Gordon Allport: Becoming (1955)

This is an extract from a short text by Gordon Allport (Becoming, 1955) subtitled: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality. In these passages, the human being is seen as characterized by a process of individuation (personal) and socialization (tribal). According to the vision of the human being held by Gordon Allport:

“All his life. this human being will be attempting to reconcile these two modes of becoming, the tribal and the personal: the one that makes him into a mirror, the other that lights the lamp of the individuality within”.


The Goal of Psychology

The goal of psychology is to reduce discord among our philosophies of man, and to establish a scale of probable truth, so that we may feel increasingly certain that one interpretation is truer than another. The goal is as yet unattained; as our discussion suggests, it probably lies far in the future.

Since psychology is new at its job we must expect a lively spirit of controversy to prevail. Fortunately, creative controversy is possible in our free society. It is probably a good thing to have Lockeans and Leibnitzians, positivists and personalists, Freudians and neo-Freudians, objectivists and phenomenologists; those who favor mathematical models, animal models, mechanical models, psychiatric models – or no models. They cannot all be correct in all particulars, but it is essential that they have freedom to work in their own ways. Our censure should be reserved for those who would close all doors but one. The surest way to lose truth is to pretend that one already possesses it. For narrow systems, dogmatically held, tend to trivialize the mentality of the investigator and of his students. Sad to relate, we have examples of such trivialization in psychology today. One degrading form is the restrictive mentality that certain positivists would impose.

Theory, they tell us, is senseless, at least theory that deals with the inner workings of man’s nature. They advise us to derive our concepts solely from our methods of study, never from the assumed functioning of human life, even though concepts derived from method can tell us only about method and nothing about the nature of man’s being or becoming. But operationism is not the only agent of intolerance. Some devotees of Freudianism, phenomenology, Thomism, and other preferred schools of thought also close all doors but their own. Dogmatism makes for scientific anemia.

It is especially in relation to the formation and development of human personality that we need to open doors. For it is precisely here that our ignorance and uncertainty are greatest. Our methods, however well suited to the study of sensory processes, animal research, and pathology, are not fully adequate; and interpretations arising from the exclusive use of these methods are stultifying. Some theories of becoming are based largely upon the behavior of sick and anxious people or upon the antics of captive and desperate rats. Fewer theories have derived from the study of healthy human beings, those who strive not so much to preserve life as to make it worth living. Thus we find today many studies of criminals, few of law-abiders; many of fear, few of courage; more on hostility than on affiliation; much on the blindness in man, little on his vision; much on his past, little on his out-reaching into the future.

The major task of psychology today is to enlarge its horizons without sacrificing its gains. No one wants adequacy of outlook if the resulting system remains a tissue of unverifiable assertions; but neither can one derive satisfaction from mere accuracy if its productions are largely irrelevant to root problems.

The course we shall pursue is to identify the major issues that confront a psychology of becoming, and offer provisional solutions based on preliminary evidence. We can only trust that future research conducted with an open mind will strengthen or amend our provisional solutions with the aid of new evidence of requisite accuracy.

The Dilemma of Uniqueness

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. It is this course of change, of becoming, of individuation that is now our special concern.

The first fact that strikes us is the uniqueness of both the process and the product. Each person is an idiom unto himself, an apparent violation of the syntax of the species. An idiom develops in its own peculiar context, and this context must be understood in order to comprehend the idiom. Yet at the same time, idioms are not entirely lawless and arbitrary; indeed they can be known for what they are only by comparing them with the syntax of the species.

Now the scientific training of the psychologist leads him to look for universal processes common to the species and to neglect the idiomatic pattern of becoming. While he may say that his subject matter is human personality, his habits lead him to study mind-in-general rather than mind-in-particular.

It is not that the psychologist is uninterested in John, the person. It is merely that his habits of thought lead him to ablate from John’s nature some single segment for study. The surgery is accomplished by impressing upon John certain universal cutting instruments. One incision has to do, shall we say, with the “need for achievement,” another with the “intelligence quotient.” These incisions are not viewed as intersecting one another in John but rather as intersecting corresponding properties in other persons. The result is that we usually view John’s personality as a diagram drawn in a set of external co-ordinates, having no interrelations, no duration in time, no motion, no life, no variability, no uniqueness. What is peculiarly Johnian our methods of analysis do not tell.

