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 Theories

The Basic Theory

This all centres on the idea of ‘the construct’. We actively construe every moment of our waking life – and even when asleep and dreaming. Construing is about making sense of and interpreting events as they confront us. We do this by having observed in the past how some things are alike and thereby different from other things.

Here is an essential feature of a personal construct. As already stated, Kelly was adamant that we cannot know something unless we know what it contrasts with. There can be no good without an awareness of what is bad. It is the essence of this basic theory that has been explained in terms of five of its essential features that made it so different from existing psychologies.

However, some of these bi-polar constructs have words attached to
them, and some do not, as has been mentioned earlier. Construing cannot therefore be equated with ‘thinking’ or ‘cognition’. Some construing we only know exists because we ‘feel’ it. For Kelly construing takes place at various levels of awareness.

The Experiential Theory

In PCP terms, emotions are seen as happening when we know, at some level of awareness, of a problem with making sense of a particular event. For example, a teacher may be threatened if she is aware that several of the students are silently making fun of her. The threat is that she is aware at some level that if she accepts that she is a fun-figure rather than someone who should be taken seriously, then she will need to change a great deal of her present ways of seeing herself. Kelly is adamant that personal construct psychology is definitely not a ‘cognitive’ theory. See his quotation above.

In this experiential theory we have Kelly’s re-thinking of the idea of motivation. We are not responders to events nor are we driven by unconscious urges. We are not passive, we do not need to be motivated. Kelly deliberately did not follow Freud in saying that there is some form of psychic energy that pushes us into action. We are alive, and one essential of being alive is that we move. What we need to explain is why we move as we do.   Kelly answers the question of whether his theory is a dynamic theory like Freud’s by saying: “No, it intentionally parts company with psychoanalysis. Personal construct theory sees each of us as active and alive rather than inert and driven. In fact, it is so dynamic that it does not need any special system of dynamics to keep it running. We only stop moving when we are dead.” (Kelly, 1969. p. 89 – see above)

Some Methods of Inquiry

Repertory grids

George Kelly was not only a theorist and a practitioner of his theory, he was also a mathematician. It was that training that led him to create repertory grid technique to explore the ways in which individuals construe their worlds. The technique was highly original in combining mathematical (quantitative) and subjective (qualitative) data in the same method of measurement.

Some ways of eliciting personal constructs (the qualitative data) include triadic, laddering, pyramiding and the ABC methods.

Self characterisations

His other method of assessment, the self characterisation, is a subjective written account of how individuals see themselves.

Kelly was once asked what it would be if he were to be remembered for just one thing. He said it would be for the self characterisation: because, “if you don’t know what is wrong with someone, ask them, they may tell you”. This method of inquiry has been influential in the development of narrative psychology.

The Validity of Personal Construct Psychology

George Kelly argued that the validity of any theory is to be found in its usefulness. That usefulness has been tested in widely differing fields such as: linguistics; history; psychotherapy; speech therapy; management; organisational development; market research, sociology; human geography and psychiatry, not to mention psychology. Its usefulness has been shown by there now being practitioners all over the world.  Bannister and Bott (1973) say: ".... if we substitute for validity the notion of usefulness, or at least make usefulness the central feature of validity, we shall be less concerned with the correlation between a test and some relatively arbitrary criterion and more concerned with the values which users of a test find in it."

The financier George Soros said that his core idea is ‘reflexivity’ which he defines as:

“..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)

Kelly says:

 “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)

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