Personal Construct Psychology
Personal construct psychology is a constructivist psychological theory developed by George Kelly in 1955. It views people as attempting to anticipate their worlds by employing unique, hierarchically organised systems of bipolar personal constructs. It has its own methodology, notably repertory grid technique and the self-characterization, and has had a very wide range of application, extending far beyond the clinical realm in which it was originally developed.
Personal construct psychology, which was originally presented in the American psychologist George Kelly’s (1955) two-volume magnum opus The Psychology of Personal Constructs, may be regarded as the first example in a psychological theory of the approach that has come to be termed constructivism (Chiari and Nuzzo 1996; Raskin 2002). Kelly viewed it as a radical alternative to the dominant psychologies of his day and to their mechanistic, deterministic, and reductionist assumptions, and it was ahead of its time in presaging later developments in psychology.
Personal Construct Theory
Kelly’s theory was based on a philosophical assumption termed constructive alternativism, which essentially asserts that people not only construct their worlds but that reconstruction is possible in that all events are open to alternative constructions. Unusually, the theory was set out in a very formal way in terms of a “Fundamental Postulate” and its elaboration in 11 corollaries. The Fundamental Postulate makes clear that people are primarily concerned with anticipating their worlds, operating like scientists in that, if they are functioning optimally, they formulate hypotheses, test these out, and, if they are invalidated, revise them in an ongoing cyclical process. The building blocks of these hypotheses are personal constructs, bipolar discriminations (e.g., “good–evil”) between elements of the world (e.g., people or events). The bipolarity of constructs means that each construct presents a choice in that an individual may construe an event in terms of either of its poles. The choice that is made is that which is likely to lead to better anticipation of the world, and, viewed in this way, even the most apparently self-defeating choices can be comprehensible. For example, as Fransella (1972) demonstrated in classic research on people who stutter, stuttering, and construing themselves in these terms, provided a “way of life” for these people that carried more implications than did fluency.
An individual’s constructs are organized in a hierarchical system in which some (superordinate constructs) subsume, and carry more implications than others (subordinate constructs), and are more resistant to change. Not all of people’s construing is at a high level of awareness, and this includes preverbal constructs, which were developed before the person had the use of language. Individuals differ in their constructs and in how these are organized, but there is also some commonality in construing, particularly between people within particular cultures. The basis of intimate relationships is sociality, the construing of the other person’s construction processes, or the attempt to see the world through his or her eyes.
Kelly viewed the person holistically, without making distinctions between cognition, emotion, and motivation. For him, what would normally be viewed as emotions involve awareness of transitions in construing. Threat, for example, is experienced when one becomes aware of an imminent comprehensive change in the core aspects of one’s construing, those superordinate structures most central to one’s identity. Thus, for many Americans, the events of “9/11” were very threatening as they invalidated firmly held constructions of inviolability in one’s homeland. Guilt is the experience of being dislodged from one’s core role, finding oneself behaving differently from one’s characteristic way of interacting with others. It is important to note that this need not involve behaving in a way that breaches moral conventions: for example, the person who has always construed him-/herself as unassertive and suddenly behaves assertively will experience guilt in Kellyan terms. Anxiety is experienced when some aspect of the world is beyond the range of one’s constructs and is therefore unpredictable. Culture shock is a good example of this. Aggression is viewed within personal construct psychology as the active elaboration of one’s perceptual field, applying one’s constructs to new events. Hostility, on the other hand, occurs when an individual, faced with invalidation of construing, attempts to make the world fit in with their predictions rather than vice versa. For example, the person whose self-construction is of someone who is always rejected but who finds him-/herself in a relationship with a loving partner may behave in a way that makes sure that this person rejects them as well. As in the previous example of people who stutter, such behavior may appear self-destructive from the perspective of an outside observer but is understandable if viewed in terms of increasing the predictability of the individual’s interpersonal world.
For Kelly, the person was a “form of motion,” for whom no motivating force was necessary to elicit movement. Nevertheless, as we have seen, people are viewed from a personal construct theory perspective as primarily moving in the direction of greater anticipation of events and away from the anxiety that is associated with unpredictability and invalidation of construing. Various strategies are used to make better sense of the world or avoid invalidation, and Kelly presented some of these strategies as polar opposites. For example, dilation and constriction are viewed as alternative ways of dealing with incompatibilities in construing. In the former, the person extends their perceptual field in an attempt to reorganize their construct system at a more comprehensive level: the culture-shocked tourist, for example, may throw him-/herself into as many new experiences as possible with a view to developing a way of construing them. By contrast, constriction involves the perceptual field being essentially limited to those events that can be predicted, as in the culture-shocked tourist who spends their whole holiday by the side of the hotel swimming pool eating the food of their own culture. Tight construing is a strategy of making very precise predictions (e.g., every day I get up at 7:30 a.m. and go to bed at midnight) so that the construct system has “no loose fits which might let anxiety seep in” (Kelly 1955, p. 849), whereas loose construing is so vague (e.g., my mother-in-law may or may not be a nice person) that predictions are very difficult to invalidate.
Although personal construct theory is often classified as a personality theory, with an assumption that it is solely concerned with the construing of individuals, this ignores its considerable focus on people in relation to each other. As Procter (1981, 2016) has demonstrated, its concepts can be equally applied to family and relational, as to personal, construct systems.
Personal Construct Assessment Techniques
Kelly developed not only a novel theory but also idiographic assessment techniques that essentially help the personal construct psychologist to show sociality by looking at the world through another person’s eyes rather than assessing the individual in terms of the less personally meaningful standard dimensions of, for example, a personality questionnaire. This involves a credulous approach, in which the other person’s views are respected and taken at face value, no matter how much they might differ from those of the psychologist.
