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An Introduction to the Personal Construct Psychology of George A.


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 . 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 nonFreudian '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 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". 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
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 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
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'
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
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, 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
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 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". 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
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 possible".
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 preconceptions. 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
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". 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 events.''
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 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
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
nventing 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
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 abstracton 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 selffulfilling 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 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".
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 Psychology. 1968. Vol. 79:1924.
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.
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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