#66: Gordon Allport, the 20th Century's Psychologist
Cognitive Revolution | My four-part biographical sketch of the progenitor of social and personality psychology
This is Cognitive Revolution, my show about the personal side of the intellectual journey. Each week, I interview an eminent scientist, writer, or academic about the experiences that shaped their ideas. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts.
Gordon Allport was one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. He was the progenitor of the modern forms of both social and personality psychology. His 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, is one of the most cited works in the whole field. He also happens to be one of my favorite thinkers of all time.
Allport's core drive as a psychologist was to leverage experimental rigor in service of broad humanistic understanding. He wanted reliable experiments that gave legitimate results. But he also wanted those results to tell us something profound about what it means to be human. Not just in an abstract, for-people-on-average kind of way. But as it pertains to the life of an individual, their lived experience, and the idiosyncrasies in the way they perceive the world. Allport was one of the first cognitivists. Though we don't associate him with the Cognitive Revolution, many of the early leaders of cognitive science were his students (e.g., Jerome Bruner, George Miller). Allport also had an abiding appreciation for the fact that a person is not just the contents of their mind, but is a product of their social context. Considered in totality, Allport embodied many of the most important insights and perspectives in 20th century psychology.
In this biographical essay, I sketch a portrait of Gordon Allport, his work, and the social and intellectual context in which that work was produced. I tell of how Gordon struggled in graduate school, and how he also lost his 'spark' while studying at Harvard; how a trip to Constantinople, and later Germany, reignited that spark; how the two dominate paradigms in social science of the first half of the twentieth century (Behaviorism and Freudianism) led to Allport's modern psychology; and how the scientific study of prejudice in the 1950s led to some of psychology's most important impacts on society. I go deep on Allport's most well known work, The Nature of Prejudice, as well the book that was his ultimate life goal but he could never get right: Letters from Jenny. There's so much in his story that I resonate with and that I think contemporary psychology can learn from and aspire to. I hope you'll feel the same.
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