An Introduction to the Personal Construct Psychology of George A. Kelly



Vincent Kenny (1984)


In 1955 George Kelly published his major two volume opus entitled "The Psychology of Personal Constructs".[1] This was the culmination of more than twenty years pioneering work in psychology and is the synthesis of Kelly's own experiences, not only in the practice of clinical psychology but also in his wide-ranging educational background, receiving degrees in physics, mathematics, educational sociology, education and psychology.

Kelly the Pioneer: One of Kelly's earliest experiences (aged 4 years) was emigrating in his father's covered wagon to stake a claim in eastern Colorado to some of the last free land offered to settlers in 1909 [2]. Kelly undoubtedly demonstrated the spirit of the great American pioneers with the publication of his major work at the age of fifty, when he more figuratively acted in the pioneering tradition by pushing back the boundaries of psychology as it was known and accepted at the time. He carved out a new territory for himself almost single-handedly, and within this new territory he invented largely out of necessity - a remarkably fresh and innovative approach to human beings.

The conditions which challenged Kelly to reconstrue his own psychological outlook were formed partly out of the American depression of 1931 and the subsequent devastation of the Kansas 'dust-bowl', together with the exigencies of his clinical practice where he found that people needing to change themselves were not significantly helped by either behaviorism or psychoanalysis.

Kelly despaired of S => R psychology at an early stage, detecting a serious degree of vagueness in the definition of "stimulus" and "response", and as Kelly himself said,

"I never did find out what that arrow stood for". He subsequently turned to Freud who he later abandoned, partly because he found the theoretical constructs to be too elastic (and thereby capable of appearing to explain everything), and partly also because he found that when he invented non-Freudian 'insights' for his clients (often composing preposterous interpretations) that many of these still worked surprisingly well. Kelly became increasingly critical of the limitations and disabling aspects of both of these psychological theories which at the time constituted the Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group, or what Waddington (1977) calls, with reasonable accuracy "COWDUNG".[3] By throwing overboard a very large part of the philosophical assumptions and theoretical jargon of mainstream psychologies, Kelly immediately created a great difficuIty for his potential readership despite the fact that his theory is one of the few existing in psychology which is formerly stated in the style of a Fundamental Postulate with 11 elaborative corollaries. It was as if he set sail for a little known but much desired destination (psychotherapeutic change in clients) but refused to use the same conventional stellar configurations in his navigational calculations (theoretical constructs) because he saw them as poor aids to one's voyage. Instead, he re-charted the mysterious expanse along completely different lines and within a completely different framework.

The major reviews of his work were positive and enthusiastic particularly those written by Jerome Bruner[4] and Carl Rogers.[5] However, because many general readers do not appreciate the fact that quite different charts are used in voyaging with Kelly's theory, there have been many mis-construals and misunderstandings of the main thrust and direction of the theory. Consequently, personal construct psychology has been described as many very different and often conflicting things. in many modern psychology texts, the theory is described as a "cognitive" approach to personality. Gordon Allport, following one of Kelly's lectures, described it as an "emotional" theory, and later that same afternoon Kelly relates how Henry Murray approached him to tell him that he was really an existentiallst".[6] Kelly states that he subsequently, stepped into almost all the open manholes that psychological theorists can fall into". Giving examples of this he tells us that personal construct theory has been categorized as -

"...a learning theory, a psychoanalytic theory (Freudian, Adlerian, and Jungian - all three), a typically American theory, a Marxist theory, a humanistic theory, a logical positivistic theory, a Zen Buddhistic theory, a Thomistic theory, a behaviouristic theory, an Apollonian theory, a pragmatistic theory, a reflective theory, and no theory at all.''

From these comments it is clear that Kelly's theory has been treated somewhat like a Rorschach inkblot, wherein people can find what they expect to see, by reading in the light of their own theories and therefore not being able to discern the radically different nature of the theory. In the following passages, I will briefly consider three of the most common misunderstandings of Kelly's theory. Following this outline of what personal construct psychology is not, the remainder of the paper will be devoted to describing what it may be.

(1) The Energy Crisis: As we saw above, Kelly's theory has been construed as psychoanalytic theory (of differing varieties) while he himself claims that personal construct psychology in completely non dynamic. Kelly would agree with Bateson's view that the concept of energy is completely inappropriate to psychology. The central problem with the concept is that in boot legging it into psychology the smugglers seemed not to have detected the accompanying assumption of 'stasis' which, once imported, must be explained away, by using notions such as 'motivation', 'drive', 'stimulus', etc. If you buy the notion of energy, you get a job lot which includes the idea that the universe (and humanity as part of it) is 'inert'. Kelly takes the opposite view when he says that "the organism is delivered fresh into the psychological world alive and struggling".[8]

