Personal constructs is the individual way we gather information from experience, evaluate it, and develop an interpretation of the information, giving incoming data a meaning. Through our self created constructs, we give experience a subjective interpretation. Comparatively, personal constructs work much the same as primal world beliefs except they are limited to views we hold of ourselves.
Because we all use personal constructs with an experience, we can experience the same event or sequence of events as others but have a different subjective experience that influences emotions, memories and future evaluations of similar experience. Our personal constructs are very stable but not immovable.
What Are Constructs?
Constructs are subjective evaluations rather than objective truths. Personal constructions are subjective evaluations of self. Through the lens of these subjective evaluations we interpret experience. Through these constructs we create a unique view of the world. We create constructs to make sense of a complex world and the dynamic flow of masses of information.
Constructs speed cognitions, and give order to complexity. However, constructs also give life to biases and grasp to hidden beliefs, limiting our growth.
Personal Construct Psychology:
Personal construct psychology is a psychological theory developed by George Kelly in 1955. While the basic concept of personal constructs shares similarities of many of the evolving cognitive behavioral styles beginning to evolve around the same time, Kelly’s theory was built on humanistic principles, centered around the individual. Kelly explains that he wanted “to bring psychologists into contact with human beings” (2005).
Kendra Cherry wrote, “rather than viewing human beings as passive subjects who were at the whims of the associations, reinforcements, and punishments they encountered in their environments (behaviorism) or their unconscious wishes and childhood experiences (psychoanalysis), Kelly believed that people take an active role in how they collect and interpret knowledge” (2020).
A few years prior (1952) to Kelly’s introduction of the personal construct theory, the American Psychiatric Association published the first version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM). Perhaps, this manual motivated some of his remarks on rigidity in the psychological community. He explained that he would like to “extricate psychology from the mishmash of its obstruse definitions.” He further explained that “dogmatic interpretations of clients’ problems often did more harm than good.” Kelly continues, “dogmatism produces a kind of mental rigidity that replaces thoughts with word, stifles the zest for free inquiry, and tries to seal the personality up tight at the conclusion of the last psychotherapeutic interview” (2005. page 356).
Primary Postulate of Personal Construct Theory
Kelly states that the fundamental postulate of this theory is: a person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events (2020, p 34). Based on Kelly’s fundamental postulate, and examining his original work, we discover that much of personal construct theory pertains to a person’s behaviors in terms of future predictions. Basically, our constructions become the foundation for predicting how behaviors will play out in the future.
Kelly observed that a construct is a subjectively invented “representation of the universe, a representation erected by a living creature and then tested against the reality of that universe” (1995). According to Kelly, “constructive alternativism places the individual in the position of having a great deal of freedom in deciding what the world is like” (Epting & Leitner, 1992, p. 244).
Personal construct theory suggests that we develop constructs about how the world works. We then use these constructs to make sense of the experience. Accordingly, Johnathan D. Raskin explains “the meaning of events differs depending upon an individual’s personal constructs” (1995). A main premise of this theory is that “persons differ from each other in their construction of events” (2020, p. 38).
The point is that because we construe events differently, and give different weight to desired outcomes, we have different motivations, leading to different behaviors. Understanding constructive alternativism has two points of emphasis. First is that through understanding the individual path towards actualization may take different paths and have different desired destinations based on the individuals constructs. The second point of emphasis is for the individual that is dissatisfied with their life they can examine and change constructs, and reconstructions “often make a world of difference.” Kelly wrote that “some reconstructions may open fresh channels for a rich and productive life” (2005)..
Man looks at his world through transparent patterns or templets which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which the world is composed. The fit is not always very good. Yet without such patterns the world appears to be such an undifferentiated homogeneity that man is unable to make any sense out of it. Even a poor fit is more helpful to him than nothing at all (2020/1955).
