I.      Overview of Personal Construct Theory

       Kelly’s theory of personality can be seen as a metatheory, or a theory about theories. It holds that people anticipate events by the meanings or interpretations that they place on those events. Kelly called these interpretations personal constructs. His philosophical position, called constructive alternativism, assumes that alternative interpretations are always available to people.


II.     Biography of George Kelly

George Kelly was born on a farm in south central Kansas in 1905, the only child of a former Presbyterian minister and a former schoolteacher. During his school years and his early professional career, he dabbled in a wide variety of subjects, but eventually he took a Ph.D. in psychology from the State University of Iowa. He began his academic career at Fort Hays State College in Kansas, a state plagued both by dust storms and the Great Depression. After World War II, Kelly took a position at Ohio State, where he remained until 1965 when he joined the faculty at Brandeis University. He died two years later at age 61.


III.    Kelly’s Philosophical Position

       Kelly believed that, although the universe is real, people construe events according to their personal constructs, rather than reality.

       A.      Person as Scientist

       People generally attempt to solve everyday problems in much the same fashion as scientists; that is, they observe, ask questions, formulate hypotheses, infer conclusions, and predict future events.

       B.      Scientist as Person

       Because scientists are people, their pronouncements should be regarded with the same skepticism as any other data. Every scientific theory can be viewed from an alternate angle, and every competent scientist should be open to changing his or her theory.

       C.      Constructive Alternativism

       Kelly believed that all our interpretations of the world are subject to revision or replacement, an assumption he called constructive alternativism. He further stressed that, because people can construe their world from different angles, observations that are valid at one time may be false at a later time.


IV.    Personal Constructs

       Kelly believed that people look at their world through templates that they create and then attempt to fit over the realities of the world. He called these templates or transparent patterns personal constructs. Kelly believed that personal constructs alone determine our behavior. A construct must have both a comparison and a contrast, both of which must occur within the same context.

       A.      Basic Postulate

       Kelly expressed his theory in one basic postulate and 11 supporting corollaries. The basic postulate assumes that human behavior is shaped by the way that people anticipate the future.

       B.      Supporting Corollaries

       The 11 supporting corollaries can all be inferred from this basic postulate.

       1.      Similarities Among Events

       Although no two events are exactly alike, we construe similar events as if they were the same. This is Kelly’s construction corollary.

       2.      Differences Among People

       The individuality corollary states that, because people have different experiences, they can construe the same event in different ways.

       3.      Relationships Among Constructs

       The organization corollary assumes that people organize their personal constructs in a hierarchical system, with some constructs in a superordinate position and others subordinate to them.

       4.      Dichotomy of Constructs

       The dichotomy corollary assumes that people construe events in an either/or manner, e.g., good or bad.

       5.      Choice Between Dichotomies

       People tend to choose the alternative in a dichotomized construct that they see as extending the range of their future choices. Kelly called this the choice corollary.

       6.      Range of Convenience

       The range corollary states that constructs are limited to a particular range of convenience; that is, they are not relevant to all situations.

       7.      Experience and Learning

       Kelly’s experience corollary suggests that people continually revise their personal constructs as the result of their experiences.

       8.      Adaptation to Experience

       Not all new experiences lead people to revise their personal constructs. Only permeable constructs lead to change; concrete constructs resist modification through experience. This is Kelly’s modulation corollary.

       9.      Incompatible Constructs

       The fragmentation corollary states that people’s behavior can be inconsistent because their construct systems can readily admit incompatible elements.

       10.     Similarities Among People

       To the extent that we share experiences with other people, our personal constructs
tend to be similar to the construction systems of other people. This is Kelly’s commonality corollary

       11.     Social Processes

       The sociality corollary states that people are able to communicate with other people because they can construe those people’s constructions. With this corollary, Kelly introduced the concept of role, which refers to a pattern of behavior that stems from people’s understanding of the constructs of others. Each of us has a core role (which gives us a sense of identity) and numerous peripheral roles (which are less central to
our self-concept).