This assumption removes what Vaihinger called the 'fiction of force' [9] from the psychological arena. Kelly took great care to ensure that his theory was "utterly innocent of any forces, motives or incentives", since he believed that using notions such as 'motivation' or ‘psychodynamics' "is the kind of explanation we resort to when we don't want to bother to understand a person".[10] His theory sets out with the assumption that the world is in a state of continuous movement and change. This assumption obviates the task most other theories have to explain how a person is 'prodded' into action by one postulated force or another. He went on to state that "since I assume that we start with a process I am struck with the disturbing thought that personal construct theory may be the only truly dynamic theory available to psychology". In these terms, personal construct psychology is either "an all-out dynamic theory or an all-out nondynamic theory !.[11]

(2) The Intervention Crisis: The second major misconstrual of personal construct theory is that it is behaviouristic. Many psychologists are concerned with the "production of behaviour" as the end resuIt of their enterprise. In learning theory the objective is to produce changes in the 'client's behavioural responses', and these changed responses are the answer or solution. In this sense, the role of the person is as an "intervening variable" whose main "intervention" is to simply mediate between a stimulus and the end-response produced. In other words, it is the person's task to process environmental events into behaviours.

The behavioural cycle which begins with an evoking (questioning) stimulus and which ends with an answering response (or the produced behaviour) is not a model that Kelly would espouse. lnstead Kelly emphasises the human's capacity to construe the world as opposed to merely responding to it. The world can only be known through our constructions of it and therefore our behaviour bridges the gap between, on the one hand, our constructions / mapping of the world, and on the other hand, the, world itself. Our behaviour is seen as a way of posing a question about our 'maps' of the world. Our maps lead us to expect certain features of the landscape to appear in relation to one another (for example we expect to find an oasis over the next sand dune) and our behaviour (walking over that next dune) tells us how accurate our map is, sometimes to our relief, sometimes to our devastation.

Our behavioural experiments are ways of asking questions rather than ways of offering conclusions. Behaviour is therefore "the instrument of its own exploration".[12] From this point of view, the cycle of experimentation begins with an action which is seen as a probe into reality designed to test the validity of the personal hypothesis or construct which the person has previously placed upon the world, and with which he is now experimenting. The cycle of experimentation therefore ends with an experimental outcome or result which will serve to validate or invalidate the anticipations which the action-probe was designed to test. Human behaviour is not seen as a problem which needs to be controlled, but rather is construed as our main instrument of inquiry.

(3) The Emotional Crisis: One of the most common misconstruals of personal construct psychology is that it is a "cognitive" theory. This confusion largely arises from an assumption that all our discriminations are essentially cognitive in nature. However, Kelly's theory points out that there are not only "cognitive" constructs but also constructs which have no verbal label attached to them. These are fundamental human discriminations which take place at different "somatic" levels, including physiological, vegetative, emotional, behavioural etc.

It should be pointed out that constructs are not 'verbal' at all. Constructs are usually confused with the verbal labels we assign to them. Before we have reached the stage of assigning verbal labels we have already made our discriminations by cleaving events into similarities and differences. This line of cleavage is then labeled where possible. A simple example is to look at how the Irish and English cleave themselves mutually into racial stereotypes. The Irish prefer to view themselves as 'pastoral', 'in love with the land', 'in touch with nature' etc., while polarising the English as 'urbanised imperiallsts, plundering other countries for weaIth' etc. The English for their part construe the Irish as 'crude peasants with pigs in the kitchen' while seeing themselves as 'refined, civilized' etc. Here we can see that the same line of cleavage is drawn between the two parties, but the way it is labeled alters with the labeler.

While anticipations are easily understood in terms of verbally labeled constructs (for example, tonight's party will be 'exciting'), pre-verbal anticipations are less well understood, even though construing on the basis of our tacit knowledge [l3] is more pervasive. A simple example of pre-verbal construing is descending your stairs at 4.00 a.m. in the pitch dark. Somehow your feet 'know' how many steps there are to negotiate. Invalidation of your feet's construing occurs when an extra anticipated step turns out to be 'missing' and you consequently stumble. This general area is well indicated by Polanyi's phrase "we always know more than we can say." It is easy to understand why this is so when we recall that most pre-verbal constructs evolved in infancy, and were therefore designed to construe those events of which an infant would be aware. No matter how aware one is that the child is father of the construing man there are many pre-verbal constructs which can never be articulated in language.

In therapy it is likely that a client is grasping for a pre-verbal construct when he is willing to sacrifice precision of description in order to retain his elusive feelings and thoughts which are fast receding. Preverbal constructs represent a relatively low level of cognitive awareness, but are not to be equated with the 'unconscious' since they may be communicated by means other than words. Often when a client attempts to verbalize pre-verbal constructs he becomes confused and resorts to indicating the events to which the constructs apply. We often have the impression that the client is "struggling to make sense out of some experience that lies just beyond the reach of his semantic language".[24] Kelly describes the therapist's dilemma in such an encounter as "like handling a live fish in the dark; not only does it wiggle but it is slippery and hard to see".[15] Above all it must be emphasized that construing involves a total personal discriminative act as opposed to a largely 'cognitive' or 'affective' act. As we saw in the discussion of pre-verbal constructs above there is not necessarily anything 'cognitive' or 'affective' about them as construals. It is the total human who construes, not merely his brain or his guts.

