Personal Construct Theory
KeywordsConstruction System Personal Construct Repertory Grid Philosophical Assumption Constructive Alternativism
Personal construct theory is a theory of personality which starts from the assumption that people interpret their experience of the world and themselves.
Personal construct theory (PCT) is the invention of an American psychologist, George A. Kelly (1905–1967). Presented in 1955 in a work in two volumes, The Psychology of Personal Constructs, PCT is a theory of personality mainly devoted to clinical diagnosis and psychotherapy.
Soon after their publication, Kelly’s ideas aroused puzzlement, incomprehension, and misunderstanding in the psychological community, due to their being radically different from the perspectives of the period – psychoanalysis and behaviorism above all. Such originality of PCT has been explained by Kelly’s own “pioneering” biography (Fransella 1995) and had three main consequences: the difficulty to classify PCT into the traditional schools of psychology (it has been considered each time as a cognitive, a phenomenological, or a humanistic-existential theory, to say the least); its survival thanks to small groups of fervent followers; and its suffering from the external perception of a sort of “intellectual isolationism” (Neimeyer 1985).
It is only in the last few decades that PCT has been recognized as the first expression of psychological constructivism (Watzlawick 1984), and even as the most rigorous and cutting-edge constructivist approach to psychotherapy (Chiari and Nuzzo 2010).
The theory rests on a philosophical assumption and a fundamental postulate, and is composed of eleven corollaries.
“All of our present interpretations of the universe are subject to revision or replacement” (Kelly 1955, p. 15). This philosophical position, called constructive alternativism, is contrasted by Kelly with the more popular epistemological assumption of accumulative fragmentalism, according to which truth is collected piece by piece. Science proceeds by means of conjectures and refutations, and the person-as-a-scientist – Kelly’s well-known metaphor – makes something similar: asks him- or herself questions about the nature of the universe, observes the world, construes structures of meaning, and, behaving on the basis of such interpretative hypotheses, verifies their viability and eventually revises his or her construction of experience.
The implications of such epistemological choice are rigorously carried on by Kelly, to the extent of founding a proper psychology (Winter and Reed 2016) in which the traditional notions of emotion, motivation, drive, unconscious, need, and many others, have no place.
The Fundamental Postulate represents the assumption from which Kelly (1955) chooses to start and from which all the following theoretical construction derives: “A person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events” (p. 46). Anticipation eliminates the necessity to hypothesize a motivational factor: “the person is not an object which is temporarily in a moving state but is himself a form of motion” (p. 48). And people’s processes are channelized from a psychological viewpoint by their anticipations, allowed by the construction of regularities in the otherwise undifferentiated flux of events (Construction Corollary).
In order to catch a regularity, a recurrent theme, the person divides into segments the flux of events in terms of similarities and differences. From hence the notion of personal construct at the root of the theory: “a way in which at least two things are alike and at the same time different from at least one other thing” (p. 86). From here the bipolar and dichotomous structure of personal constructs (Dichotomy Corollary) and their applicability to a limited range of events (Range Corollary). People differ from each other not only because there may have been differences in the events which they have sought to anticipate, but also because there are different approaches to the anticipation of the “same” events (Individuality Corollary). Conversely, they are psychologically similar to the extent that they construe their experience in a similar way (Commonality Corollary).
Personal knowledge evolves in the form of construction systems in which the constructs are in superordinal and subordinal relationships between each other (Organization Corollary), and in which the various subsystems can alternatively be employed by a person (Fragmentation Corollary). Such knowledge varies not as a result of the mere succession of events, but to the extent that people construe and reconstrue such events (Experience Corollary), and the variation is however limited by the permeability of the constructs implied by the experience (Modulation Corollary) – that is, by their readiness to assimilate new elements.
The two remaining corollaries are especially important for their implications in the field of psychotherapy.
The Choice Corollary states that people, between the two alternatives offered by a construct and defined by its two poles, always choose the one which they anticipate can allow them the best possibilities for an elaboration of their construction systems. In other words, people create and recreate their narratives opting for that version which appears to give more meaning to their experiential world. Therefore, the choice is always an elaborative choice, even though it may appear self-damaging, or even if it may imply suffering.
The Sociality Corollary deals with a particular implication of the Fundamental Postulate, the case in which the events anticipated by a person are represented by the construction processes of another person: “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” (Kelly 1955, p. 95). In order to have a significant relationship with others, one has to understand them, striving to figure their points of view out. Kelly (1970/1966) contrasts this possibility – which allows role relationships with other people – with the cases in which one person construes the other’s behavior merely, thus treating him or her as a “behaving organism” (p. 23). In the psychotherapeutic relationship, the therapist strives to understand the clients and see how the world can appear from such observation point in order to play a professional role with them.
Understanding is an important part of acceptance – “the willingness to see the world through the other person’s eyes” (Kelly 1955, p. 373) – which characterizes the personal construct psychotherapist. The other part is represented by the diagnostic constructs.
The diagnostic or professional constructs replace the traditional diagnostic dimensions – such as the psychiatric categories of DSM, or the types or traits of personality – in formulating a diagnosis, which is termed transitive since it is aimed at envisaging a bridge across the clients’ present and their future rather than at classifying them. Essentially, the diagnostic constructs are constructs whose elements are personal constructs or processes in a personal construction system. For instance, personal constructs can be construed as verbal or nonverbal (communicable in symbolic speech or not), tight or loose (depending on their leading to precise or vague anticipations), and core or peripheral (more or less closely related to the conservation of life and personal identity).
The professional constructs relative to transitions deserve a particular attention. They refer to the people’s awareness of important changes in their construction of themselves and the world and represent the personal construct view of the traditional treatment of emotional experiences. To quote a few, anxiety is the awareness of a relative lack of structure in construing part of one’s experience, threat is the awareness of an imminent and comprehensive change in one’s core structures, and guilt is the awareness of a deviation from one’s more usual way of relating with other people.
Personal Construct Psychotherapy
The professional construction of the client’s construct system allows the personal construct psychotherapists to formulate a transitive diagnosis which steers them in the psychotherapeutic relationship and process (Winter and Viney 2005). This latter is not aimed at the correction of “maladaptive” constructions, but rather to the reactivation of the cycle of experience which, when uncompleted, takes the shape of a disorder. Consistently with the philosophical assumption of constructive alternativism, the aim of psychotherapy is the reinterpretation of personal experience.
Differently from the period in which PCT was born, nowadays the fields of psychology and psychotherapy number many approaches which make reference to psychological constructivism or social constructionism. However, unlike its “cousins,” PCT remains the only one constructivist perspective which “is not nothing but a theory, but is, in fact, a total psychology” (Bannister and Fransella 1980, p. 8).
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