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PCP and Cognitive Therapy
Cognitive therapy (CT) has now become a dominant voice in the clinical arena. Both CT and PCP developed as a movement away from the theoretical and practical restrictions of psychoanalysis (Beck, 1976), but the "cognitive revolution" also attracted those disaffected with radical behaviorism (eg. Mahoney, 1974), with its neglect of thoughts and other internal events. In reaction to the Freudian orthodoxy both CT and PCP focus therapy on the present, and with the therapist playing an active directive role but whereas CT is time limited and often highly structured protocol, PCP is more open-ended. Whereas Freudian approaches emphasized passive listening and respect for the suppressed contents of the subconscious, both CT and PCP invite clients to increase awareness of automated and implicit thoughts. Although Beck explicitly acknowledged Kelly as an influence and despite the above superficial similarities between the two cognitivist approaches, it is easy to see why Kelly is not more acknowledged within cognitive therapy. PCP views itself situated increasingly within the constructionist camp whilst CT struggles to apply information processing/cognitive science approaches to psychopathology. Constructivism however rejects the idea that beliefs can be dysfunctional or wrong. Human systems are self-organizing dynamics and have and preserve an internal logic. As a consequence constructivist therapists target changes in dimension of the person's construct, not isolated thought units. The goal is creative not corrective (Neimeyer & Bridges, 2003).
Kelly defines a disorder as any personal construct that is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation and he was particularly unhappy about formal diagnosis and labels such as 'anxiety'. The clients themselves are the source of information about their invalidation. The attitude of personal-construct therapists thus is necessarily somewhat Rogerian, in that they must accept clients as they are, employ credulous listening and reassure them in order to offer them short-term relief from their anxieties and facilitate collaboration. George Kelly offers very few firm guidelines for how to conduct therapy. He is quite clear that the hypotheses of the major therapies have no place in construct therapy. His strategies for diagnosis and therapy stick very close to his ideas that role constructs are the fundamental structure of the psyche. "…there is no learning, no motivation, no emotion, no cognition, no stimulus, no response, no ego, no unconsciousness, no need, no reinforcement, no drive" (Kelly, 1963, p. xi). Kelly does not specify the duration of therapy, but his own case studies often ran to years of treatment, and he favoured a gradual approach over dynamic, brief courses of therapy. The emphasis is on shifts to the person's meaning making process rather than summary dismissal of aberrant thoughts. According to Kelly, "reconstruction through clarification" lies at the centre of therapy. In other words, the person's construct system must first be clarified in his or her own terms, and then reconstructed to accommodate or adapt to his or her needs.
In CT, the therapist helps the person to change dysfunctional thinking patterns, interpretations, distorted thoughts, images and the accompanying maladaptive emotional states by highlighting faulty thinking and reality testing the influence of thinking on emotional behavior, in order to illustrate the relationship between thoughts, emotion and behavior; the so called cognitive triad. The CT techniques such as triple column or socratic dialogue, or reality testing are about challenging the realistic nature of the erroneous thoughts.
Kelly's model of the experience cycle calls for a progressive revision by the client along the lines of what he termed a circumspection-preemption-control (CPC) cycle. The client scans possibilities and keeps some, then puts them to the test under his or her own control. Kelly recommends that confrontation be used cautiously and only when progress is very slow. It can easily provoke guilt and hostility, followed by depression, and can cause the construct system to constrict. Kelly's approach to therapy does not rely on any one technique but is genuinely person-based. Its strategies resemble those found in cognitive, behavioral, gestalt and dynamic therapies, but the subtle aim is to explore the person's construct system by whatever means are appropriate. Perhaps because of this theoretical inconsistency Rogers (1956) qualified Kelly's approach as scholarly rather than ethical. Although Kelly elaborated his therapist-client relation as Rogerian client-centred therapy, he refuses to embrace the ideal client-therapist relation, believing this should be decided according to each individual case of construing.
In CT evaluation and case formulation are distinct precedents to therapy, whereas PCP blurs the lines of division between evaluation and intervention. It is possible to use PCP approaches in the evaluation of events, roles and behavior to give a much more precise contextual analysis of cognitive events and appraisals than can be offered currently by CT techniques of self-report and downward arrow techniques, but the ensuing therapy inevitably has a more PCP flavour (Blowers & O’Connor, 1996).

  • Beck, A.T. (1976) Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: International Universities Press
  • Blowers, G.H., O’Connor, K.P. (1996)  Personal construct psychology in the clinical context. Ottawa: Universtiy of Ottawa Press
  • Fransella, F., Dalton, P. (2000) Personal construct counselling in action. London: Sage
  • Mahoney, M.J. (1974) Cognition and behavior modification. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger
  • Rogers, C.R.(1956) Intellectualizing psychology. Contemporary Psychology, 1, 335-358.
  • Neimeyer, R.A., Bridges, S.K. (2003) Post-modern approaches to psychotherapy. In Gurman, A.S., Messer, S.B.(eds) Essential psychotherapies. New York: Guildford  
Kieron O'Connor
Establ. 2003
Last update: 29 December 2003