The 'emotional crisis' arises only when people misunderstand Kelly's integrative-constructive framework which wishes to avoid splits such as the mind-body dichotomy. Kelly wanted to keep in view the sense-making enterprise of the whole organism. He wanted to avoid the fragmentation of the whole human into all the usual psychological pigeonholes and he thus created a theory which attempted to avoid arbitrary compartmentalisation. However, neither did he want to take recourse in the type of bland holism which refuses to make explicit distinctions. The only way he could escape this 'fragmental' vs. 'holistic' dichotomy was to be constructive. Kelly meant 'constructive' in both senses of the word, namely, constructive vs. destructive, and constructive in the sense of inventing something completely new.

Having briefly deaIt with these typical misconstruals of personal construct psychology it is now time to begin making positive assertions regarding what the theory is about according to Kelly. He set out with the aim of integrating the four different disciplines of the historian, the philosopher, the scientist and the clinician and took as his theme the idea that "man can enslave himself with his own ideas and then win his freedom again by reconstruing his life".[16] The remainder of this paper will be an attempt to unravel some of the elements from each of these viewpoints which Kelly synthesized in constructing his theory of personal constructs.


According to Kelly we live in two basic worlds. Firstly, the world that exists outside of any human understanding, and secondly, the ways in which we interpret this primary world to be, in the form of representations or constructs - what Wittgenstein called 'BegriffsweIt'. [17] This is one part of the meaning of the word 'construct' - that is, we construe in the sense of interpret or translate from one thing into another, in the same way that in school one was asked to construe from Greek to English. As in all hermeneutic processes, something is lost in the translation. If one is fluent enough to appreciate a poem in French and also in English, it is easy to see what has been lost in such a transformation. However, when we talk about translating the "primary world" we are not in the happy position of being able to compare our constructions of it with the original as we can with the poetry. We can only know the primary world through our interpretations of it, and therefore we can never get free of our interpretations in order to see it directly.

Consequently, we remain unaware of what we are 'losing' in our translation process. The main implication of this philosophical position is that all constructions of "reality", being human interpretations, must be relative rather than absolute and therefore must be subject to eventual revision or replacement. At best, we hope to successfully approximate to this "primary reality". In taking this position, Kelly wanted to emphasise the uniquely personal way in which each human makes sense of his experiences in the world. He summarised this philosophical position by the term "constructive alternativism". With such a philosophy in mind, it becomes easy to understand Kelly's abhorrence of any psychological theory propounded as absolute truth. His condemnation, like Popper's' [18] of Freudian theory as untestable, is an inevitable critique where he says, "as the years go by, Freudianism, which deserves to be remembered as a brave outpost on the early frontier of psychological thought, is condemned to end its days as a crumbling stockade of proprietary dogmatism".[19]

We are all familiar with the notion that events appear differently depending on who is doing the observing, what is being observed, how it is being observed, and from what standpoint. A simple example is to be found in the extraordinarily varied accounts of people who are eye-witnesses at a traffic accident. Each person brings to the event particular experiences, pre-conceptions, and expectations and therefore makes something different out of the event to his fellow observers. Another common example of constructive alternativism is to be found in psychiatry when diagnosticians disagree among themselves regarding the category to which a 'patient' should be assigned. The philosophy of constructive alternativism reminds us that our constructions are merely interpretations of events, and as such are matters of opinion and not matters of fact.

Non-Universal Universe: So far we can see that Kelly's view of the universe is that it can't be seen in terms of universals or absolutes. However, a quasi universal which we can find in Kelly's writings is that the universe is continually changing. He also makes the assumption that the universe is integral, functioning as a single unit where all the parts are precisely inter-related. This idea that the universe is in a state of continuing flux is found in the works of Heraclitus, a pre-socratic philosopher whose writing dates back to approximately 500 b.c. Heraclitus is credited with saying "you cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you". Apart from an affinity with Heraclitus, another more direct philosophical influence on Kelly was the German 19th century philosopher, Hans Vaihinger who outlined a system of philosophy called "The Philosophy of 'As If'.[9] This brought Kelly to the idea of paradigms insofar as Vaihinger suggested that God and reality could be viewed propositionally, that is, one may look at them "as if" they exist or "as if" they are fictions. Vaihinger suggested that man could best approach reality in a hypothetical manner, that is, instead of making a definite statement such as "this child is aggressive", we instead ask ourselves "what happens if we look at this child "as if" he were aggressive?" This is what Kelly called, "the language of hypothesis" i.e. we phrase our constructions in the "invitational mood" where we are invited to wonder what happens if such an such is the case. The importance of this tactic is twofold -

(1) it allows us momentarily to suspend our beliefs and wonder what else might replace them, and

(2) it detaches us from the events immediately present (and pressing) and orients us toward the future in that we are encouraged to anticipate or predict what follows next if our current hypothesizing is valid.

We are left in a "posture of expectancy"[20] as opposed to being left with an inescapable conclusion.

