What is Personal Construct Psychology?
At least five features of personal construct psychology challenged existing psychological thinking when it was launched in 1955. Many of Kelly's ideas are still seen as radical in the third millennium. The Centre offers distance learning courses to anyone who is interested in learning more about personal construct psychology and its methods of inquiry and change.
The Psychology’s Essential Features
In 1955, George Kelly presented personal construct theory as an alternative to the two main current approaches to human understanding - behaviourism and psychodynamic theories. Traditionally, research psychologists have looked at every one else as ‘subjects’ rather than as someone who, like themselves, is trying to make sense of events. Crucially, he suggested we need to change the very nature of how we view science if it is to be applied to human beings. Such 'reflexivity' in a theory of psychology was new and, even today, it is still unusual..
Kelly emphasised the importance of his theorising by relating it to his philosophy. He said we need to distinguish the old and the new type of science as the former being : “…. the view that science makes its progress step by step…….we discover a fragment at a time (and) as each fragment is verified it is fitted into place – much like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Some day we’ll get it all put together”, Kelly, in his ‘tongue-in-cheek’ mode, called this "accumulative fragmentalism". The new science says that “We understand our world by placing constructions on it”. To this he gave the name of his philosophy "constructive alternativism".
Don Bannister gave his view of Kelly’s ‘different’ science like this: “What does not seem to be commonly envisaged is that rather than traditional science moulding psychology, psychology might be the new venture which will remould science. When Gods have been thought to frown upon new undertakings, men have been known to alter their theology rather than abandon their undertakings”. (Bannister, 1970)
The person as scientist
Kelly suggested we look at people 'as if' they are ‘scientists’. We all conduct individual behavioural experiments to test out our current perceptions and interpretations of the world. He says “Behavior is not the answer to the psychologist’s question; it is the question” (Kelly, 1969, p. 21). If we do not like what we find as the result of our experiments, we can change - albeit not always easily. We are actors in life and not reactors as behaviourists see us.
Since 1955 some have come to think that the metaphor of ‘the scientist’ is too limiting. Fay Fransella has emphasised that it is important to keep Kelly’s idea that we are all active and use our behaviour to ask questions of the world. However, she suggested that we might use Kelly’s own alternative to ‘the scientist’ model and talk of the person as ‘inquirer’. There have been other suggestions such as the person as ‘explorer’ and the person as ‘author’.
All the above is spelled out in the philosophy Kelly called constructive alternativism. The philosophy underpins all his theory. There are always different ways to interpret or give meaning to any event. We need never be trapped by our past as we are all capable of reconstruing events. This philosophy has played a leading part in the revival of the philosophy of constructivism in psychology and psychotherapy today.
Bipolarity of construing
Kelly chose the word ‘construct’ to differentiate it from ‘concept’. The crucial difference being that a construct has a specific opposite whereas a concept does not. Kelly argued that good only has meaning when related to bad.. Thus, all constructs are bipolar. This is especially important to bear in mind when looking at personal construct methods of inquiry - particularly repertory grids.
Understanding ourselves and others
There is only one way to understand ourselves and that is to ask why we have done (or plan to do) certain things. We have to examine our own construing. It is the same with understanding others. We have to struggle to put ourselves into the shoes of the other person and look at the world through that person’s eyes. Kelly provides us with a set of ‘professional constructs’ to help us understand our own or someone else’s construing. There is no ‘interpretation’ in Kelly’s theoretical system. There are no standard ‘complexes’ to look for. Since all behaviour is seen as an experiment, we do not say “that behaviour is aggressive”, we instead ask “what sort of answer does this person expect to receive by behaving like this?”
Kelly wanted to create a theory that could account for all that a human being might experience. He therefore actually wrote two theories. There is the basic theory spelled out rather like an engineer’s blueprint. It has a Fundamental Postulate that is elaborated by eleven corollaries. Each word in these is defined. Then there is the personal construct theory of how we experience events in which he deals with some emotions. We ‘construe’ events and we ‘experience’ and have ‘feelings’ about those events.
Kelly was determined to break our connection with Descartes’ ‘dualism’. He wanted to create a theory about the whole person.
Kelly's Two Personal Construct
“..a two-way feedback loop, between participants’ views and the actual state of affairs. People base their decisions not on the actual situation that confronts them, but on their perception or interpretation of the situation. Their decisions make an impact on the situation and changes in the situation are liable to change their perceptions”
Chrystia Freeland (2009) “The credit crunch according to Soros”. In FT Weekend January 13
(Bannister, 1970, “Science through the looking glass”. In Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory. London: Academic Press)
We develop our “…ways of anticipating events by construing – by sketching out (our) channels of thought”. “We build our own maze of runways or 2-way streets….Many of the runways (bi-polar constructs) are conveniently posted with word signs, but most of them are dark, cryptically labelled, or without any word signs at all. Some are rarely travelled.”
(Kelly, 1969 “Man’s construction of his alternatives.” In B. Maher (ed) Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers of George Kelly, Wiley. p. 86)
“I have been careful not to use either of the terms, 'emotional' or 'affective'. I have been equally careful not to invoke the notion of 'cognition'. The classic distinction which separates these two constructs has, in the manner of most classic distinctions that once were useful, become a barrier to sensitive psychological inquiry. When one so divides the experience of man, it becomes difficult to make the most of the holistic aspirations that may infuse the science of psychology with new life, and may replace the classicism now implicit even in the most 'behaviouristic' research.
(Kelly, 1969 “Humanistic methodology in psychological research” In B Maher (ed), Clinical Psychology and Personality: the Selected Papers of George Kelly, Wiley. p. 140)
“If we turn from the geometry of the psychology of personal constructs to its arithmetic, we find that the computation is essentially digital rather than analogical, nonparametric rather than parametric. Quantification takes on a different meaning in psychology.”
(Kelly, 1969, “A mathematical approach
to psychology”. In B Maher (ed), Clinical Psychology and Personality: the
Selected Papers of George Kelly, Wiley.)
(Bannister & Bott, “Evaluating the person” In P. Klein (ed) 1973, New Approaches to Psychological Medicine, Chichester: John Wiley (p. 162)
|Copyright © 2009 Centre for Personal Construct Psychology. All rights reserved.|