Gordon Allport. Trait Theory & Functional Autonomy of Drives

In this article, let’s take a look at the key ideas of Gordon Allport – Trait Theory & Functional Autonomy of Drives..


Allport is most known for his ideas in personality psychology. He described two major ways to study personality. The Nomothetic approach seeks general laws that can be applied to many different people, such as extraversion or agreeableness. The Idiographic approach attempts to understand the unique aspects of a particular individual, such as evaluating past experiences and their effect.

In Self Discovery, we use a combination of both the approaches.

Trait Theory

Allport believed each individual to be unique and therefore recommended a combination of three dimensions of human traits to ascertain personality. This forms the basis of his Trait Theory. He listed 4500 trait like words and organized these into three levels of traits. 

  • A Cardinal trait is the one trait that dominates and shapes a person’s behaviour. Such as a need for money, fame etc.
  • A Central trait is a general characteristic found in some degree in every person, such as Honesty. The intensity of this trait varies from one individual to another.
  • A Secondary trait is a characteristics seen only in certain circumstances (such as particular likes or dislikes that a very close friend may know). They must be included to provide a complete picture of human complexity.

Functional Autonomy of Drives

Allport was one of the first researchers to point out the Functional Autonomy of Drives. According to this hypothesis, a drive originates as a reaction to a motive, but may outgrow the motive as the reason for a behaviour. The drive then becomes autonomous.

In Self Awareness, this idea can be used very effectively for understanding the origins of some of our values & drives, that may have become autonomous and may not be. in line with our current life goals.


Self Awareness Questions

  • What is your cardinal trait?
  • What are your two most prominent secondary traits?
  • Outline one of your drives that has outgrown its motive.