Gordon Allport: The 20th Century's Psychologist (Pt 3)

The Nature of Prejudice and its cultural moment

… Continued from Part 2.

Gordon Allport was the progenitor of two major subfields of psychological research. The first was summarized in his 1937 text Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. In 1951, a survey of his colleagues ranked Allport as the second most influential figure in personality psychology. (The first was Freud.) The second subfield was intergroup psychology—the analysis of human interactions as a function of social group. While today these seem like obviously different fields of inquiry (one’s personality is not determined by social group; one’s social group is not determined by personality), during the early years of the field they seemed much harder to disentangle. The book that did the most to establish this connection in the American public discourse was a text by a group of sociologists at Berkeley, called The Authoritarian Personality.

Published in 1950 and weighing in at just under a thousand pages, the project of The Authoritarian Personality was to locate fascist tendencies within a set of dispositional characteristics. The lead author of the text was Theodor Adorno, a prominent member of a certain brand of leftist intellectual, influenced by Freud and Marx, called the Frankfurt School. The study was built around extensive interviews and tests of over 2,000 Americans. The finding that most directly captured the imagination of the public was the “F” scale, a single number that could indicate an individual’s susceptibility to fascism. A person’s “F” quotient, as assessed by a battery of questionnaires and other tests, was the culmination of traits such as adherence to conventional values, submission to in-group authority figures, aggression toward those who violate conventional values, and a preference for “tough” leaders. All of this made for a kind of composite sketch of what an authoritarian, anti-democratic person would look like.

According to this line of argument, the link between personality and social group is prejudice. When two individuals from different social groups interact, there is an opportunity for prejudice; whether or not that opportunity is taken is determined by the acting individual’s personality. This was another key claim that Adorno and his colleagues made: that ethnocentrism was highly correlated with authoritarianism. Authoritarians were likely to value their in-group members much more than their out-group members. A more democratically-minded individual, on the other hand, would subscribe to a more tolerant way of seeing things—even if she wasn’t especially fond of members of an out-group, she would at least let them do their own thing.

Overall, The Authoritarian Personality was a poor piece of social science. One sociologist, writing on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, claimed that it is “probably the most deeply flawed work of prominence in political psychology.” But it spoke to a certain moment. The book provided a scientific-seeming exhibition that resonated with two important Cold War values: (1) democracy-good, fascism-bad; and (2) social science as political technology. The “F” score was a scientifically-validated way of separating the good guys from the bad guys.

Another useful way of defining the “authoritarian personality” might have been as the inverse of Gordon Allport. Had Allport been a participant in Adorno’s study, he would likely have received about as low an “F” score as it’s possible to get. He didn’t have an authoritarian bone in his body. This is something noted by pretty much all of his students. He afforded them a great deal of room for dissent, trusting them with the opportunity to continue down lines of inquiry that he didn’t yet see the value in himself.

Which is not to say he was overly laissez fare. He looked over all his students’ work with a critical eye. Remembering his mentor’s style of revision, Thomas Pettigrew, an eminent social psychologist in his own right, claimed still to quake at the sight of the one-word dictum into which Allport packed his editorial insights. Scribbled in the margins, it meant the entire paragraph needed work: “recast.”

Allport also had a way of being charmingly credulous in a manner no authoritarian could countenance. For example, there was a large patch of blueberry bushes by his summer home in Lincolnville, Maine, which, every year, would go unharvested. One year, he employed a nearby farmer to harvest and sell the crop on his behalf. At the end of the summer, the farmer delivered the balance sheet to Gordon. Revenue from blueberry sales: $300. Cost of farm-hand labor: $500. (Not letting those blueberries go to waste? Priceless.) It was because of this particular bit of business savvy that Gordon’s colleague at Harvard, Sam Stouffer, crowned him the Blueberry King.

The reign of the Blueberry King was marked by intense cosmopolitanism. He took other people’s way of living and seeing things very seriously. Once, when invited to give the Hoernle Lecture at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University in 1956, he prepared by studying Afrikaans for six months prior to the date. He proceeded to deliver the opening of his address in exquisite Afrikaans, apologizing for his inability to deliver the entire lecture in the local tongue. The South Africans were more than a bit pleased with this, given that many of their own countrymen didn’t even speak the language. This linguistic affinity was something Allport liked to indulge, too. Allport was conversationally fluent in modern Greek, and he took a great deal of joy in rattling off dishes, soon to be conveyed for his friends’ gustatory enjoyment, when dining at Greek restaurants.

