Gordon Allport: The 20th Century's Psychologist (Pt 1)

A legend goes to grad school: "science, SCIENCE, SCIENCE!!!!"

Born in Montezuma, Indiana, in 1897, Gordon Allport was not a New Englander. He was not bred into the Harvard tradition, nor was he uniformly smitten with it; but by the end of his career he would have spent the better part of five decades on the Harvard campus. Nonetheless, he was brought up with all the intensity of an élite, Puritanical New England family. They were devout Methodists. “What children need is proper teaching and instructing—not beatings,” Gordon’s father, John Allport, once said. It was an insight that came only after conducting an accomplished program of beatings on his four sons.1

Gordon’s mother, Nellie Allport, was a keen observer of trends, both religious and secular. She could recite long passages of scripture from memory. She also read William James and Edward Griggs. In a personal notebook, she once observed: “this age [is] one of personality.” She was speaking of the age her son, Gordon, would grow up in. The American public was undergoing a shift from discourse about “character” to one about “personality.” Character was a concept of the nineteenth century. Emerson defined it as “moral order seen through the medium of individual nature.” Personality, likewise, was a concept that located the center of gravity of a person’s disposition, but it did so without the moral baggage of character. Character was something found in storybook heroes and community leaders. The urbane and morally flexible socialites of the early twentieth century had no need for character. They had personality.

Gordon Allport entered Harvard in 1915. His brother, Floyd, had already attended, earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology two years before Gordon’s arrival. Though Floyd had already established himself at Harvard, the transition wasn’t a smooth one for Gordon. In his first semester, Gordon earned “an array of D’s and C’s.”2 But he was industrious. He planned his work time out in half-hour increments, sticking to an efficiently regimented schedule. In 1919, Floyd earned his PhD. His dissertation was on the “effect of the group upon individual and mental processes.”3

Floyd was invited to stay on at Harvard as an instructor. The following year he was made an editor at the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Gordon took his degree, in 1919, in Philosophy and Economics. Then he got as far away from Harvard as he could.

He ended up at Robert College, in Constantinople. His official post was as a missionary. It was a title that had more to do with name than zeal. Mostly his duties consisted in teaching English. (Which, per long-standing tradition, is a well-understood code for drinking with one’s friends and exploring the foreign locale.)4 Floyd didn’t support Gordon’s trip to the Ottoman Empire, and almost as soon as he had touched down encouraged him to return to the United States. Floyd ensured him that a scholarship could be secured. Accommodation wouldn’t be an issue; Gordon could stay at his place.

Gordon equivocated over returning to the U.S. He liked Robert College and Constantinople. It was an ancient and beguiling city, full of “sensuous beauty” and “spiritual depth.” His decision was between professional development and personal wanderlust. Professional development won out, and he returned to Harvard after only a year in Constantinople.

He traveled back to Cambridge by way of Vienna, where his brother, Fayette, was stationed for the U.S. Trade Commission. Gordon was curious about the “frantic worship” surrounding the ideas of a notable Viennese scholar, Sigmund Freud, and attempted to arrange a meeting. With all the “callow forwardness characteristic of age twenty-two,” he sent the eminent analyst a note. He later recalled Freud’s response: “a kind reply in his own handwriting inviting me to come to his office at a certain time.” Gordon visited Freud at his home, 19 Berggasse, on July 28, 1920.

Freud welcomed Gordon into his office, graciously and in English. Upon sitting down Freud asked him what he would like to discuss. It was, evidently, the first occasion on which Gordon had given the question any thought. The two men sat silently for a moment: Freud waiting for Gordon to provide a reason for his visit, and Gordon waiting for one to occur to him. Gordon fumbled around for something interesting to say. He alighted on an observation he’d made on the tram ride over. He had seen a little boy with a dirt phobia, who had complained to his mother over and over again, “I don’t want to sit there… don’t let that dirty man sit beside me.” Gordon felt that this phobia stood in intriguing juxtaposition to his mother’s “dominant and purposive” look as a “well-starched Hausfrau.” Gordon retailed this anecdote as a kind of psychoanalytic fodder, in hopes of watching the great Professor Freud in action. Freud listened intently to the story, and upon receipt of the full briefing, searched Gordon with his eyes for a quiet moment. Intoning gently, Freud leaned forward and asked: “And was that little boy you?”5

Allport did his best to convey that the little boy had, in fact, been a little boy. Trying a different conversational tact, he informed Freud of his plans to return to Harvard. He asked if there were any American analysts with whom he should consult. “No” was the thrust of Freud’s answer. It rather alarmed Allport to hear, as he later recalled, that “Freud failed to see why I should waste time at Harvard when no adequate representative of his school [was] present.” Nevertheless, Allport left the meeting neither especially daunted nor inspired. He didn’t make note of Freud’s analysis of the boy in his journal, only telling the story many years later. But the encounter had symbolic significance. Allport would later develop a personality psychology based on the most profound elements of Freud’s insights, while leaving out his “psychoanalytic excesses.” Allport’s encounter with Freud put those excesses on display.


