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Levels of cognitive awareness
"The level of cognitive awareness ranges from high to low. A high-level construct is one which is readily expressed in socially effective symbols; whose alternatives are both readily accessible, which falls well within the range of convenience of the client's major constructions; and which is not suspended by its superordinating constructs." (Kelly, 1955/1991, Vol.2 , p. 6/1991).
Personal constructs come into use at various levels of our awareness. Construing at a high-level involves what we usually call "conscious awareness" or "thinking". Construing at this high level of awareness also means that the alternatives (or opposite poles) specified in each personal construct are available to us. At the lowest level there is preverbal construing which has no verbal labels attached it, and so cannot be consciously "thought about". Although Kelly states that preverbal construing may or may not occur before the onset of speech - and so have no verbal labels attached to it - in general practice constructs that have been developed after the onset of language are more often referred to as "non-verbal constructs". It has been suggested that an alternative term for such construing is tacit construing (Neimeyer, 1981).
Kelly proposed that these "levels of cognitive awareness" be substituted for unconscious processes. His reasons for making this change are crucial for our understanding of his psychology of personal constructs. Freud and other psychodynamic theorists believed that some physical energy was necessary to explain why people moved at all. That notion stemmed from the fact that physicists of the time saw the world as consisting of "inert" matter which could only be moved by some "force" or "energy". Freud came from a scientific background and so reasonably argued that some "force" was needed to prod human beings into action. This energy system in human beings he called "psychic energy". That energy was seen as residing in the Id of the personality and together they formed The Unconscious. Kelly said he did not want to start from that point. He saw human beings as being "living" and not "inert" matter and, if that were so, one essential ingredient of living matter is that it moves. The issue for psychology, he argued, is to explain why we move as we do. So important did he think this whole issue to be that he incorporated it into the Fundamental Postulate of his theory. It is "a person's processes that are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events". He says: "For our purposes, the person is not an object which is temporarily in a moving state but is himself a form of motion" (Kelly, 1955/1991, p. 48/Vol 1 p. 34). Thus, the notion of "unconscious" construing is as fundamental in personal construct theory as is "conscious" construing . And it is this aspect of Kelly's theory that makes it crucially different from all psychodynamic theories.
In order to deal with construing that takes place outside our conscious awareness, Kelly proposed that we consider all our construing as taking place at various levels of cognitive awareness. The lowest level of cognitive awareness is preverbal construing - which is developed before the onset of language and is definitely "unconscious". Then there is submergence - in which one pole of a personal construct is not available, and suspension  - in which one or more of the elements making up a construct have been "dropped out" when a new construct is formed; he relates this to forgetting and repression.
But there are also other constructs within Kelly's theory which render aspects of our construing "unconscious". These are, subordination, impermeability and loosening. However, it is interesting to note that Kelly sees these latter ways of construing as only "unconscious" from a therapist's point of view and not from the client's. Kelly says: "The therapist may observe the apparent shifting that goes on under loose conceptualization and, because he cannot follow it, hypothesize that some stable unconscious conceptualization is taking place" (Kelly, 1955/1991, p. 466/Vol 1 p. 345). Many of the theoretical constructs in personal construct theory can be applied to construing at a preverbal level, such as tight and loose. For instance, it can be very loose as in dreaming or very tight as in core construing that says "I am fundamentally a worthless person".
Thus, with "low levels of cognitive awareness" relating to what in other systems may be called "unconscious processes", the elimination of the need for some "force" to make a person move psychologically, and the incorporation of "processes" in the Fundamental Postulate, the concept of levels of cognitive awareness is clearly a central aspect of personal construct theory.
An alternative way of looking at unconscious processes in personal construct theory has been proposed by Bell (1996).

  • Bell, R. C. (1996) How can personal construct theory explain disorders of perception and cognition? In B. Walker, J. Costigan, L. Viney & W. Warren (eds) Personal Construct Theory: a Psychology for the Future. Australian Psychological Society.
  • Neimeyer, R. A. (1981) The structure and meaningfulness of tacit construing. In H. Bonarius, R. Holland & S. Rosenberg (eds) Personal Construct Psychology: Recent Advances in Theory and Practice. London: Macmillan Publishers

Fay Fransella

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004