V.     Applications of Personal Construct Theory

       Kelly’s many years of clinical experience enabled him to evolve concepts of abnormal development and psychotherapy, and to develop a Role Construct Repertory
(Rep) Test.

      A.      Abnormal Development

       Kelly saw normal people as analogous to competent scientists who test reasonable hypotheses, objectively view the results, and willingly change their theories when the data warrant it. On the other hand, unhealthy people are like incompetent scientists who test unreasonable hypotheses, reject or distort legitimate results, and refuse to amend outdated theories. Kelly identified four common elements in most human disturbances: threat, fear, anxiety, and guilt.

       1.      Threat

       People experience threat when they perceive that the stability of their basic constructs is likely to be shaken.

       2.      Fear

       Fear is more specific than threat and requires an incidental, rather than a comprehensive, restructuring of one’s construct system.

       3.      Anxiety

       People experience anxiety when they recognize that they cannot adequately deal with a new situation. Pathological anxiety exists when people become aware that their incompatible constructs can no longer be tolerated, an awareness that breaks down one’s construction system.

       4.      Guilt

       Kelly defined guilt as “the sense of having lost one’s core role structure.” This means that people will feel guilty when they behave in ways that are incompatible with their core role.

B.     Psychotherapy

       Kelly insisted that clients should set their own goals for therapy and that they should be active participants in the therapeutic process. He sometimes used a procedure called fixed-role therapy in which clients act out a predetermined role for several weeks. By playing the part of a psychologically healthy person, clients may discover previously hidden aspects of themselves.

C.     The Rep Test

       The purpose of the Rep test is to discover ways in which people construe significant people in their lives. Participants place names of people they know on a repertory
grid in order to identify both similarities and differences among these people.
Changes in personal constructs, as revealed by the Rep test, can reveal change
during psychotherapy.


VI.    Related Research

       Kelly’s theory has influenced clinicians more than researchers. Nevertheless,
personal construct theory and the Rep test have generated a substantial amount of empirical research with both children and adults and in both the United States and
the United Kingdom.

       A.      The Rep Test and Children

       Wayne Hammond and David Romney (1995) used the Rep test with children and found that the self-constructs of depressed adolescents are marked by low self-esteem, pessimism, and an external locus of control. Other research with children and the Rep test (Donahue, 1994) showed that preadolescents construed themselves and others in ways consistent with the Big Five personality factors (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and intelligence), thus demonstrating that the Big Five factors can come from instruments other than standard personality tests.

       B.      The Rep Test and the Real Self Versus the Ideal Self

       Research with adults demonstrated the usefulness of the Rep test in predicting adherence to a physical activity program (Jones, Harris, & Walter, 1998), detecting differences between the real self and the ideal self (Watson & Watts, 2001), and measuring neuroticism (Watson & Watts, 2001).

      C.     The Rep Test and the Pain Patient

       A number of studies from New Zealand, including the Large and Strong (1997) study, have found that the Rep test can be a reliable and valid instrument for measuring pain. Interestingly, some of this research showed that people close to the pain patient may unintentionally exacerbate their friend’s pain by behaving as if the pain was more central to the pain patient’s life than construed by the patient.


VII.   Critique of Kelly

       Kelly’s theory is most applicable to relatively normal, intelligent people. Unfortunately, it pays scant attention to problems of motivation, development, and cultural influences. On the six criteria of a useful theory, we rate Kelly’s theory very high on parsimony and internal consistency, about average on its capacity to
generate research, and low on its ability to be falsified, to guide the practitioner,
and to organize knowledge.


VIII.  Concept of Humanity

       Kelly saw people as anticipating the future and living their lives in accordance with those anticipations. His concept of elaborative choice suggests that people increase their range of future choices by the present choices they freely make. Thus, Kelly’s theory rates very high in teleology and high in choice and optimism. In addition, it receives high ratings for conscious influences and for its emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual. Finally, personal construct theory is about average on social influences.