It is true that the branch of psychology called “clinical” hopes somehow to bring about a coincidence of John with the properties abstracted from him. It endeavors to reclaim him from the sea of statistical averages. But for two reasons it runs into trouble. In the first place, as we have said, the universal dimensions employed in diagnosing John may be irrelevant to his personality. Perhaps he has no “need for achievement” but only a peculiar and unique need for exhibitionistic domination. The dimension employed seriously misses the precise coloring of his motivation. In the second place, we have few tools as yet to determine the mutual interrelations of dimensions. Thus we discover only that John stands at the tenth percentile on “need achievement,” at the fiftieth in ability at “spatial manipulation,” at the eighty-first percentile on “common responses” to the Rorschach test. Such bits of information comprise most clinical reports. Seldom do these bits of information intersect one another. We are still in the dark concerning the nexus of John’s life. A large share of our trouble lies in the fact that the elements we employ in our analyses are not true parts of the original whole.

It is not helpful, I think, to reply that science, by its very nature, is impotent in the face of the idiomatic process of becoming. If there is to be a science of personality at all it should do better than it has in the past with the feature of personality that is most outstanding – its manifest uniqueness of organization.

Nor is it helpful to take refuge in the example of other sciences. We are told that every stone in the field is unique, every old shoe in the closet, every bar of iron, but that this ubiquitous individuality does not affect the operations or the progress of science. The geologist, the physicist, the cobbler proceed to apply universal laws, and find the accident of uniqueness irrelevant to their work. The analogy is unconvincing. Stones, old shoes, bars of iron are purely reactive; they will not move unless they are manipulated. They are incapable of becoming. How is it then with uniqueness in the realm of biology when in addition to reactivity each plant manifests the capacities for self-repair, self-regulation, adaptation? One leaf on the tree is large, another small, one deformed, another healthy. Yet all obey the sure laws of metabolism and cell structure. It is only in our aesthetic moments that we an interested in the precise shape, size, form, or individuality of a given leaf, plant, or animal.

But here too the analogy is weak. Unlike plants and lower animals, man is not merely a creature of cell structure, tropism, and instinct; he does not live his life by repeating, with trivial variation, the pattern of his species. Nature’s heavy investment in individuality stands forth chiefly in homo sapiens. While we may recognize individual differences among dogs or varying strains of temperament among rats, still their lives in all essential particulars are regulated by their membership in a species. Man alone has the capacity to vary his biological needs extensively and to add to them countless psychogenic needs reflecting in part his culture (no other creature has a culture), and in part his own style of life (no other creature worries about his life-style).

Hence the individuality of man extends infinitely beyond the puny individuality of plants and animals, who are primarily or exclusively creatures of tropism or instinct. Immense horizons for individuality open when billions of cortical cells are added to the meager neural equipment of lower species. Man talks, laughs, feels bored, develops a culture, prays, has a foreknowledge of death, studies theology, and strives for the improvement of his own personality. The infinitude of resulting patterns is plainly not found in creatures of instinct. For this reason we should exercise great caution when we extrapolate the assumptions, methods, and concepts of natural and biological science to our subject matter. In particular we should refuse to carry over the indifference of other sciences to the problem of individuality.

Emulation of an older science never creates a newer science. It is only unquenchable curiosity about some persistent phenomenon of nature that does so. Individuality, I argue, is a legitimate object of curiosity, especially at the human level, for it is here that we are overwhelmed by this particular natural phenomenon. I venture the opinion that all of the animals in the world are psychologically less distinct from one another than one man is from other men.

There are, of course, many areas of psychology where individuality is of no concern. What is wanted is knowledge about averages, about the generalized human mind, or about types of people. But when we are interested in guiding, or predicting John’s behavior, or in understanding the Johnian quality of John, we need to transcend the limitations of a psychology of species, and develop a more adequate psychology of personal growth.

The outlines of the needed psychology of becoming can be discovered by looking within ourselves; for it is knowledge of our own uniqueness that supplies the first, and probably the best, hints for acquiring orderly knowledge of others. True, we should guard against the fallacy of projection: of assuming that other people have states of mind, interests, and values precisely like our own. Yet it is by reflecting upon the factors that seem vital in our own experience of becoming that we identify the issues that are important. When we ask ourselves about our own course of growth such problems as the following come to mind: the nature of our inborn dispositions, the impress of culture and environment upon us, our emerging self-consciousness, our conscience, our gradually evolving style of expression, our experiences of choice and freedom, our handling of conflicts and anxieties, and finally the formation of our maturer values, interests, and aims

While many of these topics receive occasional treatment in modern psychology, they are seldom surveyed in relation to one another as we shall now attempt to do.

