Personal construct theory

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Personal construct theory or personal construct psychology (PCP) is a theory of personality and cognition developed by the American psychologist George Kelly in the 1950s.[1] From the theory, Kelly derived a psychotherapy approach, as well as a technique called the repertory grid interview, that helped his patients to analyze their own constructs (schemas, or ways of seeing the world) with minimal intervention or interpretation by the therapist.[2] The repertory grid was later adapted for various uses within organizations, including decision-making and interpretation of other people's world-views.[3] The UK Council for Psychotherapy, a regulatory body, classifies PCP therapy within the experiential subset of the constructivist school.

Kelly explicitly stated that each individual's task in understanding their personal psychology is to put in order the facts of his or her own experience. Then the individual, like the scientist, is to test the accuracy of that constructed knowledge by performing those actions the constructs suggest. If the results of their actions are in line with what the knowledge predicted, then they have done a good job of finding the order in their personal experience. If not, then they can modify the construct: their interpretations or their predictions or both. This method of discovering and correcting constructs is simply the scientific method used by all modern sciences to discover the truths about the universe we live in.

Kelly proposed that every construct is bipolar, specifying how two things are similar to each other (lying on the same pole) and different from a third thing, and they can be expanded with new ideas. More recent researchers have suggested that constructs need not be bipolar.[4] A 2016 empirical study showed that personal associations are mutually inter-related and that the concepts of self and world are internally connected via direct and mediated dependences, which reflects the structuring of perception and understanding of self and world in people's minds.[5]


A main tenet of PCP theory is that a person's unique psychological processes are channeled by the way s/he anticipates events. Kelly believed that anticipation and prediction are the main drivers of our mind. "Every man is, in his own particular way, a scientist," said Kelly, in that he is always building up and refining theories and models about how the world works so that he can anticipate events. We start on this at birth (for example, a child discovers, "if I cry, mother will come") and continue refining our theories as we grow up.

We build theories—often stereotypes—about other people and also try to control them or impose on others our own theories so that we are better able to predict their actions. All these theories are built up from a system of constructs. A construct has two extreme points, such as "happy–sad" and we tend to place people at either extreme or at some point in between. Our mind, said Kelly, is filled up with these constructs, at a low level of awareness.

Kelly did not use the concept unconscious; instead, he believed that some constructs are preverbal. A given person or set of persons or any event or circumstance can be characterized fairly precisely by the set of constructs we apply to it and the position of the thing within the range of each construct. So Fred for instance may be just half between happy and sad (one construct) and definitively clever rather than stupid (another construct). The baby above may have a preverbal construct "Comes... doesn't come when I cry". Constructs are applied to anything we put our attention to, including ourselves, and also strongly influence what we fix our attention on. We construe reality constructing constructs. Hence, determining a person's system of constructs would go a long way towards understanding him, especially the person's essential constructs that represent very strong and unchangeable beliefs; and also the constructs a person applies to him/herself.

Therapy approach[edit]

Kelly believed in a non-invasive approach to psychotherapy. Rather than having the therapist interpret the person's psyche, which would amount to imposing the doctor's constructs on the patient, the therapist should just act as a facilitator of the patient finding his or her own constructs. The patient's behavior is then mainly explained as ways to selectively observe the world, act upon it and update the construct system in such a way as to increase predictability. To help the patient find his or her constructs, Kelly developed the repertory grid interview technique.

The repertory grid[edit]

To build a repertory grid (a sort of matrix) for a patient, Kelly would first ask the patient to select about seven elements whose nature might depend on whatever the patient or therapist are trying to discover. For instance, "Two specific friends, two work-mates, two people you dislike, your mother and yourself", or something of that sort. Then, three of the elements would be selected at random, and then the therapist would ask: "In relation to ... (whatever is of interest), in which way are two of these people alike but different from the third?" The answer is sure to indicate one of the extreme points of one of the patient's constructs. He might say for instance that Fred and Sarah are very communicative whereas John isn't. Further questioning would reveal the other end of the construct (say, introvert) and the positions of the three characters between extremes. Repeating the procedure with different sets of three elements ends up revealing several constructs the patient might not have been fully aware of.

The repertory grid itself is a matrix where the rows represent constructs found, the columns represent the elements, and cells indicate with a number the position of each element within each construct. There is software available to produce several reports and graphs from these grids.

In the book Personal Construct Methodology, researchers Brian R. Gaines and Mildred L.G. Shaw noted that they "have also found concept mapping and semantic network tools to be complementary to repertory grid tools and generally use both in most studies" but that they "see less use of network representations in PCP studies than is appropriate".[6] They encouraged practitioners to use semantic network techniques in addition to the repertory grid.[7]

Organizational applications[edit]

PCP has always been a minority interest among psychologists. During the last 30 years, it has gradually gained adherents in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, Ireland, Italy and Spain. While its chief fields of application remain clinical and educational psychology, there is an increasing interest in its applications to organizational development, employee training and development, job analysis, job description and evaluation. The repertory grid is often used in the qualitative phase of market research, to identify the ways in which consumers construe products and services.

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