Graduate school was not a time of inspiration for Allport. He kept a detailed journal of his experience. An early entry reads: “science, SCIENCE, SCIENCE!!!!… [I feel myself] valiantly swimming the whirlpool—competing, repressing, stealing the march, stretching my talents, losing my romance and mourning sadly.”6 And a later one: “Must I go on with the necessary sham [of graduate school]? Is it necessary? I can do it, putting on intellectuality and pseudo-intellectuality; and finally I can attain the goal. But what will become of the true spark of my inner nature?”7

The most important figure in Gordon’s graduate school career was his brother Floyd. Harvard’s psychology program was in a period of decline. William James had died in 1910, and the department’s identity had gone with him. Floyd Allport was one of the instructors hired in the years after James’ death. He was also the one who first suggested to Gordon that he work on personality.

For his own research, Floyd was taken with a rising star in the field, John Watson, who sought to remake psychology in the image of biology. James’s psychology had been a philosophical one. It had piqued a great deal of interest. But it had not inspired any particular agenda of experimental inquiry. The school of thought called Behaviorism—of which Watson was champion, and Floyd a disciple—had an idea about what that agenda should be.

But it was not an idea that Gordon was sympathetic to; it failed to ignite the “true spark” of his inner nature. Another figure at Harvard at the time was the physiological psychologist Edward Titchener (a student of Wilhelm Wundt), who was the kingpin of a clique within Harvard’s psychology circles. Allport presented his nascent work on personality—arguing that it consisted of a bundle of definable “traits”—to a room of rowdy, cigar smoking Titchener devotees.8 The talk incited the group to produce “one of the greatest silences you can imagine.” They proceeded to dismiss him as insufficiently scientific. It was at this point Gordon thought about quitting the field altogether. “There were times,” he wrote in a letter to his parents, “when I absolutely did not see the fulfillment of my purpose ahead.”

Still, he went through with his dissertation, rushing through it in two years.9 He entitled it “The Social Influence: An experimental study of the effect of the group upon individual mental processes.” The basic argument was that every social interaction (every “social relation” were his exact words) featured two potential dimensions of conflict: personality and group. People could find themselves at odds with one another because they had different natural dispositions, or because they were members of opposing social factions. 

It was also during graduate school that Allport met his future wife, Ada Gould. She was a participant in one of his studies. Gould was a student of psychology herself, at Radcliffe, and earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s psychology laboratory in 1921. Their relationship was tuned to a common intellectual aesthetic. Allport wrote of Gould that she possessed “more than the exquisite indulgence of an Epicure; there was the depth of happiness such as Socrates might approve and [Epicurus] envy.” Gould wrote in a letter to Allport that “You have taught me the cause of mankind; you have taught me the glories of the enchanted islands; you have taught me the secret of life—and hence the nature of God.” This kind of sweaty philosophical fervor was a tone commonly assumed in their correspondence.

Post-dissertation, Allport found himself encumbered by life in Cambridge. He hadn’t liked who graduate school had turned him into. “I hate my Cantabrigian personality,”10 he wrote in a letter to a friend from his time at Robert College. “My R.C. personality is my favorite.” In 1922, under the guise of professional development, he set sail for Europe. Ada wasn’t able to join Gordon on his venture. But she understood the nature of the journey. Ada “wished a big wish for me,” Allport wrote of the day of his departure: “namely that in Europe I should return to my idealism, which was quashed out by two trying years in Cambridge.” His destination was the University of Berlin.


