Most personality theorists view adulthood as an extension of the basic motives present in childhood. Consistent with his belief that personality is always evolving, Allport believed that the motivations of adulthood are often independent of the motivations of childhood, and he referred to this concept as functional autonomy. For example, a person who plays a musical instrument during childhood years because of parental pressure may play the same instrument for relaxation or enjoyment as an adult. Although not all motives are functionally autonomous, many adult activities represent a break from childhood and are based on varied and self-sustaining motives.
According to this perspective, personality is based on concrete human motives that are represented by personal traits or dispositions. Human traits are seen as guiding human behavior, but they must also account for wide variability within a person's conduct from situation to situation. As a result, Allport distinguished between different types and levels of traits or dispositions. Common traits represent those elements of personality that are useful for comparing most people within a specific culture, but they cannot provide a complete profile of any individual person. In contrast, personal dispositions represent the true personality, are unique to the person, and represent subtle differences among persons.
Three kinds of personal dispositions exist: cardinal dispositions, central dispositions, and secondary dispositions. When a person's life is dominated by a single, fundamental, outstanding characteristic, the quality is referred to as a cardinal disposition. For example, Adolf Hitler's cruelty and Mahatma Ghandhi's pacifism are examples of cardinal dispositions. Central dispositions represent the five to ten important qualities of a person that would typically be discussed and described in a thorough letter of recommendation. Finally, secondary dispositions are characteristics that are more numerous, less consistently displayed, and less important than central dispositions.
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