George Kelly (psychologist)

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For other people named George Kelly, see George Kelly (disambiguation).

George Kelly (born George Alexander Kelly; April 28, 1905 – March 6, 1967) was an American psychologist, therapist, educator and personality theorist. He is considered the father of cognitive clinical psychology and best known for his theory of personality, Personal Construct Psychology.

Personal construct psychology[edit]

Kelly's fundamental view of personality was that people are like naive scientists who see the world through a particular lens, based on their uniquely organized systems of construction, which they use to anticipate events. But because people are naive scientists, they sometimes employ systems for construing the world that are distorted by idiosyncratic experiences not applicable to their current social situation. A system of construction that chronically fails to characterize and/or predict events, and is not appropriately revised to comprehend and predict one's changing social world, is considered to underlie psychopathology (or mental illness.)

The body of Kelly's work, The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Volume I and II was written in 1955[1] when Kelly was a professor at Ohio State University. The first three chapters of the book were republished by W. W. Norton in paperback in 1963[2] and consist only of his theory of personality which is covered in most personality books. The re-publication omitted Kelly's assessment technique, the Rep Grid Test, and his method of psychotherapy (Fixed Role Therapy) which is rarely practiced in the form he proposed.

On the other hand, Kelly's fundamental view of people as naive scientists was incorporated into most later-developed forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy that blossomed in the late 70s and early 80s and into Intersubjective psychoanalysis which leaned heavily on Kelly's phenomenological perspective and his notion of schematic processing of social information.[3] Kelly's personality theory was distinguished at the time he published the two volumes from drive theories (such as psychodynamic models) on the one hand, and behavioral theories on the other, in that people were not seen as solely motivated by instincts (such as sexual and aggressive drives) or learning history but by their need to characterize and predict events in their social world. Because the constructs people developed for construing experience have the potential to change, Kelly's theory of personality is less deterministic than drive theory or learning theory. People could conceivably change their view of the world and in so doing change the way they interacted with it, felt about it, and even others' reactions to them. For this reason, it is an existential theory, regarding humankind as having a choice to reconstrue themselves, a concept Kelly referred to as "Constructive Alternativism." Constructs provide a certain order, clarity, and prediction to a person's world. Kelly referenced many philosophers in his two volumes but the theme of new experience being at once novel and familiar (due to the templates placed on it) is closely akin to the notion of Heraclitus: "we step and do not step in the same rivers." Experience is new but familiar to the extent that it is construed with historically derived constructs.

Constructs are bipolar categories, the way two things are alike and different from a third, that people employ to understand the world. Examples of such constructs are "attractive," "intelligent," "kind." A construct always implies contrast. So when an individual categorizes others as attractive, or intelligent, or kind, an opposite polarity is implied. This means that such a person may also evaluate the others in terms of the constructs "ugly," "stupid," or "cruel." In some cases, when a person has a disordered construct system, the opposite polarity is unexpressed or idiosyncratic. The importance of a particular construct varies among individuals. The adaptiveness of a construct system is measured by how well it applies to the situation at hand and is useful in predicting events. All constructs are not used in every situation because they have a limited range (range of convenience). Adaptive people are continually revising and updating their own constructs to match new information (or data) that they encounter in their experience.

Kelly's is the only personality theory ever laid out as a testable scientific treatise with a fundamental postulate and a set of corollaries. [according to whom?][dubious ]

Fundamental postulate: "A person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he [or she] anticipates events."

• The construction corollary: "a person anticipates events by construing their replications." This means that individuals anticipate events in their social world by perceiving a similarity with a past event (construing a replication).
• The experience corollary: "a person's construction system varies as he successively construes the replication of events."
• The dichotomy corollary: "a person's construction system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs."
• The organization corollary: "each person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs."
• The range corollary: "a construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only."
• The 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 choice corollary: "a person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomized construct through which he anticipates the greater possibility for extension and definition of his system."
• The individuality corollary: "persons differ from each other in their construction of events."
• The commonality corollary: "to the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his psychological processes are similar to the other person."
• The fragmentation corollary: "a person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other."
• The 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."

Disordered constructs are those in which the system of construction is not useful in predicting social events and fails to change to accommodate new information. In many ways, Kelly's theory of psychopathology (or mental disorders) is similar to the elements that define a poor theory. A disordered construct system does not accurately predict events or accommodate new data.

Also see: Corollaries of the theory of personal constructs

Dimensions of Transitions[edit]

Transitional periods in a person's life occur when he or she encounters a situation that changes his or her naive theory (or system of construction) of the way the world is ordered. They can create anxiety, hostility, and/or guilt and can also be opportunities to change one's constructs and the way one views the world.

Anxiety, hostility, and guilt had unique definitions and meanings in Personal Construct Theory (Vol 1 486-534). Anxiety develops when a person encounters a situation that his or her construct system does not cover, an event unlike any he or she has encountered. An example of such a situation is a woman from the western United States who is accustomed to earthquakes, who moves to the eastern United States and experiences great anxiety because of a hurricane. While the an earthquake might be of greater magnitude, she experiences greater anxiety with the hurricane because she has no constructs to deal with such an event. She is caught "with her constructs down." Similarly, a boy who has been abused in early childhood may not have the constructs to accommodate kindness from others. Such a boy might experience anxiety in an outstretched hand that others view as benevolent.

