In 1955 George Kelly published his major two volume opus entitled
"The Psychology of Personal Constructs". 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 . 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". 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 and Carl Rogers. 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".
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".
This assumption removes what Vaihinger called the 'fiction of force' 
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".
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 !.
(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
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
Our behavioural experiments are ways of asking questions rather than ways of offering
conclusions. Behaviour is therefore "the instrument of its own exploration".
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". 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". 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". 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'.  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'  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".
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'. 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,
(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
We are left in a "posture of expectancy" 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
Kelly clearly enjoyed the "challenge of upending smug certainties".
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
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". 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
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
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". He also tells us that to construe
"is to hear the whisper of recurrent themes which reverberate around us'' .
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.
Compare KELLY'S ideas with those of Peirce who stated that "Thought is a thread of melody running through the
succession of our sensations".
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".
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
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''. 
'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". In which case such clients can be
construed as having being "shrunk to fit.  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
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". 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". 
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
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". 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
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
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"  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 
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  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".
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  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
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". 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
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".
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". 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".
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
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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.