Alfred Alder and Gordon Allport both established themselves as leading personality theorists in psychology, with a major influence on our understanding of human psychology from psychoanalytic and humanistic points of view. Comparing the different aspects of these two personality theories reveals important insights into current theoretical and clinical psychology practice.
Allport's Personality Theory
Gordon Allport’s dispositional theory focuses more on conscious behavior than nearly any other psychological personality theory currently studied today. He believed that a person’s behavior and personality could be understood by identifying the personality traits or “dispositions” of that person. He identified three classes of dispositions, which included cardinal, central and secondary dispositions.
Cardinal dispositions are described by Allport as traits that encompass a person’s entire personality. He also described cardinal dispositions as rare, with few people possessing traits that dominate their personality in every aspect of their lives.
Central traits consist of five to ten core traits which make up the majority of a person’s personality. Central traits would include dispositions such as friendliness and loyalty.
According to Allport, secondary traits as those dispositions which are situational (meaning that they are only noticeable within specific situations). He believed that there are many more secondary dispositions than there are central dispositions, and that secondary dispositions are much more difficult to identify and study than either central or cardinal dispositions. He believed that these dispositions or traits are the components that make up every individual’s core being, which Allport referred to as the Proprium.
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"Personality is less a finished product than a transitive process. While it has some stable features, it is at the same time continually undergoing change."
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A core aspect of dispositional theory is the assumption that people are usually conscious of what they are doing, meaning that their behavior and personality is driven by conscious, rather than unconscious, motivations as theorized by psychoanalysts such as Freud and humanistic/existential theorists such as Alfred Adler. Allport did not entirely discount possible subconscious behavioral influences, however he firmly believed that people are mostly conscious of their motivations rather than being driven strictly by unconscious, latent needs. Furthermore, Allport believed that although people do seek to reduce tension, they also proactively create tension in the process of shaping their environment and their own psychological growth, which is also quite different from Adler’s theory regarding how people handle tension in their lives.
Allport’s theory also states that although central (and in some cases cardinal) dispositions influence personality characteristics in a general sense, it is the many secondary traits that have the greatest influence on situational behavior. So according to Allport, one may behave differently depending upon the situation as the secondary traits manifest themselves within each situation.
From an interpersonal relational point of view, Allport’s dispositional theory helps to identify individual differences in personality from a situational perspective. Allport believed in “functional autonomy,” which means that an individual’s personality is the sum of the traits they possess now, rather than a product and sum of their past experiences (as is the case with Adler’s theory). Behaviors such as habits, which form due to something that happened in the past (such as overeating due to an emotionally stressful situation), are seen by Allport as continuing due to current reasons (overeating because food is simply available). Hence, according to Allport, our interpersonal relationships and behaviors within each interpersonal situation are equal to the sum of our dispositions, and differences in each interpersonal situation are due to secondary traits that surface based upon the type of environment in which we find ourselves.
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Adler's Personality Theory
In contrast to Allport’s Disposition theory, Adler’s approach was quite different. Adler was part of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s inner circle for many years during which he and Freud had many disagreements with regard to personality theory. Adler (along with a group of individuals that agreed with Adler’s theory), broke away from Freud to form the Society for Individual Psychology. This move was significant because while he did agree with and was influenced by many of Freud’s basic assumptions (such as the impact of the subconscious on personality and behavior), Adler also believed that significant portions of Freud’s theories (such as the oral, anal, and genital phases, the Oedipus complex, and other well known psychoanalytic aspects of a sexual nature) should be taken metaphorically rather than literally as Freud had intended.
Similar to other psychological theorists such as Maslow and Jung, Adler believed that there is a strong, central, motivational force behind every individual’s personality and behavior. However, he believed this force to be fueled by an innate feeling of inferiority. Adler depicted the force as “striving for perfection” or “striving for superiority” in which the individual starts from a perceived position of inferiority and works toward successes, improvements, and accomplishments within their life to reach the pinnacle of their potential as a person.
"The goal of the human soul is conquest, perfection, security, superiority. Every child is faced with so many obstacles in life that no child grows up without striving for some form of significance."
According to Adler, if an individual experiences a number of failures rather than the successes needed to overcome the innate feelings of inferiority, to the extent that the failures grow too difficult face and accept, the individual might just develop an “inferiority complex” which drives their behavior toward a number of behaviors that manifest the sense of inferiority that they are experiencing.
This sense of inferiority can also elicit a “superiority complex” defense mechanism where the individual feigns superiority to cover up for the sense of inferiority. In contrast to an inferiority complex, a superiority complex may manifest in personalities that tend to put others down, bullies and those that go out of their way to put forth a pretense that they are better than others.
In both cases (whether the result is a superiority or inferiority complex), ultimately the individual turns inward and more self-focused and self centered in reaction to the strong sense of inferiority they are feeling.
According to Adler, some individuals develop neither an inferiority nor a superiority complex when experiencing a strong sense of inferiority, but instead compensate in other, more positive ways, such as working harder to get better grades if they feel inferior regarding their academic performance.
He also taught that a person’s order of birth among siblings can have a significant impact in determining how individuals react to a sense of inferiority. According to Adler, each sibling is not born into the same family but instead, the oldest is born into their family as an only child, the youngest into a family with only older siblings, and the middle children into a family where there are both older and younger siblings. He also theorized that because of these differences the oldest child experiences a sense of inferiority when younger siblings join the family, watching the attention shift away from them to younger siblings leaving them predisposed to additions and other behaviors that result from trying to regain the attention from parents (and others) that they lost. In addition he postulated that the youngest children, being more pampered and protected, are more likely to grow up with personality issues that stem from a feeling of being powerless within the society around them.
Regarding situational behavior specifically, Adler’s theory claims that the extent to which a person feels inferior within a given situation determines how they will behave and handle the situation. For those that have overcome the innate sense of inferiority (at least with regard to a particular situation), such individuals will feel comfortable and excel within that situation. For those individuals that have a sense of inferiority within a situation, or coping outwardly with a superiority complex or inferiority complex, they will exhibit either behaviors akin to a bully or one trying to impress others as superior, or may even tend to shy away from others and/or the situation in which or for which they feel inferior.
He also believed that a third possibility is that those who feel inferior within a situation may opt to compensate through positive means, such as an athlete working out in the weight room to improve themselves and remove their sense of inferiority on the playing field.
Comparison and Conclusion
Both Adler’s humanistic existential theory and Allport’s dispositional and trait theory have merit. Adler’s focus was primarily on the subconscious and the influences individuals experience starting early in life (such as birth order) that continue to dictate their behavior on a subconscious level as they grow older. In contrast, Allport points to aspects of personality (called traits) that determine a person’s personality and behavior in the present, with little regard for the past or for the subconscious world. Both theories explain situational and interpersonal dynamics in a similar way in that a person’s behavior within a given situation is largely based upon the “baggage” they bring into the situation (relative inferiority within the situation or secondary traits). However, in Adler’s case the “baggage” is subconsciously driven whereas with Allport’s theory the individual is consciously driven.
It is important to note that both theories cannot be tested for falsity, nor does either theory completely explain behavior and personality, and instead they only identify aspects of behavior and personality that were previously not considered or unknown. To some extent Allport’s dispositions can be tested and measured, however the result is labeling, and again without explanation, whereas Adler’s theory of inferiority, while sounding logical and with some degree of merit, thus far cannot be measured (only subjectively observed). These facts do not discount either theory, as both have made a substantial impact within the discipline of psychology and have led to further study in both humanistic and trait areas of psychology, furthering our knowledge in these areas. Hence, although flawed, both theories have proven valuable in increasing our understanding of human psychology.