Allport maintained in an autobiographical essay that the greatest honor of his career was a bound volume of work by his students, with the dedication to Gordon “From his students—in appreciation of his respect for their individuality.” It was on the same evening that his students went around to give accounts of the ways Allport had impacted their lives. Mostly, the Americans were grateful for his guidance as a mentor during their doctoral studies. Then the Europeans began to speak. “You thank him for your theses,” said one woman, “but I thank him for my life.” This was followed by story after story of how Allport had helped students and colleagues to escape Nazi Germany and settle in the United States. (One example was William Stern, who had influenced Allport so much during that summer in Leipzig; Allport procured a job for him, in 1934, at Duke.) Until that moment, Allport hadn’t mentioned his service as a one-man refugee operation to any of his American colleagues.


In winter of 1944, Allport began co-teaching a seminar (the other instructor was Talcott Parsons) called Sociology 32. Two years later, after the Department of Social Relations was founded, it became Social Relations 284, a graduate seminar on “Prejudice and Group Conflict.” The course drew on a wide selection of sources—not only scholarly works, but also works of literature and interviews with people in the local community. Some of the scholarship was Allport’s and Parsons’ own. Others were prominent works of the time, such as The Authoritarian Personality. The literary works included E. M. Forster’s (1924) Passage to India, Richard Wright’s (1945) Black Boy, and Alan Paton’s (1948) Cry, the Beloved Country.

Students also drew on their own experiences and the experiences of those around them. They had the opportunity to conduct six to eight hour interviews (similar to the ones Adorno’s researchers did) of individuals in the Cambridge and Boston area about their experience of prejudice. They also made extensive analysis of their personal experience. Various prompts included “My personal experience with racial, religious, class attitudes,” “Formative influences on my attitudes toward minority groups,” and “My attitudes toward ethnic groups” with Allport’s elaboration that “One method for study of the complex subject of ‘prejudice’ is conscious report based on personal experience. Even though no one knows all of the factors entering into the formation of his attitudes, he does know a large number of them, and also knows how it feels to have prejudice and to be the object of other people’s prejudices.”

The class had a democratic ethos, with Allport’s employment of what he called “committees.” They were essentially group projects: each assignment was given to a cohort of two to four students, who would submit a joint report and deliver a presentation. Pettigrew, remembering the course years later, also recalled that “Women and minorities were almost always over represented in all of Gordon’s classes. He was a sympathetic ear to their concerns in a very white, Brahmin-dominated male atmosphere of Harvard in that period. And 284 was virtually the only game in town on prejudice”.

The course materials developed over a decade of teaching Social Relations 284 became Gordon Allport’s longest lasting contribution to psychology, The Nature of Prejudice. Originally published in 1954, the book did not sell well initially. Four years later, a version of the text, abridged by 40%, came out in paperback, and sales took off. It was arguably the first “popularized” work of academic psychology.

The impetus of the book, for Allport, was technology. He wrote in the preface that “Rivalries and hatreds between groups are nothing new. What is new is the fact that technology has brought these groups too close together for comfort. Russia is no longer a distant land of the steppes; it is over here. The United States is no longer remote from the Old World; it is over there, with its economic aid, movies, Coca-Cola, and political influence.” He felt that if technological engineering could bring these previously disparate groups closer together, it would take a feat of psychological engineering to get them to cooperate.

“Civilized men have gained notable mastery over energy, matter and inanimate nature generally, and are rapidly learning to control physical suffering and premature death. But, by contrast, we appear to be living in the Stone Age so far as our handling of human relationship is concerned. Our deficit in social knowledge seems to void every step our progress in physical knowledge. The surplus in wealth accumulating to the human race through the applied natural science is virtually canceled by the costs of armaments and war. Gains in medical science are widely negated by the poverty that results from wars and from trade barriers erected largely by hatred and fear.”

From the book’s publication through the end of his career, Allport maintained that its most significant contribution was the table of contents. It took him years to decide on which topics were truly relevant to a psychology of intergroup prejudice. “I have tried to offer a framework into which future developments may readily fit,” he wrote in the preface. And that’s pretty much what he did: a number of publications have been organized in the intervening years which report the field’s state of the art on the conceptual scheme Allport laid out.