These Kellian views find parallels in the writings of AIfred Adler who was also influenced by Vaihinger. Both Kelly and Adler viewed their own theoretical notions as personal inventions rather than scientific discoveries. The idea that scientists are engaged in personally inventing the world contrasts sharply with the conventional idea that scientists somehow "discover" or "uncover" pieces of absolute truth that are there waiting to be found as if the world was an ''abandoned monument". Having built huge collections of these truth fragments, such scientists expect the whole truth of the universe to be ultimately revealed to them. Kelly described this latter approach as "accumulative fragmentalism" and it is against this philosophy that his position of constructive alternativism stands opposed.

"While constructive alternativism does not argue against the collection of information, neither does it measure truth by the size of the collection. Indeed it leads one to regard a large accumulation of facts as an open invitation to some far-reaching reconstruction which will reduce them to a mass of trivialIties".[21]

Kelly clearly enjoyed the "challenge of upending smug certainties".[22] Constructive alternativism forces us to recognize the individualistic nature of construing. Kelly embodied his view of individual differences in the following statement, called the Individuality Corollary, which says -

"persons differ from each other in their constructions of events".

This corollary warns the therapist not to mistakenly assume that his construction of events are the same as his clients' constructions. Instead we must seek for the uniqueness in the clients' constructions of reality. The task of the therapist is therefore to make sense of the way in which the client makes sense of the world.


Because the universe is conceptualized as an unbroken whole, Kelly sees all events being connected ultimately in the fourth dimension of time. He points out that "time provides the ultimate bond in all relationships".[23] Kelly's theory started off by combining the two simple notions that humanity is better understood along a time perspective and, secondly, that we each construe our own stream of events idiosyncratically. He sees this as the interplay between the 'durable' and the 'ephemeral'. If we are to contemplate change, then time is the critical dimension to be considered. Life only makes sense when we plot it along this dimension. We separate events one from the other by chopping up time into appropriate lengths or segments. The lengths we choose depend on what we perceive as ''recurrent themes in the monotonous flow" of the undifferentiated process we call reality. Having chosen our segments we then discover similarities and differences among them.

Thus, having decided where events begin and end, and having construed their similarities and contrasts, we are then in a position to make predictions about such events occurring in the future. In this way we may anticipate future events having construed their past replications. Kelly has summarised this aspect of his theory in the Construction Corollary which states -

"A person anticipates events by construing their replications".

This corollary emphasizes the abstraction process whereby we create meaning for ourselves in the world.

From the above passages we have a slightly better idea of what construing amounts to. He tells us that 'only when man attunes his ear to recurrent themes in the monotonous flow does his universe begin to make sense to him".[24] He also tells us that to construe
"is to hear the whisper of recurrent themes which reverberate around us'' [25]. Kelly was strongly influenced by the work of John Dewey who in turn was very influenced by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce who introduced the term "pragmatism" in philosophy.[26] Compare KELLY'S ideas with those of Peirce who stated that "Thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations".[27]


Kelly's preferred image of the person was to see him as a scientist, by which he meant that it is not only the professional scientist who wants to predict and control the universe, but that every human person has a similar aspiration. From this point of view everyone is involved in seeking to predict and control the flow of events in which they are involved. Each person has expectations, anticipations, hypotheses to test and experiments to conduct. The individual differences that we find between alternative personal viewpoints are the type of differences which are to be found in the theoretical disagreements among scientists, and it is these differences which lead us to attempt different experimental enterprises.

Person - as - scientist: Kelly came to see the person as a scientist who through a series of successive approximations seeks to test his constructions in a piecemeal fashion in order to establish their predictive efficiency. In this way all our construals or interpretations about the universe can, with time, be scientifically evaluated as long as we remain open to invalidating evidence. To quote C.S. Peirce again, "... scientific spirit requires a man to be at all times ready to dump his whole cartload of beliefs, the moment experience is against them. The desire to learn forbids him to be perfectly cocksure that he knows aiready".[28] Kelly not only agreed with this statement but spent quite a bit of effort in delineating the differences between good and bad personal scientists. "A good scientist tries to bring his constructs up for test as soon as possible".[29]

However, there are times "when a person hesitates to experiment because he dreads the outcome. He may fear that the conclusion of the experiment will place him in an ambiguous position where he will no longer be able to predict and control. He does not want to be caught with his constructs down''. [30]

'Stretching things a bit'. In his presidential address to the Clinical Division of the American Psychological Association in 1957, Kelly addressed the issue of the bad scientist at some length, and made an attempt to understand why some scientists "cook the books". For his prototype of the scientist-as-literary-chef he selected the Greek mythical figure Procrustes who had an obsession that any overnight guest must fit his spare bed precisely, to which end he either stretched them to make them longer, or, if too long, chopped their legs off. In this way, Procrustes - which in English means "stretch" -can be seen to have stretched reality, to have forced it to fit his own insistent pre-conceptions. Instead of accommodating to the facts of experience, i.e. that people come in all sizes, he felt constrained to chop this 'reality' down to size in order that it would fit his hypothesis that people should only come in one size.

In attempting to understand this type of terrorism, where force is brutally used to make the world conform to one's expectations, Kelly points out that it occurs when somebody is personally deeply committed to a particular point of view to the degree that he cannot afford to be proved wrong. A recent case in point is that of Sir Cyril Burt who was so attached to his theory of hereditary intelligence that he simply invented experiments, invented research workers and invented results which he published to 'validate' his convictions.

