George Kelly’s Psychology of Personal Constructs

Overview of Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory

Kelly’s theory of personal constructs can be seen as a metatheory, or a theory about theories.  It holds that people anticipate events by the meanings or interpretations that they place on those events.  Kelly called these interpretations personal constructs.  His philosophical position, called constructive alternativism, assumes that alternative interpretations are always available to people.

  1. Biography of George Kelly

George Kelly was born on a farm in Kansas in 1905.  During his school years and his early professional career, he dabbled in a wide variety of jobs, but he eventually received a PhD in psychology from the University of Iowa.  He began his academic career at Fort Hays State College in Kansas; then after World War II, he took a position at Ohio State.  He remained there until 1965 when he joined the faculty at Brandeis University.  He died 2 years later at age 61.

III.    Kelly’s Philosophical Position

Kelly believed that people construe events according to their personal constructs, rather than reality.

  1. Person as Scientist

People generally attempt to solve everyday problems in much the same fashion as do scientists; that is, they observe, ask questions, formulate hypotheses, infer conclusions, and predict future events.

  1. Scientist as Person

Because scientists are people, their pronouncements should be regarded with the same skepticism as any other data.  Every scientific theory can be viewed from an alternate angle, and every competent scientist should be open to changing his or her theory.

  1. Constructive Alternativism

Kelly believed that all our interpretations of the world are subject to revision or replacement, an assumption he called constructive alternativism.  He further stressed that, because people can construe their world from different angles, observations that are valid at one time may be false at a later time.

  1. Personal Constructs

Kelly believed that people look at their world through templates that they create and then attempt to fit over the realities of the world.  He called these templates, or transparent patterns, personal constructs, which he believed shape behavior.

  1. Basic Postulate

Kelly expressed his theory in one basic postulate and 11 supporting corollaries.  The basic postulate assumes that human behavior is shaped by the way people anticipate the future.

  1. Supporting Corollaries

The 11 supporting corollaries can all be inferred from this basic postulate. (1) Although no two events are exactly alike, we construe similar events as if they were the same, and this is Kelly’s construction corollary. (2) The individuality corollary states that because people have different experiences, they can construe the same event in different ways. (3) The organizational corollary assumes that people organize their personal constructs in a hierarchical system, with some constructs in a superordinate position and other subordinate to them.  (4) The dichotomy corollary assumes that people construe events in an either/or manner, e.g., good or bad.  (5) Kelly’s choice corollary assumes that people tend to choose the alternative in a dichotomized construct that they see as extending the range of their future choices.  (6) The range corollary states that constructs are limited to a particular range of convenience; that is, they are not relevant to all situations.  (7) Kelly’s experience corollary suggests that people continually revise their personal constructs as the result of their experiences. (8) The modulation corollary assumes that only permeable constructs lead to change; concrete constructs resist modification through experience.  (9) The fragmentation corollary states that people’s behavior can be inconsistent because their construct systems can readily admit incompatible elements.  (10) The commonality corollary suggests that our personal constructs tend to be similar to the construction systems of other people to the extent that we share experiences with them.  (11) The sociality corollary states that people are able to communicate with other people because they can construe those people’s constructions.  With the sociality corollary, Kelly introduced the concept of role, which refers to a pattern of behavior that stems from people’s understanding of the constructs of others.  Each of us has a core role and numerous peripheral roles.  A core role gives us a sense of identity whereas peripheral roles are less central to our self-concept.

  1. Applications of Personal Construct Theory

Kelly’s many years of clinical experience enabled him to evolve concepts of abnormal development and psychotherapy, and to develop a Role Construct Repertory (Rep) Test.

  1. Abnormal Development

Kelly saw normal people as analogous to competent scientists who test reasonable hypotheses, objectively view the results, and willingly change their theories when the data warrant it.  Similarly, unhealthy people are like incompetent scientists who test unreasonable hypotheses, reject or distort legitimate results, and refuse to amend outdated theories. Kelly identified four common elements in most human disturbances: (1) threat, or the perception that one’s basic constructs may be drastically changed; (2) fear, which requires an incidental rather than a comprehensive, restructuring of one’s construct system; (3) anxiety, or the recognition that one cannot adequately deal with a new situation; and (4) guilt, defined as “the sense of having lost one’s core role structure.”