Construals and Meaning Making
At length, according to the theory, the individual is the one in position of making meaning of their unique magnificent life. Kelly explains “events do not tell us what to do, nor do they carry meanings engraved on their backs for us to discover.” He continues, “for better or worse we ourselves create the only meaning they will ever have during our lifetime” (1970).
The point, and beauty, of constructive alternativism is that it “places us all in a position of toleration for the life styles of others” (1970). There is no fixed reality that we can grasp, therefore we shouldn’t judge others according to our constructed version of the world. “Using constructive alternativism challenges one to substitute opportunity for certainty. It invites people not to be caught up in the immdiacy of things but to adopt the largest perspective possible in order to interpret events” (Epting & Leitner, 1992).
Personal Construct theory shares many basic concepts with Harry Sacks Sullivan’s self-systems theory.
Awareness of Personal Constructs
Many therapies subscribe to Kelly’s construct theory. They focus on finding underlying beliefs that may result in emotional reactions to otherwise mundane events. Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic, and Laurel Hulley wrote, “the particular words used by a client to name an emotion are less important than guiding the client to feel the emotion and then go beneath it to become aware of the unique personal constructs or meanings that are its very basis” (2012).
Brian Little warns that “our personal constructs provide both frames for the anticipation of events and cages within which we can become trapped” (2014, Kindle Location 3,566). Unless we bring awareness to the underlying beliefs, we can’t manage them when they promote maladaptive reactions and behaviors.
The Person as Scientist
Kelly suggests that we operate as a scientist in our personal lives. We constantly examine our constructions as theories that we test against reality. Our constructions are the basis for our predictions of future events. However, when future events fail to materialize as we predict, then we must examine the framework for our prediction. We examine the prediction errors to determine underlying causes so we can refine our constructions.
This whole process is littered with problems. We misdiagnose the cause, externalize problems, and cling to unreasonable constructs.
Personal Construct Theory and the Cognitive Psychology Revolution
During the early 1950s, the behavioral and psychoanalytic perspectives dominated psychology. Kelly’s personal construct theory deviated from these dominating views of the human mind, giving energy to individuality and self determination.
Rather than viewing human beings as passive participants, suffering from the blows of associations, reinforcements, and punishments they encountered in their environments or from unconsciously learned desires from childhood experiences, Kelly believed that we take an active role in how we process and interpret knowledge. Sullivan’s self-systems emerged around the same time. In the self system, Sullivan theorized that “the self engages in a constant process of translation and transformation of information” (2021). A few decades later, Albert Bandura presented his concept of reciprocal determinism which blends determinism with personal behaviors.
These early theories of cognitive interference with deterministic powers gave birth to cognitive behavior therapy and Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive therapy. The world became a playground for cognitive interpretation, reappraisals and softening of the cold data of harsh experience.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory is interesting because of its blend of humanistic principles with the cognitive psychology revolution. We also see shades of Kelly’s theory in more modern concepts of constructing emotion. Kelly is a prolificate writer with a deep mind, many of his articles and books are naturally easy and intriguing to read.
Cherry, Kendra (2020). Personal Construct Theory Overview. Verywellmind. Published 9-20-2020. Accessed 5-30-2023.
Ecker, Bruce; Ticic, Robin; Hulley, Laurel (2012). Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation. Routledge; 1st edition.
Epting, F., & Leitner, L. (1992). Humanistic Psychology and Personal Construct Theory. The Humanistic Psychologist, 20(2-3), 243-259.
Kelly, George (2005). Personal construct theory and the psychotherapeutic interview. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(4), 355-362.
Kelly, George (2020/1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Routledge; 1st edition.
Kelly, George, Armstrong (1970). A Brief Introduction to Personal Construct Theory. In Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory. Editor D. Bannister. Academic Press.
Little, Brian R. (2014). Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being. PublicAffairs.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Self System. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-28-2021. Accessed 5-30-2023.
Raskin, J. (1995). On Ethics in Personal Construct Theory. The Humanistic Psychologist, 23(1), 97-113.