Kelly used the term "Hostility" to describe this process. Hostility is not something one suffers from, but rather something you actively engage in as an approach to living. Habitual criminals often complain that the police have 'framed' them by inventing or planting evidence on them. In such cases the policemen in question are so convinced that the suspect is guilty that the absence of evidence is merely an irksome detail which is easily dealt with. A clinical example is the client who believes that "everybody hates me" and who, in the face of a therapist's accepting and friendly manner, will more likely than not set about transforming the therapist into an angry and rejecting person by his ''manipulative" behavior (e.g. turning up late for appointments, "acting out'', arriving at the therapist's residence at 3.00 a.m. etc.). Having achieved this transformation of "nice guy" into "angrily rejecting guy" he has succeeded in cramming the therapist (along with the rest of humanity) into the crowded and creaking frame of his procrustean bed - 'everybody hates me'. Another "frame-up" is illustrated in the following quote from Kelly who tells us that " ... The Kraepelinian nosological system in psychiatry is generally used as a set of diagnostic pigeonholes into which to stuff troublesome clients".[31] In which case such clients can be construed as having being "shrunk to fit. [32] Is this a possible origin of why psychiatrists are called 'shrinks'?

"Sense-making Makes Sense" ' - Throughout his theory Kelly continually emphasizes that the person's highest endeavor is that of sense-making. He sees us seeking, as scientists, for ever more complex and comprehensive theories (collections of constructs) which correspond increasingly well with the changing flux of experience. In developing these construct systems we are not merely seeking certainty. We are not anticipating purely for the sake of anticipating our future events, but rather through accurate anticipation of future events we will be able to relate ourselves to them effectively.

Kelly again emphasizes the idiosyncratic nature of this enterprise where he points out that individual constructs are organized in systems and that people not only differ in the way they construct events but also differ in the way they organize these constructions into systems. Thus, the personal construct system is a personal construct hierarchical system which is systematically patterned in a way which is characteristic of each individual person. Like any system, the construct system aims to minimize incompatibilities and inconsistencies in the way we group events together.

The way we organise our construct systems diminishes the likelihood of making predictions which are mutually contradictory. As we saw above, the hostile person is one who becomes aware that his system is not anticipating accurately, and he therefore has to choose between preserving the integrity of his system or alternatively replacing the faulty parts. The hostile person chooses to preserve the system simply because he cannot afford to give it up. Kelly summarised these issues in the Organisation Corollary which states -

"Each person characteristically evolves for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs".

Within the hierarchical organisation, the higher-order or superordinate constructs tend to be increasingly abstract and value-laden for the person's view of the world. The most superordinate constructs are called "core-constructs" and it is these which govern our identity and continuing existence.

Evolutionary Nature of Construct Systems: Since the anticipation of future events - and thereby relating ourselves to them - is the objective, then if something un-anticipated occurs we are immediately invited to reconstrue. In this manner, the endless succession of world events exposes our construct system to a process of validation and invalidation. Ideally, if we can incorporate these validational vicissitudes and revise our construction in the light of our experience, then our construct system continues to evolve as a live process. Kelly summarised this aspect of change under the Experience Corollary which states that -

"A person's construction system varies as he successively construes the replications of events".

How do our construct systems evolve in the light of our experimentation? The Experience Corollary tells us that our system changes by exposure to external realities, but we need to make this more specific in terms of having certain rules for system-forming.

Kelly's view of human learning and its limitations is put forward in terms of the notion that you can learn only what your framework is designed to allow you to see in events. You must have a question in order to perceive an answer - hence the problem with education where teachers are providing answers to questions which the children have not asked.

Reconstruction is based upon experience, and the basic unit of experience comprises a cycle with five phases namely, "anticipation, investment, encounter, confirmation or dis-confirmation, and constructive revision".[33] Kelly introduces the notion of "permeability" as the central concept dictating change in construct systems. Changes occur within the overall comprehensive framework of the construct system, and the degree to which the more super-ordinate constructs are permeable then the more likely it is that the system can accommodate changes. A construct which is permeable is one which has a good degree of elasticity or resilience and therefore the capacity to encompass new events. According to Kelly a permeable construct is one which "takes life in its stride". Such a construct allows one to add new experiences to those which the system already includes. By contrast, an impermeable construct is one which rejects new events purely on the basis of their newness. A construct such as ''nice" vs. "nasty" can obviously take life in its stride since we can almost indefinitely extend the number of events to which we can apply it. In contrast, an example of impermeability is sometimes to be found when a more compulsive research colleague needs to open a new file or pigeonhole for each new variable or experience he encounters, and as Kelly says about the compulsive-neurotic person, "he calculates his anticipations of events with minute pseudomathematical schemes". [34]

Kelly summarised this limit to learning in his Modulation Corollary which states -

"The variation in a person's construction system is limited by the permeability of the constructs. within whose ranges of convenience the variants lie".

