including books on The Nature of Prejudice (1954), The Individual and His Religion (1950), and The Psychology of Rumor (1947). I classify these publications as all Social Psychology, and so I like Gordon Allport. But the center of his work was in the theory of Personality. His books in this area include Personality: A Psychological Interpretation (1937), Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality (1955), Pattern and Growth in Personality (1961), and Letters from Jenny (1965). The earlier works contain colons in their titles. This suggests that he was still working on a succinct explanation for his major area of work. Later, he had no qualms about using an odd title such as Letters from Jenny, and allowing his readers to unpack the implications of that title.

So, we have lots of books, and many more journal articles. Should we care? One way to answer this question is to ask "Do other people care?" I tried to find this out by doing a short search through the Social Science Citation Index. For those unfamiliar with this lovely tool, I offer a short description. The text figure to the right here is a sample page from the citation index, in 1997. The bold items are works by Sigmund Freud. The items listed under each work are works published in or near 1997 that cited a particular work by Dr. Freud.

To measure the influence of Gordon Allport, I looked up the number of citations he received from 1988 to 1998. I chose these years because the volumes of the Social Science Citation Index were available for these years. In the figure below I provide these numbers in a graph, comparing them with comparable figures from Sigmund Freud, Albert Bandura, and B. F. Skinner. I choose these comparison authors because I could think of their names last night while I was in the library.

First, a caveat. I generated these numbers by measuring the column-inches devoted to each psychologist in each issue of the index. I rounded these numbers off, rounding up when there was more than 1/4 inch of column devoted to citations to the psychologist. I then simply multiplied them by 10, since inspection indicated that there were about 10 citations per column-inch. This all took me about 20 minutes.

You can see from this figure that Freud outclasses them all. I suspect this is a function of citations from a wide variety of social scientists, rather than being driven mostly by psychologists. Bandura comes in a respectable second, and his influence seems to be growing over time. Allport and Skinner, our two Harvard professors, bring up the rear. Still, in terms of influence on psychology, Skinner does not count as bad company.

So, here is one somewhat stilted and incomplete picture of Gordon Allport's influence on psychology. It certainly seems respectable, and reflects his high place in the pantheon of our discipline. But I think we can learn something from what is missing from this analysis too. Certainly the relative influence on psychology of Skinner and Freud is not well tracked by this chart. Whole cottage industries of research have been based on various pieces of Skinner's work, and some of them rarely cite Skinner any more, but simply live in the empirical milieu he originated.

It is the same with Gordon Allport. Research on prejudice by current social psychologists rarely cites Allport except as a historical footnote. Current researchers are much more likely to cite foundational work by cognitive psychologists like Eleanor Rosch (1978). But social psychologists who study prejudice work in the same mine that Allport originally prospected. And they are asking remarkably similar questions. It was Allport, after all, who pointed out that prejudice was structured by categorization and that categorization was influenced by social context. This began the much discussed and researched area of the contact hypothesis.

But let me mention two other ideas of Allport's that have become part of the air we breathe as psychologists. First, self-esteem. For Allport the development of self-esteem was a central issue for early childhood. This is the sense of pride that comes from recognition that one can do things on one's one. First, let's note that Albert Bandura has appropriated this idea in his phrase Self-Efficacy (1997), and so some of the citations to Bandura we noted are really citations to an area of work in which Allport was a pioneer. Second, we can deplore together the self-esteem industry that has recently emerged (and seems, thankfully, to be waning). In this popular distortion of Allport's idea, self-esteem becomes everything to psychology, its alpha and omega. All things are forgiven and all things are justified as long as they contribute to self-esteem. Allport certainly never dreamed of this distortion, and his complex set of developmental tasks included much more nuance than this. But in the rush to self-esteem, it has been forgotten. Still, in this way, Allport has had as much influence on popular psychology as has Freud -- and with a similar level of distortion of his theories.

The second item I want to mention is a methodological one. Talk about methodology after dinner is a dangerous occupation. It is likely to serve more as a soporific than a stimulant. But I will hazard a few sentences. Although he was no friend of Freud's depth psychology, Gordon Allport was convinced, along with Freud, that what Freud called "the American approach to psychology" was not only boring, but misleading. Compiling ranks of statistics, averaged across individuals, leads us to what Dan McAdams (1996) has called the psychology of the stranger. It describes everyone in general and no one in particular. It misses the personal meaning of life's events, and the individual ways of responding to life's events that Allport called traits. Allport called this statistical approach to understanding human nature the nomothetic method, and contrasted its emptiness and aridity to the richness of the idiographic approach -- an approach centered on the meanings and stories of the individual. To Allport, people are both lawful and unique. If you want to see how alive this individual approach is today, come to Dan McAdams' talk this spring when he visits us. Of all the work that Gordon Allport did, this issue is still the most live one today. It is debated in much the same terms as Allport set it out fifty years ago. But it still has the vigor of fresh ideas infused into it by current theorists like McAdams (1999).

So here we have several ideas from Gordon Allport that have insinuated themselves into our current psychological dialogue. I could easily extend this list. The idea of the personal disposition that Allport introduced in 1961 ended up becoming a foil for the rise of attribution theory and the straw man for the rise of research on the fundamental attribution error. Allport's work on intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to religion was the foundation for a plethora of scaling studies of religious styles, much of which defined itself as extensions, modifications, or rejections of Allport's original approach. Complaints about the medical model in psychology today are made in terms that surely echo Allport's complaints about behaviorism.

So, for psychologists today, Allport's work is akin in its influence to Skinner's. It is a part of the air we breathe. And we can pay homage to him by doing work in almost any area of psychology while being thoughtful about its relation to the whole person. His influence will extend into our work in every area, if only as a reminder of what we are missing.

References

Allport, G. W. (1937). Personality: a psychological interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Allport, G. W. (1950). The individual and his religion. New York: McMillan.

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA:Addison-Wesley.

Allport, G.W. (1955). Becoming: Basic considerations for a psychology of personality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Allport, G.W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Allport, G.W. (1965). Letters from Jenny. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Allport, G.W., & Postman, L. (1947). The psychology of rumor. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self Efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

McAdams, D. P (1996). Personality, Modernity, and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 295-321.

McAdams, D.P. (1999). Personal narratives and the life story. In L.A. Pervin & O.P. John (Eds.) Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, (pp. 478-500). New York: Guilford.

Rosch, E. (1978). Principles of categorization. In E. Rosch & B Lloyd (Eds.), Cognition and categorization, (pp. 27-48). Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Darla Frandrup and her faithful crew of student workers for helping prepare the figures for this talk. Thanks to Reference Librarian Elizabeth Hutchins for loaning me a ruler to measure column inches, and for acting interested. Thanks to Nathan DeWall '02 for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this talk. Any errors or inconsistencies are someone else's fault.

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