According to personal construct psychology, developed by the American psychologist and personality theorist George Alexander Kelly (1905–1967), individuals create personal constructs to organize ongoing experience and anticipate future events. A personal construct is a bipolar mental template, consisting of something and its perceived opposite. For example, one person might develop the personal construct dimension of “safety versus adventure,” in which safety is seen as objectionable and boring. Another person might develop a personal construct of “safety versus terror,” in which safety is desirable and soothing. Clearly, these two people mean different things when they report feeling safe. Personal construct psychology contends that in order to organize experience coherently and understandably, each person develops a set of unique personal constructs. One’s personal construct system is structured hierarchically, with some constructs more central and influential to how the world is understood than others. Accordingly, people often construe the same circumstances in vastly different ways. This reflects personal construct theory’s notion of constructive alternativism, which holds that there are an infinite number of personal constructs available. People often mistakenly believe their manner of construing things is the only correct way, when all situations can be construed in countless ways.
Kelly most fully developed personal construct psychology in a two-volume work, The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Originally published in 1955, the volumes present personal construct psychology in a formal manner intended to be least offensive to the professional sensibilities of 1950s psychology. Kelly presented his theory as a fundamental postulate and eleven corollaries. The fundamental postulate states that people organize their psychological experience in ways that help them most effectively anticipate events. Kelly stressed viability over validity in personal construct psychology. Because people only access the world indirectly through their personal constructs, they can never be certain that their constructs match reality; the validity of constructs can never be fully established. However, people can know whether their constructs work adequately and help them to successfully navigate life. Thus, the viability of constructs takes center stage in personal construct psychology.
Kelly’s eleven corollaries explain how people’s personal construct systems function. For example, the individuality corollary maintains that each individual creates a unique set of personal constructs, while the fragmentation corollary contends that different subsections of one’s personal construct system may be contradictory—after all, in different areas of their lives, people are often inconsistent. The choice corollary holds that people choose the poles of constructs that they think will be most likely to help them make productive sense of new situations. Once people choose to apply certain constructs to anticipate a situation, the experience corollary explains how they judge the effectiveness of the constructs they applied. When constructs are not found to be effective, people often revise them. As a final example, the sociality corollary asserts that when two people construe each other’s construction processes, they can come to understand one another and form a close relationship—which Kelly referred to as a role relationship.
Clinically, Kelly developed a psychotherapy technique called fixed-role therapy. In fixed-role therapy, the therapist asks the client to adopt a different identity for a two-week period. The client is asked to act the part of someone whose constructions and behaviors are significantly different from the client’s. Because the client is only playing a role, any threat that might occur as a result of violating one’s own personal identity are minimized. After all, the client is simply playing a part. However, in so doing the client experiments with alternative ways of construing and behaving that may produce personal growth.
Personal construct psychology has become associated with theories of constructivism, which emphasize that people know the world indirectly through constructed understandings. Radical constructivism views the person as a closed system, one in which a person’s internal psychological structure determines experiential reality. One’s structure is only sensitive to specific kinds of stimulation from the external world. People do not experience the world as it is, but rather experience it only in the ways their internal structure allows. On the other hand, social constructionism deemphasizes individual knowledge construction and instead stresses that human understandings spring from ongoing relationships. Through discussion and interaction with each other, people negotiate and reach consensus about what is real and true. Discourses, defined as ways of talking about reality, shape human experience. As people use discourses in novel ways over time, shared constructions of reality evolve. Whether individually or socially focused, constructivist theories stress human involvement in knowledge construction, maintaining that people can only know the world indirectly via their constructions.
SEE ALSO Constructivism; Personality; Psychoanalytic Theory; Psychotherapy; Terror
Burr, Vivien. 2003. Social Constructionism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Gergen, Kenneth J. 1999. An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage.
Kelly, George A.  1991. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. 2 vols. London: Routledge.
Kelly, George A. 1969. Clinical Psychology and Personality: The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Brendan Maher. New York: Wiley.
Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. 1992. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Rev. ed. Trans. Robert Paolucci. Boston: Shambhala.
von Glaserfeld, Ernst. 1995. Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning. London: Falmer.
Jonathan D. Raskin