Arising from this corollary we have Kelly's warning that among conditions which are inimical to change is that of the client who remains preoccupied with old constructs exclusively frozen in the past. This type of client can only perceive "more of the same" and hence must exclude all new experiences which the world might offer him.


The central theme in Kelly's theory is that of change. The world is construed as ever changing, humans are seen as a form of process who are in the business of continually changing and updating their constructions of the universe. Our theories provide us with an active approach to life, "Mankind need not be a throng of stony-faced spectators witnessing the 'pageant of creation. Men can play active roles in the shaping of events.'' [36]

Within our personal theory any set of constructs is only temporarily useful for dealing with the immediate events at hand. The changing world events are continually inviting us to reconstrue them. Any given construction has a limited range of application to which it may be highly pertinent, but beyond that range it may not seem so valid. For example, the construct "humorous" vs. "sad" may help us construe the novel we are reading, but may not be so useful in construing the cheese-roll we are eating while reading the novel. Kelly sees his own theory being restricted to the range of 'human personality' and particularly to the problems of interpersonal relationships. Systems of constructs not only have a particular range of convenience but they also have a focus of convenience, that is a particular area of application where the theory works best. This is why Kelly warns psychologists not to copy ready-made theories from science or other disciplines since such theories were designed for the particular range and focus of those disciplines.

Rather we must begin abstracting our own principles instead of "poking about in the neighbours' backyards for methodological windfalls".[36] In Kelly's system the focus of convenience is in the area of human re-adjustment to life's problems. Few constructs (if any) are relevant to everything, and certain features of Kelly's theory lets us know when our construct system as a whole is out of its depth - these include transitional constructs which will be dealt with in a later paper. Any one construct can only be applied to a given range of events. Given a finite number of constructs and a specific sub-cultural, group we could probably illustrate this limitation of range by re-writing a time-honored quote to say ''you can construe some of the people with all of the constructs, and you can construe all of the people with some of the constructs, but you cannot construe all of the people with all of the constructs".

Kelly summarised this point in his Range Corollary which says -

"a construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only".

Constructs can therefore be circumscribing as well as circumnavigating.

An aspect of the theory that can be seen as both facilitating and frustrating is that according to Kelly human thinking is essentially dichotomous. Anything which can be said has an implied contrast which may be obvious or may be difficult to articulate. Kelly wished to emphasize the intimate relationship of opposites like Heraclitus before him who promoted the conception of "unity in diversity, and difference in unity". Each construct comprises observed similarities and contrasts among events. For example, having noticed that two passages of music are replications of each other insofar as they are both 'soothing' and 'relaxing', we can say, by the same token, that another piece of music is definitely unlike the first two insofar as we may describe it as 'noisy', 'disturbing' or just 'plain loud'. As soon as we note an aspect of two events which we consider similar to one another we are at the same time choosing what counts as a contrast. In this sense, the same aspect which we have abstracted from the two events determines both the similarity and the contrast. Further, the meaning of the construct is created by the tension of the opposite poles.

Kelly outlined this aspect of his theory under the Dichotomy Corollary which states -

"A person's construction system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs".

One of the first tasks of the clinician is to come to understand the client's' construct meanings often by exploring these hidden contrasts. If a client describes himself as ''ambitious" then we are not really in a position to understand what he means unless we find what he contrasts this against. If we help him unpack his basic construct by asking what the opposite of ambitious is he may say "lazy". We may now understand why he drives himself so hard. However, if another client's contrast for ambitious is "relaxed" then we may understand why, being relaxed, he never achieved anything - or why, having achieved so much he is never relaxed. The Dichotomy Corollary always reminds the clinician to seek for a hidden contrast which the client cannot explicitly state. It is only by coming to understand what else the client might have been that we can make any sense of what he has become.

The way we go about forming our constructs is a crucial business. Many clients present for therapy precisely because their bipolar construct choices are all negative, for example, the anorexic who fears being obese, or the manic client who fears being depressed again. Whichever pole of the construct they move to, they find themselves trapped. Thus, where you place yourself along the construct dimension is not nearly so important as the fact that you have evolved that particular construct in the first place. Once you have it in your repertoire you are bound to find yourself somewhere within it. Here we find this tension between constructs being alternatively liberating or imprisoning. We are faced with a choice each time we come to consider applying a particular construct to current events.

We can see events as 'interesting' or 'boring', 'certain' or ‘uncertain', 'attractive' or 'ugly', 'important' or 'trivial', etc. In choosing, our anticipations tell us which pole of our dichotomous construct to select in order to make the best sense of the impending events and to elaborate our sense-making system. Such choices are not made randomly but are done in such a manner that we hope to enhance our future anticipations. Kelly summarised this aspect of his theory in the Choice Corollary which says -

"A person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomized construct through which he anticipates the greater possibility for extension and definition of his system".

A double bind therefore is an event in which a person cannot make any constructive elaborative choice.

A major strategy which human beings employ to maximize the chances of their anticipations being accurate is that of being inconsistent. We like to hedge our bets where possible and to do this we may employ anticipations which don't seem very consonant with one another when laid side by side.

