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George Kelly

George Kelly

George Kelly is the founder of personal construct psychology. Although his writings are not quite as voluminous as those of most of the other theorists studied on this course, his style has been credited as appealing:

Let us then, instead of occupying ourselves with man-the-biological-organism or man-the-lucky-guy, have a look at man-the-scientist. (Kelly, 1955: 4)

Kelly proposes that we are all scientists, generating hypotheses, testing them against reality and revising them on the basis of their predictive accuracy.

Might not the individual man, each in his own personal way, assume more of the stature of a scientist, ever seeking to predict and control the course of events with which he is involved? (Kelly, 1955: 5)

A person is essentially her own theory constructor – ironically similar, in this respect, to the psychologists attempting to study her. The subject of psychological enquiry is equally capable of perceiving, categorising, construing and evaluating her own behaviour and of creating interpretations, abstractions and generalisations about herself, other people and the world.

In contrast to most psychodynamic theorists (see Chapter I), motivation is seen by Kelly as a redundant concept. Everyone is motivated “for no other reason than that he is alive” (Kelly, 1958: 49). Personality, similarly, is never actually defined in Kelly’s work, though might be regarded as the sum total of a person’s construct system. Personal constructs are delineated as a person’s ways of representing or viewing her own experiences. According to such a constructivist approach, there is no single absolute truth awaiting discovery, merely different ways of seeing and conceptualising events. Take the example of a child dropping and breaking his mother’s favourite ornament and subsequent potential subjective constructions of the objective situation (the broken ornament) from a variety of perspectives: “meanness” (the child’s mother), “carelessness” (the child’s father), “hostility” (psychoanalyst), “laziness” (the child’s teacher), “accident” (the child’s grandparents) or “stupidity” (the child himself). (The constructs themselves appear in inverted commas above. Constructs contain elements, namely the events, people and inanimate objects described or circumscribed.) Personal construct theory, therefore, strives to appreciate how a person sees and aligns events using his own concepts, criteria and dimensions.

Kelly’s central theme, or fundamental postulate, is reminiscent of Adler’s teleological orientation, with the whole personality organised around some final goal.

A person’s processes are psychologically channelised by the ways in which he anticipates events (Kelly, 1955: 46).

He also puts forward eleven corollaries regarding specific themes of construers, constructs and construct systems, as follows.

  • Construction corollary: “A person anticipates events by construing their replication” (Kelly, 1955: 50). Our anticipations concerning the nature of future events are based upon our interpretations of previous events.
  • Individuality corollary: “Persons differ from each other in their construction of events” (Kelly, 1955: 55). In deference to the phenomenological perspective of many humanistic-existential thinkers (see Section II), events are perceived in different ways by different people. This principle has clearly influenced Kelly’s assessment interview technique: “If you don’t know what is going on in a person’s mind, ask him; he may tell you!” (Kelly, 1958: 330), in response to which he adopts his characteristic credulous attitude, accepting the person’s statements at face value.
  • Organisation corollary: “Each person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs” (Kelly, 1955: 56). With a view to making prediction easier, a person’s idiosyncratic set of personal constructs is arranged hierarchically. A superordinate construct (e.g safe/dangerous) will subsume a number of subordinate constructs (e.g. good/bad, friend/foe).
  • Dichotomy corollary: “A person’s construction system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs” (Kelly, 1955: 59). Sharing similar views to Jung and Perls, Kelly proposes that every personal construct must be specified in terms of two extremes. The opposite pole is always at least implicit. For example, good has no meaning without bad.
  • Choice corollary: “A person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomised construct through which he anticipates the greater possibility for extension and definition of his system” (Kelly, 1955: 64). The pole of a personal construct favoured by a person (e.g. trustworthy or untrustworthy) is that with the greatest predictive power for that person. Clearly, a difficulty may arise here through self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Range corollary: “A construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only” (Kelly, 1955: 68). The spectrum of usefulness of personal constructs varies from narrow to wide, but total encompassment of events can never be achieved. Again, the focus is upon utility for a particular person rather than objective truth.
  • Experience corollary: “A person’s construction system varies as he successively construes the replications of events” (Kelly, 1955: 72). Ideally, we revise our personal construct system on the basis of experience, updating and reforming on the basis of our constructs’ ability to anticipate events.
  • Modulation corollary: “The variation in a person’s construction system is limited by the permeability of the constructs within whose range of convenience the variants lie” (Kelly, 1955: 77). Some personal constructs are less permeable than others – less readily admitting new elements – thereby delimiting their potential for revision.
  • Fragmentation corollary: “A person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other” (Kelly, 1955: 83). At least somewhat contradictory subsystems of personal constructs may be tolerated and used at different times by the same person within her overall construct system. In a healthy personality, however, there is usually significant compatibility between constructs.
  • Commonality corollary: “To the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his processes are psychologically similar to those of the other person” (Kelly, 1955: 90). The psychological similarity of people is reflected in the similarity of their personal constructs, which also facilitates empathy and liking.
  • Sociality corollary: “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: 96). Effective relating is dependent upon an understanding of others’ personal construct system. Misunderstandings and other communication difficulties are attributable to misperceptions of the other person’s construct system.

Notwithstanding Kelly’s limited coverage of developmental aspects, he sees personality as unfolding in a naturally healthy and continuous manner. A person is not bound by constructs developed at an earlier stage of life. The individual’s personal constructs become more permeable, less pre-emptive (prohibiting other constructs from applying to its elements) and, by definition, more propositional (not limiting other constructs from applying to its elements). Kelly considers the parents’ role as crucial. In particular, maladaptive parenting can potentially impair the child’s ability to anticipate the future. Overindulgence, for instance, leads the child to believe he can always satisfy every need. Pressure or punishment leads to the child clinging to a few familiar personal constructs rather than seeking new ways to interpret the environment. Erratic parental behaviour generates difficulties for the child to predict accurately and confidently. Negative evaluations from parents lead to the formation of corresponding personal constructs (e.g. “worthless”, “inadequate”) and a subordination of “self” to them. Specific psychopathology is also seen by Kelly in personal construct terms.

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