One of his biggest insights was that prejudice wasn’t just the product of “prejudiced personalities.” Prejudice was a natural extension of basic cognitive processes. The basic logic is the same one followed by social psychologists today: Humans instinctively carve the world up into categories. This includes the social categories of “us” and “them,” of in-group and out-group. Whether through stereotyping, group competition, or the intrinsic desire to see oneself as on the side of the angels, intergroup conflict and prejudice is guaranteed to arise. Ten of the book’s thirty-one chapters focused on cognitive factors; only two focused on personality. The nature of prejudice, then, lay not in the unsavory dispositions of a few intolerant individuals, but as a basic function of the human mind.

The book’s other major theoretical contribution was Allport’s proposed remedy to prejudicial thinking: intergroup contact. Allport’s theory of intergroup contact was that the most effective way to mitigate prejudice was to get members of one group to spend time with the members of another—but only under certain conditions. Those conditions were: equal status, common goals, absence of competition, and support from institutional authority. If any of these conditions remains unmet, familiarity is more likely to breed contempt. This also turned out to be more or less spot on, as future work, such as by that by Tom Pettigrew, would show.

The examples of prejudice on which Allport draws throughout the books are mainly prejudices against African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and women. A point worth mentioning about the book—Allport certainly thought so, as did many of his colleagues—is that these were examples geared primarily for disabusing members of Allport’s own in-group (WASPs, essentially) of their own prejudices. By the mid-1950s, prejudice was a topic that white men were starting to take seriously. They didn’t have a choice.


The most significant milestone on this front in 1954, by a long shot, was not the publication of Allport’s book, but the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Court’s initial decision, handed down on May 17, 1954, found racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. A second decision, given in 1955, ordered that desegregation take place “with all deliberate speed”.

In part, this was an overturning of the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. An argument that bolstered this doctrine was the strain of scientifically-backed racism that was a mainstream belief in America at the time. Toward the end of the opinion in Brown, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and supported unanimously by the other justices, the Court stated that: “Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding [that ‘Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children’] is amply supported by modern authority. [11] Any language [347 U.S. 483, 495]  in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

What footnote eleven made reference to was the modern authority of recent work in the social sciences. Allport’s Nature of Prejudice was not among those explicitly mentioned; nor was Allport one of the expert witness to give testimony during the case. But he was a member of a committee, put together by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, which was crucial for the argument of Brown. In the final version of statement of the SPSSI committee given to the Court, two points were made: segregation had negative impacts on both racial groups, and that quick and effective desegregation was by all means possible.

Both of these were points Allport took seriously. In a meeting on the problem of desegregation, held several months after the Court’s initial ruling, Allport disseminated a written statement that “a firm stand should be taken, so as to brook no pussy-footing, unnecessary delays, or skullduggery.” Gradual solutions must be avoided because, as the conference members claimed, they are “predicated on the assumption that attitudinal changes must precede social changes… There is no evidence to support the contention that public education and attitudinal preparation for acceptance of desegregation in themselves increased the chances of effective desegregation.” The consensus of this conference became the Social Science Memo, providing social scientific evidence in favor of speedy desegregation, which in one form or another, played a role in the Court’s 1955 ruling. There’s an argument to be made that making it into footnote 11 of Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in Brown, as well lending empirical support to the claim that desegregation was something that should happen sooner rather than later, was the high water mark of social science’s contribution to society in the twentieth century.

The connection between the unfolding legislation of desegregation and the theory of intergroup contact was not lost on Allport. He spelled it out in Chapter 30 of his book: “the argument for civil rights legislation rests on the fact that it can change the sociocultural structure in the direction of improving opportunities for equal-status contact in the pursuit of common interests. For example, by outlawing restrictive covenants the Supreme Court makes it somewhat easier for Negroes to disperse themselves in a community and thus avoid the high congestion that leads to the perception of ‘threat.’ In the same way, all antidiscrimination legislation helps to dissolve the barriers that segregation imposes, and frees the forces of ‘equal-status contact’ so that they may operate to reduce prejudice and tension… Social science tells us that if we wish to reduce prejudice in our society attacks on segregation (legislative or otherwise) are scientifically sound and of high priority.” (Italics original; Nature of Prejudice, pg 444-5).

More generally, Allport drew on social and cultural insights to construct his overarching vision of personality. Allport believed one’s personality could not be fully described without also giving an account of the social structure into which that personality is embedded. And in pursuing this line of thought, he ended up much more concerned with social phenomena than he might have initially anticipated.

… Continued in Part 4.


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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