There have been various developments in personal construct assessment techniques over the years (Bell 2016; Caputi et al. 2012), but two of the principal methods continue to be ones originally described by Kelly (1955), the self-characterization and the repertory grid. In the former, the person is asked to write an autobiographical sketch in the third person as if it were written by someone who knew him or her well and sympathetically. Later variations on this procedure have included couples writing sketches of their relationships or the writing of headings and summaries of the chapters of an autobiography.
By far the most commonly used personal construct assessment method, not least because of its flexibility, is repertory grid technique. This normally commences with the elicitation from the individual of a number of elements of his or her world. The elements are usually aspects of the self (e.g., self now; how I would like to be; how others see me; self in the future; self as a parent; self as an employee) and significant others in the individual’s life, but they will be determined by the purpose for which the grid is being used and may instead, for example, be relationships, life events, or works of art. The next step in grid administration is normally to elicit constructs on the basis of these elements, the standard procedure being to present the individual with successive triads of elements, and to ask, with each triad, for some important way in which two of the elements are alike and thereby different from the other one. The final step is for the individual to sort all of the elements in terms of all of the constructs, generally by either rating (e.g., on a seven-point scale) or ranking them. The resulting matrix can be analyzed by one of the many specialist software packages that are now available and from which may be derived measures of the degree of similarity in the construing of particular elements, of the relationships between constructs, and of structural properties of construing, such as tightness or looseness. In addition, most software packages will produce a plot which provides a visual representation of the individual’s construing.
Personal construct psychology was developed in the clinical field, but its applications have by no means been limited to this area. Educational and organizational applications have, for example, been particularly prominent.
Whereas, as we have seen, people are usually engaged in a constant, cyclical process of testing out their construing, psychological disorder involves a block in this process, being defined by Kelly (1955) as “any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation” (p. 831). Kelly was very critical of psychiatric diagnostic categories and instead used a set of “professional constructs,” several of which are described in the introductory section of this entry, to formulate the problems of clients in clinical settings (Winter and Procter 2014). For example, one of the earliest substantial personal construct clinical research programs provided evidence that clients diagnosed as displaying schizophrenic thought disorder were characterized by loose construing, which was hypothesized to be a reaction to serial invalidation of their construing (Bannister 1962, 1965). Subsequent research has demonstrated particular features of construing associated with various other clinical problems (Winter 1992, 2016). Kelly (1955) emphasized that his professional constructs did not describe disease processes but instead could be applied to the construing of any individual, including reflexively that of the psychologist. For example, all of us construe loosely at times, such as when we are very relaxed or developing new ideas, and it is only when our construing is persistently very loose that we may attract a psychiatric label of thought disorder.
Personal construct psychotherapy is technically eclectic, borrowing techniques from other therapeutic models although conceptualizing their mode of action in terms of facilitating particular types of reconstruing. It has been used with a wide range of disorders across the lifespan, with individuals, groups, couples, and families; and it has a not inconsiderable evidence base (Metcalfe et al. 2007; Winter and Viney 2005). One particular therapeutic technique that Kelly (1955) devised was fixed-role therapy, in which the therapist writes a sketch of a hypothetical character which the client is asked to “become” for a short period of time as a way of encouraging experimentation with his or her construing. The sketch is generally derived from the client’s self-characterization but is designed to depict someone who is not the opposite of, but rather is orthogonal to, the client’s self-construction. More recent developments of personal construct psychotherapy range from an “experiential” approach that focuses on the therapeutic relationship (Leitner 1988) to an approach that identifies dilemmas (essentially relationships between constructs in which the preferred pole of one is associated with the non-preferred pole of the other) from a client’s repertory grid and then focuses on their resolution (Feixas and Saúl 2005). These developments also include the integration of personal construct methods with those derived from other essentially constructivist approaches, such as narrative therapy (e.g., Neimeyer 2009).
Personal construct educational psychology was pioneered by Ravenette (1999), who developed various methods, often using drawings, of assessing children’s construing. In working with problems presented in educational settings, he noted that their resolution was as likely to require reconstruing by adults as by children, despite the latter often being presented as the source of the problems.
More generally, applications of personal construct psychology in the educational field have focused on the importance of personal meaning in the learning process and on the construction of knowledge by learners. This work has involved a considerable amount of research on the construct systems both of learners and of teachers and has included facilitation of teachers’ awareness of their own and their students’ construing (Denicolo and Pope 2001; Pope and Denicolo 2016).
Applications of personal construct psychology in organizational and business settings have included work with individuals in such settings, originally often using repertory grid technique but more recently applying a more explicit personal construct coaching approach (Pavolvić and Stojnov 2016). However, there has been an increasing focus on corporate construing (Balnaves and Caputi 2000), with personal construct consultancy focusing on broader organizational concerns such as conflict resolution and team building (Frances 2016; Jankowicz 1990).
Among the other areas of application of personal construct psychology have been the arts, forensic psychology, politics, religion, sport, the law, sexuality, and environmental issues (Fransella 2003; Horley 2003; Walker and Winter 2007; Winter and Reed 2016).
Personal construct psychology has proved to have a very wide, and ever-extending, “range of convenience,” the areas to which it can be applied. The use of its research and assessment methods, particularly the repertory grid, to explore meaning making has been even broader than that of personal construct theory itself.
Although compatible with various constructivist trends in psychology and related fields, personal construct psychology still retains distinctive features, including a rigorous theory and associated techniques, which arguably make it in many respects as radical today as when Kelly first introduced it to the world over 60 years ago (Winter 2012).
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