Disposition

Inborn dispositions, the raw material for the development of personality, comprise at least three sets of factors. First are those tendencies that make for survival – an array of reflexes, drives, and homeostatic processes. Anything that can properly be called instinctive falls into this class. At the present time we seem to be on the threshold of marked advances in knowledge of the nature of instinct. From the work of Lashley, Tinbergen, Spitz and Wolf, and others we know that complex social behavior evolves in part from simple responses that are activated by patterned stimuli. As yet we have no idea how many of these “innate releaser mechanisms” there may be. A single example is the social smile, studied by Spitz and Wolfs [The Smiling Response: A Contribution to the Ontogenesis of Social Relations, Genetic Psychology Monograph, 34 (1946), 57-125]

A period of maturation seems to occur, lasting roughly from the age of three to six months when the infant, to the delight of all, engages in the social smile. Smiles prior to that age are probably due to digestive activity. The normal child from three to six months of age will smile at human faces or reasonable facsimiles thereof. The face of the human being (or of a mask, even of a scarecrow) must however have two eyes, be fully visible, and show movement. It need not be smiling face (a fact that rules out imitation), nor need it belong to a familiar person. Strangers evoke a smile as readily as does the mother. After the age of six months, normally, the same perceptual pattern arouses the opposite response if the face is unfamiliar. Strangers provoke fear, not smiles. And, according to Spitz and Wolf, if the emotional relations between the child and its mother are seriously disturbed, the social smile fails to develop or shows abnormalities even within the three to six months’ period. Now this type of work is exceedingly important, for it not only tells us about the raw dispositions that underlie human development but points to the fact that dispositions and their maturation depend upon the total concurrent state of becoming. In this case the child’s social relations must be benign for the instinct to appear.

A second cluster of dispositions includes all that we normally call “inheritance” – those gene-linked characteristics we associate with family, stock, and race. Since combinations of gene-linked traits are apparently almost infinite in number, we note that this type of determination provides the basis for endless uniqueness in personality, even before the differential operations of culture and environment get under way. To be sure, genes account also for species uniformity, for our having two eyes, a backbone, and a standard equipment of glands. But when we speak of inheritance we are likely to think of similarities (e.g., of the child’s resemblance to his parents) and to forget that the operation of genes also starts us well on the road to uniqueness, with our varying endowments of temperament, neural plasticity, and thresholds of response. Perhaps we forget this fact partly because human genetics is so little understood (with its discoveries to date concentrated on types rather than individual patterns of inheritance), and partly because as devotees of the tabula rasa we do not choose to give full credit to the innate determinants of human nature.

There is yet a third and very different sense which we may speak of original dispositions. It is not, so far as we know, a matter of specific gene determination or of instinct, except perhaps in the broadest possible sense. I refer to certain latent or potential capacities that play a crucial role in becoming. Every young animal, for example, seems to have the capacity to learn. That is to say there is something inherently plastic in his neuropsychic nature that will make changes in response possible. If he is normally endowed the human infant will in time develop a conscience, a sense of self, and a hierarchical organization of traits. He will become some sort of structural system, self-regulating and self-maintaining. What is more, he will exert himself to become something more than a stencil copy of the species to which he belongs. Such capacities are not instincts in the sense of McDougall or Freud; rather they represent potentialities for attaining adulthood. What we call instincts are primarily means for ensuring survival: the capacities I speak of are of the sort to ensure growth and orderly structure. They bring about characteristic stadia in human development. Consider for a moment the capacity to learn. No theory of motivation explains why we learn at all; at best it accounts for the urge but not for the modifiability of conduct. Nor does any so-called “learning theory” tell why we learn, but only how we learn. Everyone knows that we learn, but few psychologists, least of all the Lockeans, seem to wonder about the nature of the underlying disposition to adapt and to modify behavior. Now whatever else learning may be it is clearly a disposition to form structures. Such structures include simple habits and sequences of habits; but they also include more complex and less rigid structures such as moral conscience, one’s conception of oneself, pre-emptive traits and interests, schemata of meaning, and even one’s embracing philosophy of life. Up to now few concepts pertaining to learning give proper recognition to its structural nature. (Possible exceptions may be noted in the Gestalt doctrine of “closure” and in Thorndike’s later assumption of “belongingness.”)

Learning, as it operates on instinct and inheritance, thus leads to the formation of more or less stable structures, among which we have listed the moral conscience, a self-concept, and a hierarchical organization of personality. But it would not do so unless these stadia too were carried in our natures as inherent possibilities. They likewise comprise a type of “given” in human nature, much neglected in personality theory today.