Guilt is dislodgement from one's core constructs. A person feels guilt if he or she fails to confirm the constructs that define him or her. This definition of guilt is radically different from in other theories of personality. Kelly used the example of the man who regards others as cow-like creatures "making money and giving milk." Such a man might construe his role in relationship to others in terms of his ability to con favors or money from them. Such a man, who other psychologists might call a ruthless psychopath, and see as unable to experience guilt, feels guilt, according to Kelly's theory, when he is unable to con others: He is then alienated from his core constructs.

Hostility is "attempting to extort confirmation of a social prediction that is already failing." When a person encounters a situation in which s/he expects one outcome and receives quite a different one, s/he should change his/her theory or constructs rather than trying to change the situation to match his/her constructs. But the person who continually refuses to modify his or her belief system to accommodate new data, and in fact tries to change the data, is acting in bad faith and with hostility. Hostility, in Kelly's theory, is analogous to a scientist "fudging" his or her data. An example might be a professor who sees himself as a brilliant educator who deals with poor student reviews by devaluing the students or the means of evaluation.


George Alexander Kelly was born in 1905 on a farm near Perth,[4] Sumner County, Kansas and went to Friends University and Park College, where he received a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics. Early on, he was interested in social problems, and he went on to get his masters degree in sociology at the University of Kansas, where he wrote a thesis on workers’ leisure activities. He also completed minor studies in labor relations.

Kelly taught at various colleges and other institutions, with course topics ranging from speech-making to “Americanization”. In 1929, after receiving an exchange scholarship, he completed a Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland,[4] writing a thesis dealing with the prediction of teaching success. He then returned to the United States to continue psychology studies and completed a graduate and doctoral degrees in psychology at the State University of Iowa. His dissertation was on speech and reading disabilities. For some years before World War II, Kelly worked in school psychology, developing a program of traveling clinics which also served as a training ground for his students. He had a keen interest in clinical diagnosis. It was during this period that Kelly left behind this interest in psychoanalytic approach to human personality, because he said people were more troubled by natural disasters than any psychological issue, such as the libidinal forces.[4]

In World War II, Dylan Brundage and Kelly worked as an aviation psychologist, where, among other things, he was responsible for a training program for local civilian pilots. After the war, he was appointed Professor and Director of Clinical Psychology at the Ohio State University, where he remained for twenty years. Under his guidance, OSU’s graduate psychology training programs became some of the best in the United States, offering a unique blend of clinical skills and a strong commitment to scientific methodology. It is also at OSU that Kelly developed his major contribution to the psychology of personality. The Psychology of Personal Constructs was published in 1955 and achieved immediate international recognition, gaining him visiting appointments at various universities in the U.S.A. as well as in Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. He was also elected President of the Clinical and the Consulting Divisions of the American Psychological Association, and served as President of the American Board of Examiners in Professional Psychology, providing expertise and insight, especially regarding ethical issues.

Kelly's inspiration for the theory of personal constructs came from a close friend of his. Namely, this friend had been an actor in some drama in college, and for two or three weeks he really got into his character and lived it as it was the real him. Kelly, unlike many people who would see this only as a sheer affectation, thought this was the expression of his real self and the behavior was authentic.[4]

Kelly also worked extensively on researching the implications and applications of his theory, while continuing to work in clinical psychology. Joseph Rychlak is among the prominent students of his who expanded on his theories, but many of his students also became very prominent psychologists. Another interesting fact about Kelly is that he had all his students refer to him as "Professor Kelly", however when they would receive a Ph.D. dissertation they could call him George and he would also call them by their first name instead of "Miss", "Mrs.", or "Mister".[4]

George Kelly died on March 6, 1967, at the age of 61, just two years after accepting the Riklis Chair of Behavioral Science at Brandeis University.[4]

Kelly's concerns[edit]

Kelly saw that current theories of personality were so loosely defined and difficult to test that in many clinical cases the observer contributed more to the diagnosis than the patient. If you took your problems to a Freudian analyst, they would be analysed in Freudian terms; a Jungian would interpret them in Jungian terms; a behaviourist would interpret them in terms of conditioning; and so on.

Kelly acknowledged that both the therapist and patient would each bring a unique set of constructs to bear in the consulting room. Therefore, the therapist could never be completely "objective" in construing his or her client's world. The effective therapist was, however, one who construed the patient's material at a high level of abstraction within the patient's (as opposed to the therapist's) system of construction. The therapist could then comprehend the ways in which the patient saw the world that were disordered and help the patient to change his or her maladaptive constructs.


  • 1955: The psychology of personal constructs. Vol. I, II. Norton, New York. (2nd printing: 1991, Routledge, London, New York)
  • 1963: A theory of personality. The psychology of personal constructs. Norton, New York (= Chapt. 1-3 of Kelly 1955).
  1. ^ Kelly, George A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs: Vol 1 and 2. New York: WW Norton. 
  2. ^ Kelly, George Alexander (1963). A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 190 pages. 
  3. ^ Stolorow and Atwood, Robert D and George E (1979). Faces in a cloud. New Jersey: Jason Aronson. p. 217. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Ryckman, Richard M. (2013). Theories of Personality. United States: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. pp. 273–274. ISBN 978-1-111-83501-9. 

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