  1. Psychotherapy

Kelly insisted that clients should set their own goals for therapy and that they should be active participants in the therapeutic process.  He sometimes used a procedure called fixed-role therapy,  in which clients act out a predetermined role for several weeks. By playing the part of a psychologically healthy person, clients may discover previously hidden aspects of themselves.

  1. The Rep Test

The purpose of the Rep Test is to discover ways in which clients construe significant people in their lives.  Clients place names of people they know on a repertory grid in order to identify both similarities and differences among these people.

  1. Related Research

Kelly’s personal construct theory and his Rep Test have generated a substantial amount of empirical research in both the United States and the United Kingdom.  Although many researchers in the field of social cognition use conventional questionnaires, some have followed Kelly’s lead and use phenomenological or idiographic measures, such as the Rep test or some modified version of it (Neimeyer & Neimeyer, 1995).  More recent applications of the Rep test methodology have analyzed the different construct systems of sexually abused versus non-abused individuals (Lewis-Harter, Erbes, & Hart, 2004).


  1. Gender As a Personal Construct

In 2003, Marcel Harper and Wilhelm Schoeman reported on a study of college students in South Africa that had used the REP test to detect individual differences in the degree to which people internalize cultural views of gender.  The authors found that the less information someone has about a person, the more likely they will use stereotypic gender schemas to evaluate that person; that is, participants who used gender stereotypes in perceiving strangers tended to have limited perceptions of other people.

  1.    Smoking and Self-Concept

Previous research on self-concept and adolescent smoking has tended to find relatively negative self-concepts of smokers compared with non-smokers.  Specifically, smokers have more disparity between real and ideal self-concepts, as well as lower self-esteem (Burton, Sussman, Hansen, Johnson, & Flay, 1989; Webster, Hunger, & Keats, 1994).  But since people smoke for different reasons, an idiographic approach such as the Rep test was thought to be better than conventional measures for these differences.  Peter Weiss, Neill Watson, and Howard Mcguire (2003) used the REP test to investigate the hypothesis that smokers would identify with and rate their own personalities more similar to the personality descriptions they have of other smokers than of non-smokers. They also predicted a lower self-concept for smokers than non-smokers.  As predicted, both smokers and non-smokers identified with and valued more highly the traits of non-smokers (such as quiet, studious, etc.) than of smokers. However, the prediction that smokers would have lower self-esteem (greater real versus ideal self disparity) did not hold.  Weiss et al concluded that not only is the Rep test useful for assessing self-concept, but it also may be a more valid and individualized tool than standard questionnaires.

  1. Personal Constructs and the Big Five

While recently researchers have been exploring connections between Kelly’s personal constructs and the Big Five personality traits, some personality psychologists disagree with the fact that Kelly’s constructs have not received as much attention as the Big Five.  James Grice and colleagues directly compared the two approaches (Grice, 2004; Grice, Jackson, & McDaniel, 2006).  They found only about 50% overlap; i.e., the repertory grid captured aspects the Big Five did not, and the Big Five captured aspects the repertory grid did not.  So while both approaches are important, and the Big Five framework has provided common descriptors that have facilitated a great deal of research, Kelly’s personal construct theory emphasizes the uniqueness of individuals, which is invaluable to the study of individual differences central to personality psychology.

VIII. Critique of Kelly

Kelly’s theory probably is most applicable to relatively normal, intelligent people.  Unfortunately, it pays scant attention to problems of motivation, development, and cultural influences.  On the six criteria of a useful theory, it rates very high on parsimony and internal consistency and about average on its ability to generate research.  However it rates low on its ability to be falsified, to guide the practitioner, and to organize knowledge.

  1. Concept of Humanity

Kelly saw people as anticipating the future and living their lives in accordance with those anticipations.  His concept of elaborative choice suggests that people increase their range of future choices by the present choices they freely make. Thus, Kelly’s theory rates very high in teleology and high in choice and optimism.  In addition, it receives high ratings for conscious influences and for its emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual.  Finally, personal construct theory is about average on social influences.


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