We maintain therefore that personality is governed not only by the impact of stimuli upon a slender endowment of drives common to the species. Its process of becoming is governed, as well, by a disposition to realize its possibilities, i.e., to become characteristically human at all stages of development. And one of the capacities most urgent is individuation, the formation of an individual style of life that is self-aware, self-critical and self-enhancing.

In this intricate process of growth we encounter the puzzling question: What is the relative importance of earlier and of later stages of development? We know that there are layers in each person that are archaic and composed of relatively isolated earlier systems. Yet there are also layers in which man is fully adult, his psychological maturity corresponding to his age. The drama of human life can be written largely in terms of the friction engendered between earlier stages and later stages of development. Becoming is the process of incorporating earlier stages into later; or when this is impossible, of handling the conflict between early and late stages as well as one can.

Unsocial Beginnings

While the infant is a socially dependent being, he is not even to the slightest degree a socialized being. Even at the age of two the child is, when measured by standards applied to adults, an unsocialized horror. Picture, if you can, an adult who is extremely destructive of property, insistent and demanding that every desire be instantly gratified, helpless and almost totally dependent on others, unable to share his possessions, impatient, prone to tantrums, violent and uninhibited in the display of all his feelings. Such behavior, normal to a two-year-old, would be monstrous in a man. Unless these qualities are markedly altered in the process of becoming we have on our hands an infantile and potentially evil personality. Hobbes well said that the wicked man is but a child grown stronger.

The young child’s striving is directed toward the immediate object, an object to eat, to play with, enjoy, avoid, or to love. The striving is impulsive, transitory, unreflective, and not referred to self. Its significance does not transcend the present moment. By contrast, mature striving is linked to long-range goals. Thus the process of becoming is largely a matter of organizing transitory impulses into a pattern of striving and interest in which the element of self-awareness plays a large part.

We cannot know the young child’s personality by studying his systems of interest, for his attention is as yet too labile, his reactions impulsive, and interests unformed. From adolescence onward, however, the surest clue to personality is the hierarchy of interests, including the loves and loyalties of adult life. When we know a person’s ordo amoris we truly know the person.

It is obvious, then, that the primary problem in the psychology of becoming is to account for the transformation by which the unsocialized infant becomes an adult with structured loves, hates, loyalties, and interests, capable of taking his place in a complexly ordered society.

History is filled with proposed solutions to this problem. Often the issue is stated (somewhat too moralistically) in terms of egoism versus altruism. Some writers – among them Adam Smith, Giddings, Kropotkin, and Ashley Montagu – see in human nature the operation of innately socializing propensities, such as gregariousness, sympathy, imitation, or an instinct of mutual aid of a sort that guarantees in advance a measure of altruism in the course of growth. But these alleged processes do little more than name the phenomenon in question and fail to offer a detailed account of the transformation. Other writers, by contrast, hold that man is never truly socialized. He remains a savage at heart, and his social varnish is superficial and thin. Hobbes, Nietzsche, Stirner, and Le Dantec are of this persuasion.

As an over-all proposition, I submit, Comte’s “law of affective evolution” comes nearer to the truth. This law holds that with time there comes a diminution in the preponderance and intensity of personal inclinations, and a growth and extension of other-regarding sentiments. To state it differently, the young infant, being totally unsocialized, cannot display any of the eventual structures of personality that require learning. His dependency-needs are bound up entirely with his immediate demands. True, he has a “disposition” for eventual socialization, yet the first stages of becoming are necessarily devoid of altruism. When, however, mediating structures of conscience, imagination, and extension of the ego develop, then genuine transformations of motivation may occur. In proportion as an individual is democratically socialized he finds it intolerable to seek happiness at the expense of others. Such transformation does not, of course, eliminate primary egoism altogether – not even in a saint. Self-love, it is obvious, remains always positive and active in our natures. Our theory holds only that it need not remain dominant.

The Importance of Early Affiliation

Our principal problem then is to relate the earlier stages of becoming to the later. Freud taught that the foundations of character are established by the age of three: he held that while later events may be able to modify they can never basically alter the traits then formed. Even Adler, who agrees with Freud on little else, dates the adoption of a lasting style of life around the age of four or five.

While there is a serious exaggeration in these views we dare not blind ourselves to the impressive supporting evidence that exists. We think in this connection of the work of Spitz, Levy, Anna Freud, and others. Bowlby has reviewed their investigations and added important data of his own 1.

