The authors of the first textbooks of personality psychology had a front row seat at the emergence of the new discipline. Based on their viewpoint, they drew distinctions between the newly scientific thinking about personality and the everyday thought about personality that had come before. Their opinions are of particular interest if we care to understand the difference between professional and everyday judgments of personality -- a topic I have been exploring recently (see here).

Among the first of these new textbooks was Gordon Allport's (1937) Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. In Chapter 2 of that volume, Allport traced the history of the term personality, presenting 50 numbered definitions.

Defining one's subject makes sense, of course, but 50 definitions? Allport was generous in assigning numbers -- he placed them parenthetically after a definition, like this (1), as I will do in reporting on them -- incrementing his numbers even when rather similar concepts were defined. That said, Allport's 50 are quite helpful to us in particular because he made sure to distinguish between popular and scientific interpretations of the term.

Allport began by tracing the word "personality" to its origins, "persona" -- the word for the mask initially used in Greek theater. Drawing on the mask conception, Allport suggested that a first definition of personality was "external appearance" as opposed to the true self (number 1, in Allport's list).

Other definitions Allport included were "character or role which the player assumes in the drama (2)", and "prestige and dignity (4)".  He also presented some related terms, such as "parson" and "personage" (Definitions 7 and 8) which are included as part of the 50 definitions.

Allport moves on to a group of religious usages that are archaic and rare, e.g., the "Members of the Trinity (10)", and then onto a number of philosophical definitions which seem to be precursors of contemporary definitions, including, "self-consciousness and memory (12)", and "Selfhood (17)". Allport's list continues with such legal meanings such as "any individual enjoying legal status (27)", sociological definitions, e.g., "the ultimate granule of the human group (35)", and then onto definitions based on "external appearance" (including "biosocial" definitions) such as, "superficial attractiveness (40)", and "social-stimulus value (41)". The psychological definitions begin at #42, with the first spot going to Morton Prince for the (then) well-known:

"The sum-total of all the biological innate dispositions, impulses, tendencies, appetites, and instincts of the individual, and the acquired dispositions and tendencies-acquired by experience." (42)

The list concludes with Allport's choice for his book:

"...the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his unique adjustments to his environment. (50)"

Like Roback nine years earlier (last week's post), Allport saw the everyday use of the term personality as focused on easily-identified superficialities. For example, in Allport's commentary, he identified the aforementioned "superficial attractiveness (40)" definition as particularly popular.

"Colloquial speech," Allport went on, "influenced by the idols of the theater and the market-place, equate personality with charm...", and Allport continues that, "A cosmetic advertisement claims that a certain lipstick will confer ‘personality' upon its user. In this instance personality is not even skin-deep!"

Allport notes the limits of such popular perceptions, as he sees them:

"Popular definitions have two serious defects. First, they refer only to some portion of the intricate pattern of personal life, generally to the vitality, expansiveness or expressiveness of the individual. Secondly, they invariably consider personality only in terms of its influence on other people, and never in terms of its subjective or interior organization."

Like Roback before him, Allport distinguishes scientific personality psychology as being oriented toward a factual, level-headed assessment of the inner person, unaffected by superficial charms. The scientist who studies personality will bring to it a concern for a person's subjective, interior mental organization.

Rather than admiring the superficially pretty, charismatic, or otherwise attractive people, Allport suggested that psychologists need to reveal the worth of the quieter person and perhaps, by inference, also reveal the darker side of the celebrity. In Allport's vision, there is a promissory note that psychologists might revalue people, with some consequential upheaval in how others might be seen: extolling the virtues of the modest and moral, so that they are weighed more equally with the expansive and powerful.

Revaluing people according to their innermost qualities, such as their private goodness, as opposed to the more typical valuing of people according to their worldly power, influence, and superficial attainments, is an idea that potentially subverts the status quo. As I read it, implicit in Allport's reports from the front row of the emerging discipline, is the idea that as the science of personality psychology got underway, people's evaluations of one another might soon shift toward a revised appreciation of who was worth admiring. It might lower the status of those who were most attractive and outgoing, and elevate the status of those with inner virtues. Clearly, not everyone would be pleased by the results of this new approach.


Allport, G. (1937). Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Copyright © 2010 John D. Mayer

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