When we closely examine our construct systems we find hypotheses or predictions which are not derivable from one another (but which are however consistent with the overriding aspects of the system). The Fragmentation Corollary states "A person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other". This corollary is an attempt to extend the Modulation Corollary in terms of specifying what type of inconsistency the latter permits. Kelly uses this corollary to explain otherwise paradoxical human behaviour.

When it comes to the issue of interpersonal relationships, Kelly counterbalances his emphasis on individuality by stating that insofar as people construe events in a similar manner they may behave in a similar manner to one another (irrespective of whether or not the events themselves are identical). This re-emphasizes Kelly's view of how 'primary reality' differs to one's 'construction of reality'. It is what we make of it that matters. This is summarised in the Commonality Corollary which states -

"to the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his psychological processes are similar to those of the other person".

Kelly's view of culture as ''similarity in what members of the group expect of each other" [37] leads us to the take-off point for Kelly's view of social psychology which is that it must be a psychology of interpersonal understandings not merely a psychology of common understandings. It is here that we see Kelly's use of Moreno's ideas, and those of Korzybski, in emphasizing that a social role does not merely emerge out of one's social circumstances but, rather, it is anchored firmly in one's personal construct system. One implication of this is that a role is not a fixed entity or a finished product but is rather an ongoing interpersonal process. There are similarities to be drawn with Laing's [38] work on the 'Interpersonal Perception Method' when Kelly describes a role as "a course of activity which is played out in the light of one's understanding of the behaviour of one or more other people". Thus, we do not need a commonality of psychological processes with the other person in order to play a role in relation to them, although if we do have commonality, then, being like the other person to some degree makes it easier to understand them. This is dealt with in the theory under the Sociality Corollary which states -

"To the extent that one person construes the construction processes of another, he may play a role in a social process involving the other person".

Frames of Mind.- Having briefly outlined some aspects of the eleven elaborative corollaries under the four headings of philosophy, history, science and clinical practice we are in a position to define more clearly what is meant by a construct. Under the heading of philosophy, we saw that to construe meant to translate extralinguistic reality into our personal terms. To this degree in 'constructing reality' we are ínventing it. By making such inventions we free ourselves from the "here and now" of the endless present of our animal relatives, but we are concomitantly trapped in the anticipation of the future and the construction of the recurrent themes of history. We are also trapped on our side of a "terministic screen" as Burke [39] described it. Burke also reminds us that contained in the terms (constructs) we use are dictates as to what we will perceive, in fact "many of the 'observations' are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made".[40] That is, a construct not merely 'describes reality' but tells us how 'best' to perceive it and therefore sets our minds along certain channels to the exclusion of others. The powerful dictates of constructs can be seen exemplified in the Rosenhan [41] experiment in which a group of his friends and colleagues presented themselves to a mental hospital requesting admission. Upon reporting a single symptom all of these individuals gained admission to the institution and were diagnosed (with one exception) as suffering from schizophrenia.

In scientific terms a construct was described as a prediction or anticipation of future events. In experimental terms we may see a construct as a hypothesis that we put forward to see how it is 'treated by reality'; is it smashed to pieces, invalidated by a reality it failed to measure up to, or is it found to be useful? From the historical point of view a construct is the abstractíon and patterning of recurrent themes selected on the basis of certain discriminations that we have made. In clinical terms we often see people who have got into trouble because their constructs prescribe behaviour for them which is out of key with other peoples' prescriptions. The person who says ''everyone hates me" has a clear prescription of how he intends to act in relation to 'everyone'. His expectations may act as a self-fulfilling prophecy and, on confronting someone who does not hate him, his constructs prescribe that he will act in a way to elicit hating behaviour from the hitherto 'non-hating' person.


Personal construct theory is very difficult to grasp largely because it emphasizes organization and structure as opposed to content. It tells us not what to think but rather how to go about understanding what we do think. It is a theory about theories insofar as it presents a framework within which we can come to understand and appreciate how another person theorizes about his world. Kelly's approach is personal vs. group oriented. Most of his efforts go towards understanding psychological processes from the point of view of the person who is experiencing them - i.e. from the inside rather than from the outside. He takes his own advice when he warns that "the avoidance of subjectivity is not the way to get down to hard realities. Subjective thinking is, rather, an essential step in the process the scientist must follow in grasping the nature of the universe".[42] Kelly's approach is also personal in the sense of the whole person rather than any fragments of the person, e. g. emotions', 'thinking', etc.

The theory emphasizes processes at different levels, from the image of the universe as an endless changing process to the person as a form of process and construing itself as an active process. By choosing process vs. stasis Kelly avoided concepts which are inappropriate to psychology like that of "energy" and could dispense with the idea of "motivation'. The nearest he gets to the idea of motivation is when he introduces the concept of anticipation as not an end in itself but as a means to a better representation of the future.

By rejecting many of the hitherto sacrosanct touchstones of psychology (e.g. 'motivation', 'learning' etc.) Kelly was concerned to create a new approach which still had as its focus of convenience the psychological approach to the person as opposed to a sociological or medical or other approach.