With some regularity it turns out that a child’s character and mental health depend to a considerable degree upon his relationship with his mother in early years. Adverse relationships seem often to create insuperable obstacles to effective therapeutic treatment at later periods of life. Delinquency, mental disorder, and ethnic prejudice are among the antisocial conditions that have been traced in part to affectional deprivation and disturbance in early childhood. All in all a generous minimum of security seems required in early years for a start toward a productive life-style. Without it the individual develops a pathological craving for security, and is less able than others to tolerate setbacks in maturity. Through his insistent demanding, jealousy, depredations, and egoism he betrays the craving that still haunts him. By contrast, the child who receives adequate gratification of his infant needs is more likely to be prepared to give up his habits of demanding, and to lean tolerance for his later frustrations.

Having completed successfully one stage of development he is free to abandon the habits appropriate to this stage and to enter the mature reaches of becoming. Having known acceptance in an affectionate environment he learns more readily to accept himself, to tolerate the ways of the world, and to handle the conflicts of later life in a mature manner.

If this interpretation is correct it means that early affiliative needs (dependence, succorance, and attachment) are the ground of becoming, even in their pre-socialized stages. They demand a basic rapport with the world before growth proper can start. Aggression and hatred, by contrast, are reactive protest, aroused only when affiliative tendencies are thwarted. A patient in treatment, we know, makes progress toward health in proportion as his resentments, hostility, and hatred lessens, and in proportion as he feels accepted and wanted by therapist, family, and associates. Love received and love given comprise the best form of therapy. But love is not easily commanded or offered by one whose whole life ha been marked by reactive protest against early deprivation.

It is a hopeful sign that psychologists are turning their attention to the affiliative groundwork of life. Its sheer ubiquity has perhaps led to its relative neglect up to now. We have paid more attention to the pathology of becoming than to its normal course, focusing upon disease rather than health, upon bad citizenship rather than good, and upon prejudice rather than tolerance and charity.

We are now, I think, in a position to evaluate the claim that the foundations of character are established by the age of three, four, or five years of age. The argument seems strong indeed that disordered affiliative relationships may leave an ineradicable scar.

Pathological anxiety and also guilt in adult life may be nothing more than manifestations of unresolved infant distress. For this type of sufferer, we may say that the process of becoming has been, in important respects, arrested in early life. But for the child who enjoys a normal affiliative groundwork, and who successfully enters the more advanced stages of socialization, the situation is different. In this case, the foundations of character were established by the age of three or five, only in the sense that he is now free to become; he is not retarded; he is well launched on the course of continuous and unimpeded growth. I need not point out that this interpretation of the role of the early years departs in important respects from the doctrine of psychoanalysis that views the character of healthy people, as well as the unhealthy, as fundamentally established by the age of three.

Tribalism and Individuation

Granted that early security and affectional relationships are the ground of becoming, and granted too that in some cases ineradicable effects are established in the early years of life, we are still in possession of only one part of the truth.

While the child needs and wants love and security, he does not want them to interfere with his impulses, his freedom, or his preferred ways of acting. From the very start of his life he is resistant to the smothering effects of his social environment. Affiliation alone would make for slavish obedience to family or tribal living which provide the child with his early standards of conduct and with his definitions of the world around him. If these influences were the only ones acting upon him they would lead to conduct always conventional and stereotyped. It is a limitation of current theories of socialization that they do in fact deal only with the mirror-like character of the so-called superego, that they tend to define socialization exclusively in terms of creative becoming.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the moral sense and life-styles of most people reach far beyond the confines of domestic and community mores in which they were first fashioned. If we look into ourselves we observe that our tribal morality seems to us somehow peripheral to our personal integrity. True, we obey conventions of modesty, decorum, and self-control, and have many habits that fashion us in part as mirror-images of our home, class, and cultural ways of living. But we know that we have selected, reshaped, and transcended these ways to a marked degree.

Thus there seem to be two contrary forces at work. The one makes for a closed tribal being. It takes its start in the dependence of the child upon those who care for him. His gratifications and his security come from the outside; so too do all the first lessons he learns: the times of day when he may have meals, the activities for which he is punished and those that bring reward. He is coerced and cajoled into conformity but not, we note, with complete success. He shows a capacity even from birth to resist the impact of maternal and tribal demands. While to a certain degree his group shapes his course, at the same time it seems to antagonize him, as if he realized its threat to his integrity.

If the demand for autonomy were not a major force we could not explain the prominence of negativistic behavior in childhood. The crying, rejecting, and anger of a young infant as well as the negativistic behavior of the two-year-old are primitive indications of a being bent on asserting itself. All his life long this being will be attempting to reconcile these two modes of becoming, the tribal and the personal: the one that makes him into a mirror, the other that lights the lamp of the individuality within.

Notes:

  1. J. Bowlby, Maternal Care and Mental Health, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 3. No. 3 (1951)

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