Development of Selfhood by Gordon Allport

Whether motivational or stylistic, some personal dispositions are close to the core of personality, whereas others are more on the periphery. Those that are at the center of personality are experienced by the person as being an important part of self.

Elucidate Allport’s development of selfhood.

Whether motivational or stylistic, some personal dispositions are close to the core of personality, whereas others are more on the periphery. Those that are at the center of personality are experienced by the person as being an important part of self. They are characteristics that an individual refers to in such terms as “That is me” or “This is mine.” All characteristics that are “peculiarly mine” belong to the proprium (Allport, 1955).

The major concepts of Allport’s trait theory revolve around the different kinds of traits that are contained in the proprium, and how they, develop continuously from a person’s infancy to death and moves through a series of stages as discussed below.

The bodily self 

The first aspect of selfhood, the bodily self, becomes salient in infancy. As infants, we are continually receiving sensory information from our internal organs, muscles, joints, and tendons.

These sensations become particularly acute when we are hungry, when we are frustrated, and when we bump into things. In such situations, we learn the limits of our own bodies. As we mature, these recurrent bodily sensations provide information that confirms our own existence.

In Allport’s view, these sensations provide an anchor for our self-awareness. When we are healthy, we hardly notice the sensations; when we are ill, we are keenly aware of our bodies (Allport, 1961, p. 114).
Allport believed strongly that this bodily sense forms the core of the self and remains an important aspect of selfhood throughout life.


The second aspect of the proprium, self-identity, also develops during the first 18 months of life. Despite the vast changes that occur in the course of our lives, there is a certain continuity and sameness in the way we perceive ourselves. “Today I remember some of my thoughts of yesterday; and tomorrow I shall remember some of my thoughts of both yesterday and today; and I am certain that they are the thoughts of the same person––of myself” (Allport, 1961, p. 114).

Although this concept of self-identity may seem obvious and even trite, recall Erik Erikson’s description of the crises faced by people, especially adolescents, who doubt or are confused about their identities.


The third aspect of the proprium, which emerges during the second and third years of life, is self-esteem. At this point, children have become more familiar with their environment; they experience pride when they master available tasks and humiliation when they fail. One symptom of their growing self-awareness is the outpouring of opposition to virtually any suggestion from the parents. It is a time for testing the limits of the environment and for refusing to take orders from others. Children are typically very negativistic at this stage.

These oppositional tendencies often reappear in adolescence, when the perceived enemies typically are parents and other authority figures.


From approximately 4 to 6 years of age, children are primarily concerned with possessions. At this age, children are typically very egocentric. As people mature, they extend their loyalties to family, church, nation, and career group. They no longer see these groups from a selfish perspective (“What can they do for me?”), but become more concerned with benefiting other people on the basis of moral principles and ideals (Allport, 1955, p. 45). Thus, self-extension in the earliest phases of development is selfish; in the later phases, it is unselfish.


Along with self-extension, children begin to develop a self-image. According to Allport, the self-image has two components:
(1) learned expectations of the roles we are required to enact;
(2) aspirations for the future we seek to attain (Allport, 1955, p. 47).
The self-image evolves slowly in conjunction with the conscience.
Children learn to do things that others expect of them and to avoid behaviors that will bring disapproval. They begin to formulate plans for the future and to make tentative decisions about careers and the values they will embrace.

The self-as-rational-coper 

During the period between 6 and 12, children begin to engage in reflective thought. They devise strategies to cope with problems and delight in testing their skills, particularly intellectual ones. At the same time, they are capable of distortion and defense. Nevertheless, the thrust of Allport’s argument is that children at this stage are beginning to sense their rational powers and to exercise them (Allport, 1955, p. 46). Allport calls this aspect of the proprium the self-as-rational-coper, or sometimes simply the rational agent.

Propriate striving 

From the beginning of adolescence at age 13, people begin to develop propriate striving. Allport distinguished between two kinds of motives:
(1) Peripheral motives are impulses and drives. Ex: We are hungry; we eat.
(2) Propriate motives involve the deliberate increase or maintenance of tensions in the service of important goals. Ex: During adolescence, we may yearn to be a great artist or novelist.

Propriate striving is ego-involved behavior, characterized by the unification of personality in pursuit of major life goals. “The possession of long-range goals, regarded as central to one’s personal existence, distinguishes the human being from the animal, the adult from the child, and in many cases the healthy from the sick” (Allport, 1955, p. 51).

The self-as-knower 

In adulthood, we begin the development of the self-as-knower. We now are capable of integrating all the prior aspects of the proprium into a unified whole. As Allport put it: We (now) not only know things, but we know the empirical features of our own proprium. It is I who have bodily sensations, I who recognize my self-identity from day to day; I who note and reflect upon my selfassertion, self-extension, my own rationalizations, as well as upon my interests and strivings. When I thus think about my own propriate functions I am likely to pereceive their essential togetherness, and feel them intimately bound in some way to the knowing function itself. (Allport, 1955, p. 53)

In Allport’s view, different aspects of Propium continue to develop and function in parallel. Several/all of them can operate simultaneously.

* * *

Allport’s theory pertaining to the development of self-hood is centered around the concept of Proprium - the self-composed of the aspects of you see as most essential (as opposed to incidental or accidental), warm (or “precious,” as opposed to  emotionally cool), and central (as opposed to peripheral). He defined seven functions for the self: The bodily self, self-identity, self-esteem, self-extension, self-image, rational coping, propriate striving. And the last self-as-knower. These functions begin at different stages of a person’s lifespan but continue to operate simultaneously, sometimes even together in a single situation.

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