Germany is in many ways the birthplace of experimental psychology. The first experimental psychology lab was Wilhelm Wundt’s in Leipzig; it represented the collision of Germany’s physiological laboratories and Britain’s empiricist philosophy that spawn modern psychology. But by the early 1920s, Germany’s universities were no longer the vanguard. For Allport, his trip there was a sort of pilgrimage, more for connecting with his discipline’s spiritual roots than for honing his skills on the cutting edge. He was moved by the opportunity to commune with the great men of this tradition who were still around: Wolfgang Köhler, Carl Stumpf, Max Wertheimer, and “Herr Professor Doktor von So and So” as Allport called the rest of them. But by this point they were more figures of legend than incisive founts of contemporary scholarship. “I have not delved too heavily into German psychology,” Allport wrote in December 1922. “Operas, plays, excursions, friendships, and more than a little gentle philandering complete my enjoyable schedule of pursuits.” He later described this period as a “second intellectual dawn”—a more profound exercise in the habits of an open mind than his graduate studies at Harvard. Nothing, it seems, revitalizes one’s idealism like a little gentle philandering.

One scholar did have a lasting impact on Allport: a Hamburg-based psychologist named William Stern. Stern was a prominent figure in German psychology, and had published a book, Person und Sache, which sought to return the study of individuality to the fore of the field. It was, at last, an aim which Allport could get behind. In his thesis, Allport had criticized Stern for not distinguishing between descriptive and prescriptive aspects of personality—for conflating the psychological facts of personality with the moral ideal of character. Stern was quick to counter this assertion when they first met. Full appreciation of psychology, he argued, was only possible through understanding of philosophy. Allport was initially taken aback by the flagrant unscientificness of the rebuttal. But it was under Stern’s philosophically-minded tutelage that Allport regained his sense of what the full human scope of psychology could entail.

In 1923, Allport wrote to Gould of a revelation that occurred to him during a summer stint working with Stern in Hamburg. He was finally able to put his finger on what had dissatisfied him about his dissertation. “Even if the analysis is perfect, something is lacking. . . . Who would be so inhuman as to identify Miss PENN [another participant in his study] with the one original and only Skook [his pet name for Ada]. No, it is the Personality itself that is lacking! The problem has worried me muchly, and it is this sense of inadequacy that has kept me... from working out articles from the old thesis.”

The scales fallen from his eyes, Allport drafted his first paper based on the insight, called “The Study of the Undivided Personality,” and sent it to the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Published in 1924, the paper was a criticism of a chapter on personality in a book, called Social Psychology, recently published by his brother Floyd. While Gordon felt Floyd’s book featured “less nonsense than most books on the subject,” his time in Germany had afforded him enough critical distance to see the issues in the Behaviorist approach to social behavior. “Floyd’s astoundingly neat system will not suffice,” Gordon wrote in correspondence with an old Harvard professor. Floyd was an editor at the Journal, but he agreed to publish Gordon’s paper nonetheless. “You seem to be developing a type of Psychology somewhat different from mine,” Floyd wrote to Gordon. Though he respected his little brother’s effort, Floyd didn’t buy the argument. He accused Gordon’s new approach to psychology of relying too heavily on “‘Gestalt’ and pretzels,” while allowing that “it is the next best thing to mine.”11

It was not a joke that Gordon took lightly. Floyd “just doesn’t seem to feel anymore,” wrote Gordon in 1923. “He writes to me as he would to an unknown prof, in some distant dinky college… I truly do not care if I never see my brothers and sisters-in-law again.” In 1922, for reasons that appear never to have been fully disclosed, Floyd had left for a position at the University of North Carolina. He never returned to Harvard.

Before returning to the U.S., Allport spent a year in Cambridge, England. Then, in 1924, he won an appointment as an instructor at Harvard’s Department of Social Ethics. “I have felt pretty low about leaving Europe and returning to—heaven knows what” he wrote to a friend about his return to Harvard. Allport described his research program as one that would “draw from individual psych, social psych and psychoanalysis all the data available concerning individual differences in ability, personality, mental and characteral ‘types,’ [and] the reaction of the individual in the group.” Floyd was not considered for the Harvard position. Neither was he thrilled by the news that it had been offered to Gordon.

On June 20, 1925, Gordon and Ada married. In autumn of the next year, Allport took a post at Dartmouth, in search of a more leisurely pace of existence. Never able to settle fully yet incapable of remaining away, the Allports returned to Harvard in September of 1929. This time for good. They’d found the leisure they’d been looking for in New Hampshire. But ultimately the pair yearned for the thrum of cosmopolitanism. In a journal entry, Allport recorded that: “I miss the eccentrics, deviates, and Jews12 which spice the student body at Harvard.” It is a sentiment which no doubt has occurred to many Harvard students through the ages, though rarely has it been located with so few words.


Edward Boring, the chair of the psychology department, was initially rather keen to get Allport back to Cambridge. He liked that Allport seemed to have all of the drive and none of the ego—a rare combination of traits to find in someone wandering the Harvard Yard. Boring felt that Gordon might be the final piece of turning the psychology faculty into a “real department.”

