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Personal Construct Psychology


The Psychology of Personal Constructs was formulated and presented by Kelly in 1955 as a complete and formal statement.  The theory was written in abstract terms to avoid limitations of time and culture, but this outline aims to give a simple overview which can be followed by detailed reading if desired.

Personal Construct Psychology is often included in books on Cognitive-Behavioural therapy as it is considered by some to be one of the earliest of those approaches.

Kelly considered man to be a scientist who construed his own version of the world, and who continually tested his views, developing and modifying his constructs.  In order to carry out therapy with a person it is necessary to work with his or her constructs rather than trying to impose that of the therapist.  By working with the patient to elicit the constructs, the patient can see how he/she construes the world and can decide how those views may not be accurate or useful and may be changed and the new constructs tested for validity.  This way of looking at things differently is known as ‘constructive alternativism’.


In Kelly’s terms, a construct is any discrimination a person can make.  The personal constructs provides the person with hypotheses which may be tested and then the system modified as a result of the feedback received in the ‘experiment’.  The constructs are seen as bipolar; e.g. ‘nice-nasty’ or ‘good-bad’.  Some of the constructs can be unconscious and may not be capable of being expressed in words, so these are more difficult to work with.


The theory is formally stated as a fundamental postulate and eleven corollaries.

Fundamental Postulate  This states that our psychological processes are channelled by the ways in which we anticipate events.  It is more a way of reaching out to the future than reacting to the past.

1.   Construction Corollary  A person anticipates events by construing their replication.  We make sense of our life by recognition of repeated themes.  We have a construct of a pencil, of dinner, and more abstract ones like ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’.  Some we may not have verbal labels for though we do discriminate and can be shown to do so experimentally as with different shades of colour.  This is where Kelly would take issue with Behaviourists saying that people do not respond to a stimulas per se, they respond to what they believe the stimulas to be.  This in turn is a function of how they view the universe.

2.   Individuality Corollary  Our construct systems are personal and unique, so no two people react identically to a given stimulas.  This is why some subjects react well to some therapies and therapists and not others.

3.   Organisation Corollary  Each person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system with relationships between constructs.  We have a hierarchical way of organising our constructs, for example, man.  Man is subsumed under people, who are in turn under mammals, animals, life etc..  This is useful as a form of shorthand.

4.   Dichotomy Corollary  A person’s construction system is made up of a finite number of dichotomous constructs.  This is the bipolar nature of the constructs.  Being ‘sad’ would just be mood if there is no concept of ‘happy’ to give a bipolar construct.

5.   Choice Corollary  Persons choose for themselves that alternative, in a dichotomous construct, which they think will be more suitable.  So they attempt to move from confusion to understanding.

6.   Range Corollary  A construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only.  This points out the difference between a concept and a construct.  A construct can take account of context so ‘furniture’ while at home would not include office furniture, perhaps, while the concept of furniture would.

7.   Experience Corollary  A person’s construction system varies as he or she successively construes the replication of events.  If as a result of our system we predict certain events, and those events do not occur, then we must change our ways of construing to increase the accuracy of those predictions.

8.   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.  The ‘elements’ are things or people that the constructs refer to.  The construct ‘permeable’ v ‘impermeable. Refers to the degree to which a construct can assimilate new elements within its range of convenience (all those things that could possibly be taken into that construct), and generate new implications.  Thus the construct of fluorescent v incandescent can be applied to sources of light, but can rarely be extended to other elements, whereas good v bad can almost continually extend its range of convenience.

9    Fragmentation Corollary  A person may successfully employ a variety of construction sub-systems which are inferentially incompatible with each other.  For example, cows and pigs differ, but they come under animals.  Kissing and smacking a child may seem very different, but they are both under parental control perhaps.

10. Commonality Corollary  To the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his or her processes are psychologically similar to those of the other person.  Because people behave at times in the same way, this does not mean that they see things similarly.

11. Sociality Corollary  To the extent that one person construes the construction processes of another, he or she may play a role in a social process involving the other person.  So this means that social interaction depends on the understanding of the other even though they may have very different constructs.


Kelly proposed several different types of construct such as pre-emptive where the construct is one which pre-empts its elements into its own realm exclusively.  So a homosexual is nothing but a homosexual and not allowed within the range of convenience of other constructs.  A constellatory construct is one which gathers others around.  For instance, a homosexual will gather others such as ‘effeminate’, ‘child molester’ etc…

General Diagnostic Constructs

Construct psychology is a meta-science, in that it tries to make sense of the way people make sense of the world.  Therefore it has within it constructs about construing.  One such is ‘dilation versus constriction’ which refers to us broadening our views of the world or narrowing our views to eliminate apparent contradictions.  There are no ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ ends to these constructs.  A person can dilate successfully and become part of a personality, or extend outwards into chaos.

Another important construct of this type is ‘tight v loose’ construing.  A tight construct is one which leads to invariant predictions, whilst loose construing leads to varying, though continuous predictions.  Most technical terms are tight constructs; e.g. ‘electrical v diesel’, whilst evaluative constructs appear loose e.g. ‘beautiful v ugly’.  Again there is no right or wrong way of doing things, we can tighten or loosen our systems continually in accord with the demands made upon it.

Emotion as Actual or Impending Change

Construct psychology is not merely a description of thinking; academic psychology perceives it as a ‘cognitive’ theory.  Kelly did not intend this though, as he did not find that the ‘cognition v emotion’ construct was valid.  Constructs are not thoughts or feelings; they are discriminations, with or without verbal labels.  Kelly did not deal in concepts of ’emotion’ or ‘drive’ or ‘motivation’; he felt that psychology should stay within its own range of convenience rather than offering, say, a physiological explanation for a psychological phenomenon.  He drew our attention to specific constructs, defining them as aspects of construct systems in a state of change.  These constructs are anxiety, hostility, guilt, threat, fear and aggression.

Anxiety  Anxiety is awareness that events with which one is confronted lie outside the range of convenience of one’s construct system, e.g. sex for the chaste, books for the illiterate, adulthood for the adolescent.

Hostility  Hostility is the continued effort to extort validational evidence in favour of a type of social prediction which has already been recognised as a failure.  There are times when we find it too difficult to modify our constructs; being wrong is too painful or we may not see an alternative way to view the situation.  In this case we may try to bully people into behaving in ways which would confirm our predictions.

Guilt  Guilt is the awareness of the imminent comprehensive change in one’s core role structure.  The core role structure refers to the constructs that deal with the self.  If we offend these we suffer from guilt.  It means we incorrectly predicted our behaviour, which is uncomfortable, and may lead to producing ritual and rule-bound (hostile) behaviour as coping mechanisms.

Threat  Threat is the awareness of an imminent comprehensive change in one’s core structure, which is one’s understanding of the world around.  When major beliefs are invalidated, the world seems chaotic and one is threatened.  Therefore, in therapy, change must be introduced carefully.

Fear  Fear is awareness of an imminent incidental change in one’s core structure.  As only part of one’s world becomes unpredictable one is not threatened but experiences fear.

Aggression  Aggression is the active elaboration of one’s perceptual field.  It defines aggression in terms of what is going on within the individual instead of in terms of the reaction of others.  By extending the range of one’s constructions and activities into new directions, then checking the validity, others may interpret this as an attack on them and respond appropriately.  However, in terms of the person’s system it is essentially an extending and elaborating process and is the opposite of hostility.

Shaun Brookhouse

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