While construing a person's psychological processes as changing, or influx, Kelly was careful to emphasize that he did not see them as "fluttering about in a vast emptiness". Rather, psychological processes operate through a flexible but structured network of pathways or channels created by a person's constructions. The notion that such constructions and their use are processes is emphasized when he says "the use of constructs is a matter of choosing vestibules through which one passes during the course of his day".[43]

The emphasis on anticipation is clear throughout all his work. By construing past recurring themes we are facilitated in our anticipation of future events. Our anticipations give us a degree of control when extended into our behaviour which becomes our questing or questioning act. As Kelly says " ... just as all questions are anticipatory, behaviour is anticipatory too".[44] Kelly further says "questions are restless bed-fellows. When they are behaviorally activated they disturb all sleep nestled in foregone conclusions and elicit dreams of unprecedented replies. Ask the most foolish question you can imagine and, sure enough, someone will offer an answer".[45]

Finally, Kelly emphasized that we are in the business of anticipating actual events as opposed to imaginary events. Through our behaviour, through our anticipations, our psychological processes are firmly anchored in lived experience. Anticipation is not an end in itself, it is a means to the end of an improved representation of future events.

The best possible summary of this paper introducing the reader to the psychology of personal constructs is to be found in the Fundamental Postulate which orients the whole theory. It states:

"A person's processes are psychologically channelised by the way in which he anticipates events".



l. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Persona] Constructs. Volume 1: A Theory of Personality. Volume 2: Clinical Diagnosis and Psychotherapy. New York. Norton. 1955.

2. Thompson, G. G. George Alexander Kelly (1905-1967). J. Of General Psychology. 1968. Vol. 79:19-24.

3. Waddington, C.H. Tools for Thought. Herts. Paladin. 1977. p.26

4. Bruner, J. You are your Constructs. Contemp. Psychol. 1956.

5. Rogers, C.R. Contemp. Psychol. 1956.1:357-358.

6. Kelly, G. A. The Psychotherapeutic Relationship. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969. p.216.

7. Kelly, G..A. A Brief Introduction to Personal Construct Theory. In: Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory. Ed. Bannister, D. London. Academic Press. 1970. p. 10.

8. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume l. New York. Norton. 1955. p.37 .

9. Vaihinger, H. The Philosophy of 'As if'. London. Kegan Paul,Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd. 1935. p. 197.

10. Kelly, G .A. The Psychotherapeutic Relationship. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969. p. 218

11. I bid., p. 217.

12. Kelly, G. A. Ontological Acceleration. In: Ibid., p.14.

13. Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1967.

14. Kelly, G. A. In Whom Confide: On Whom Depend for What. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969. p. 198.

15. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 2. New York. Norton. 1955. p. 1082.

16. Kelly, G.A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume l. New York. Norton. 1955. p. 21.

17. Wittgenstein, L. Zettel. Oxford. Blackwell. 1969.

18. Popper, K.R. Conjectures and Refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1963.

19. Kelly G. A. Man's Construction of His Alternatives. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969. p. 67.

20. Kelly, G. A. The language of Hypothesis. In: Ibid., p. 149.

21. Kelly, G. A. A Brief Introduction to Personal Construct Theory. In: Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory. Ed. Bannister, D. London. Academic Press, 1970. p. 2.

22. Ibid., p. 5.

23. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume l. New York. Norton. 1955. p. 6.

24. Ibid., p. 52.

25. Ibid., p. 76.

26. Ayer, A.J. The Origins of Pragmatism. London. Macmillan. 1968.

27. Peirce, C. S. How to make our ideas clear. In: Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Buchier, J. New York. Dover. 1955. p.28.

28. Peirce, C. S. The scientific attitude and fallibilism. in: Ibid., p.47.

29. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1.New York. Norton. 1955. p. 13.

30. Ibid., p. 14.

31. Ibid., p. 26.

32. Walkenstein, E. Shrunk to Fit. London. Coventure. 1975.

33. Kelly, G. A. A Brief Introduction to Personal Construct Theory. In: Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory. Ed. Bannister, D. London. Academic Press. 1970. p. 18.

34. Kelly, G. A. The psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume l. New York. Norton. 1955. p. 89.

35. Ibid., p. 19.

36. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

37. Ibid., p. 93.

38. Laing, R. D., Phillipson, H., and Lee, A. R. Interpersonal Perception. A Theory and a Method of Research. London, Tavistock Publications. 1966.

39. Burke, K. Terministic Screens. In: Language as Symbolic Action. Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley. University of California Press. 1966. pp. 44-62.

40. Ibid., p. 46.

41. Rosenhan, D.L. On being sane in insane places. Science. 1973.179:250-258.

42. Kelly, G. A. The Language of Hypothesis. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969. p. 150.

43. Kelly, G. A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Volume 1. New York. Norton. 1955. p. 66.

44. Kelly, G. A. Ontological Acceleration. In: Clinical Psychology and Personality. The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. Maher, B. New York. Wiley. 1969.

45. Ibid., p. 22.


Published in the Irish Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 3 No. 1 March 1984


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