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Personal Construct Psychology


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Constructivist Theory
Personal Constructs


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Personal Construct Psychology

Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) is known as such, rather than as a “theory”, because it is the only approach in psychology which was developed from the start as a complete psychology, explicit about its asumptions and theoretical base. Although often treated as a cognitive approach alongside others — and seeming a little too rational in some respects — it claims to go beyond the distinction between cognition, emotion and conation (“will”) found in all other psychologies.

It was invented single-handed by George Kelly in 1955 (with a two-volume, 1,000+ page monograph, which is still the definitive work in the field). He explicitly set out to replace the models of the person adopted by behaviourism (the person as a ping-pong ball, continually batted between stimulus and response, in Bannister's paraphrase), and by psychoanalysis (the person as a dark cellar where a maiden aunt is locked in mortal combat with a sex-crazed monkey, with the whole thing refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk, according to Bannister), with the model of  “man(sic) as scientist”. Excuse the sexism, this was 1955. The best introduction is still Bannister and Fransella (1986).

The theory is set out in his major work as a series of formal postulates and corollaries, but its essence is that personal identity is defined by the way we construe or “understand” our personal worlds. It is therefore a phenomenological approach, rather than a positivist one. All action and thinking is undertaken, PCP maintains, in a “scientific” manner. This basically means trying things out to see whether they work: our “constructs” or ways of making sense of the world, are not necessarily conscious and articulate, but may be inferred from behavior. Kelly does not refer to learning at all, but to changes in constructs over time rgrid1— but this is principally because the process of learning is so ubiquitous in the system.
Its major tool is the “Repertory Grid”, which is an amazingly ingenious and simple idiographic device to explore how people experience their world. It is a table in which, apart from the outer two columns, the other columns are headed by the names of objects or people (traditionally up to 21 of them). These names are also written on cards, which the tester shows to the subject in groups of three, always asking the same question: “How are two of these similar and the third one different?”  
The answer constitutes a “construct”, one of the dimensions along which the subject divides up her or his world. Some constructs, such as “male” and “female” (when applied to people) are too commonplace to be of much interest (although the question why they matter in this particular case may well be interesting), but it is the personal constructs which say a lot about the person. If, for example, the names (or “elements”) were cars, then the “male-female” construct might be much more revealing. There are conventions for keeping track of the constructs. When the grid is complete, there are several ways of rating or ranking all of the elements against all the constructs, so as to permit sophisticated analysis of core constructs and underlying factors (see Bannister and Mair, 1968) and of course there are programs which will do this for you.


Constructs do not have to be dictionary opposites: “Unselfish” might be a more meaningful opposite to “Mean”, for a given subject, than “Generous”.


The number of constructs generated before the subject begins to repeat them can be revealing. 24—30 is about the norm. People with obsessional traits (“one-track minds”) may generate far fewer: schizophrenics far more. The tester can deliberately deal combinations of the cards to test hypotheses, or get the subject to rank all the items from one pole to another: the resulting scores are amenable to statistical processing to get at the major construct families. Or the tester can ask “why?” the subject has developed a construct: the resulting explanation gets at the “superordinate” constructs, which are hierarchically organised.
Personal construct theory gives one of the richest possible accounts of a person's cognitive processes, and has been developed as a tool in “conversational" models of learning. It is however, cumbersome to use with groups of students.


Formal Content of Personal Construct Theory

Fundamental Postulate: a person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events 
  • Construction Corollary: a person anticipates events by construing their replications
  • Individuality Corollary: Persons differ from each other in their constructions of events
  • Organization Corollary: Each person charactersitically evolves for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs
  • Dichotomy Corollary: A person's construct system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs
  • Choice Corollary: A person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomized construct through which he anticipates the great possibility for the elaboration of his system.
  • Range Corollary: A construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only
  • Experience Corollary: A person's construction system varies and he successively construes the replications of events.
  • Modulation Corollary: The variation in a person's construction system is limited by the permeability of the constructs within whose ranges of convenience that variants lie.
  • Fragmentation Corollary: A person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other.
  • Commonality Corollary: To the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his processes are psychologically similar to those of the other person.
  • Sociality Corollary: to the extent that one person construes the construction processes of another he may play a role in the social process involving the other person.

(Kelly, 1955 

Notes on the Fundamental Postulate

This language will be very confusing on first encounter, but that reflects the innovative nature of the model.

  • PCP is psychological: i.e. it’s not about the brain, or culture, but the mind: it is quite clear about its level of analysis and its “range of convenience”
  • Channelized”: other psychological theories see the person (or organism, indeed), as a static entity, requiring some other agency to prod it into action. They postulate “needs”, or “drives” for this purpose. PCP rejects this: a person is seen as a process, always making efforts to understand and always acting on and in the world. Hence the ubiquity of the assumption of learning and the lack of need for a separate theory.
  • Anticipates”: PCP is future-oriented. The person is only a product of memory and learning insofar as she makes use of these in her construct system. She is a scientist in formulating hypotheses (her constructs) about the world she perceives, and testing them by acting on them. 

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