But Boring’s vision never quite panned out. It was over the following decade or so that the department would ossify into the separate camps of “sociotropes” and “biotropes.” They represented two distinct visions about what psychology ought to study and how it ought to study it. The biotropes followed in the Behaviorist tradition established by John Watson. The B. M. O. C. was now B. F. Skinner, the preeminent psychologist of mid-twentieth century America. The Behaviorist experimental method now dominated the field, with its unassailable air of scientific rigor. Allport’s sociotropes, meanwhile, had less stable footing. They wanted to say something closer to what Freud had said, but with a more respectable way of arriving at their point. It took them a while to figure out how to do this.

Psychology at the time was dominated by two disparate poles: Behaviorist experimentalism and Freudian analysis. Allport wanted to draw on them both. And it was at the intersection of these two contradictory—and, in both cases, rather over-dramatically stated—philosophies that modern psychology began to take shape.

… Continued in Part 2.


Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider sharing or subscribing. It’s a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.

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1

I’m trying something new. This is another long piece, one about one of the twentieth century’s most influential psychologists, Gordon Allport. Instead of publishing the whole thing, I’m breaking it up piecemeal. I didn’t intend to publish it like this when originally I’d composed it (what I intended is another story entirely), and if I had I probably would’ve written it differently. Oh well. Here it is. Part two comes out on Monday.

2

This was my first inkling that Allport was a kindred spirit of my own.

3

It’s kind of bananas to me how this is essentially the same topic as my own thesis. There’s an argument to be made that Floyd’s was the first dissertation on social psychology proper (though I’d argue that the field didn’t take its modern form until Gordon started practicing it). And though my own work is obviously on a more specific topic, I’m still investigating the same thing: how group membership affects mental processes. It makes me wonder if we’ve all just been sitting here, writing the same dissertation, over and over again, for the past one hundred and two years, compelled like Sisyphus to perform the same task throughout eternity.

4

Between the poor grades in undergraduate, planning his work schedule out in thirty minute increments, and fucking off to Istanbul instead of doubling down on career responsibilities, it was at this point I started to suspect I might actually be Gordon Allport’s reincarnation.

5

This anecdote is a staple of biographical material on Allport. No one fails to mention it when discussing his early experiences. Yet the punchline is never quite lands as well as the author intends (even when Allport told it… Okay, especially when Allport told it). So, between you and me, I’ll admit that I spiced up the preceding action a little—not going so far as to introduce novel plot points, but trying to imagine the scene in a little more detail (e.g., no one ever claimed that Freud ‘learned forward’ before ‘intoning gently’.) I don’t know if you found it funny, but it was a scene I certainly had a good time imagining.

6

“science, SCIENCE, SCIENCE!!!!” is my new favorite quote. If I were in a yearbook, this would go under my picture.

7

But seriously. Allport’s two statements here—that grad school is a whirlpool pulling between “stretching my talents” and “losing my romance”; that it’s about putting on “pseudo-intellectuality” to “attain the goal” at the expense of the spark of one’s “inner nature”—it’s like they were pulled from my own journals.

8

While the ‘boy’s club’ is no doubt an unfortunately common motif in scientific history, rarely has it sounded quite this fun. Like, a room full of rowdy, cigar-smoking gangster psychophysicists. Sounds way more engaging than the interactions I’ve had with contemporary psychophysicists. I also find a great deal of comfort in the fact that they found Allport’s work ‘insufficiently scientific.’ Fine. Who cares? Fuck ‘em. Science, SCIENCE, SCIENCE!!!!!

9

This was the deal sealer for me. Finishing his thesis in two years? My hero. Technically, since my PhD program is three years long, and I squandered my entire first year (at least in terms of research activity), I will also be finishing my PhD in two years. (It doesn’t make for a good thesis. But it does make for a finished one.) At any rate, this is when I knew. Reincarnation for sure. Also note… same thesis.

10

Fuck. Same.

11

Too heavy a reliance on “‘Gestalt’ and pretzels.” This is my new favorite criticism to level at my German colleagues.

12

Gordon, I’m sure, would be delighted to hear that there are many individuals of Jewish heritage on the Harvard campus today. However, in his day, while Jews were admitted to Harvard and similar schools during this period, they were subjected to quotas. Harvard wasn’t the worst offender on this front; that was Yale, which maintained an informal Jewish quota through the 1960s. Nonetheless, who gets in to Harvard and on what basis is a problem that is still with us today.