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Trait Theories

Gordon Allport (1897-1967) is the psychologist who found 50 definitions of personality. He is best known for his vigorous arguments on behalf of trait theories. A trait, he said, is a predisposition to act the same way in a variety of situations. Traits are real, he said, not concepts; they are as real as height, weight, or eye color.

Allport (1961) gave an example of how a trait could affect an individual's personality. He offered the example of an American citizen of the 1950s whose dominant trait was fear of communism. Such a person typically regarded any intellectual, liberal, college professor, African-American, Jew, or peace organizer as a "communist sympathizer," whether this was true or not. All triggered the same reaction of hatred and fear. Such a trait could be long lasting, and it could influence a lot of behavior. A person obsessed with the Communist Conspiracy might think about it a lot, use the idea to evaluate people met for the first time, bring it up a lot in conversation, and more. The distaste for communism and everything connected with it could become a focal point of the individual's personality structure.

What was a "trait," to Allport? Did Allport believe that traits could change?

This example also shows that Allport regarded traits as learned rather than inherited. Could traits change? Yes. Anything that could be learned could be unlearned. Allport wrote, "Any theory that regards personality as stable, fixed, or invariable is wrong" (1961, p.175). If the person preoccupied with a fear of communism in the 1950s were alive today, he or she might well have less fear of communism and might no longer be preoccupied with the subject.

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