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Loose construing
For Kelly, loose versus tight construing is one of the most important constructs in his theory. It is about the process of construing and nothing about what is construed. It relates to that central component of personal construct theory - that construing is about predicting.
Loosening is defined as characteristic of constructs that lead to varying predictions. To construe loosely means placing an element at one pole of a construct today and on the opposite pole of that construct tomorrow. Loose construing is thus somewhat elastic but, importantly, it retains its identity within the person's construing system. One thinks loosely in dreams. Kelly puts it like this:
"To think loosely? One does it, despite himself, in the daily appraisal of people and things. Today's joy is tomorrow's sadness and yesterday's regret; the failure of the moment is the success of a lifetime; and the inanimateness of stationary things turns into willful intransigence whenever we stub our toe. Yet the wavering construction remains substantially the same; joy is still contrasted with sadness, failure blocks success, and inanimateness precludes willfulness; it is only that they have unstable relationships with the objects they are designed to keep in proper array." (Kelly, 1955/1991, p. 1030/Vol 2 p. 330)
As Kelly says in that quotation, we all often think loosely as we go about our daily lives, but it is very apparent in dreaming. Kelly talks a great deal about dreams and interprets them as largely concerned with preverbal constructs. In this sense, some of our constructs that are involved in loose construing are also at very low levels of cognitive awareness and therefore not available to conscious thought.
Changes from tight to loose construing and back again defines the Creativity Cycle.

Some people are so "locked in" to loose construing that they are unable to tighten in order to deal with their world at all. Such people are diagnosed in psychiatry as suffering from the type of "thought disorder" found in some of those suffering from schizophrenia. Bannister (1962, 1963) carried out a research programme to test the theory suggested by Kelly that such thought disorder is the result of very loose construing. A summary of Bannister's work can be found in Fransella (2003). In the past, such "thought disorder" was said to be similar to that personified in the paintings of such people as Picasso. But Picasso was able to tighten his construing at the end of his painting session and join others in social conversation - those with thought disorder cannot do that.
Loose construing is sometimes seen as similar to propositional construing. But the former is a construct about process and the latter is about how a construct relates to its elements. "One day I think my feet are too big, yesterday I thought they were too small" - I'm construing my feet loosely. To construe my feet propositionally I might say "amongst other things, my feet are too big". I am certain about that and construe my feet, in terms of size, tightly and not loosely. Kelly points out the difference by explaining that the Creativity Cycle starts out with loosened construing involving a single construct, whereas the C-P-C Cycle starts with propositional construing in which the person produces "an array of fairly tight constructs from which a choice is to be made in the next stage of the Cycle" (Kelly, 1955/1991; p. 1061/Vol 2 p. 351).
The tight-loose dimension is crucial in personal construct theory because it is about our ability to be creative and, therefore, about change.

  • Bannister, D. (1962) The nature and measurement of schizophrenic thought disorder. Journal of Mental Science, 108, 825-842.
  • Bannister, D. (1963) The genesis of schizophrenic thought disorder: a serial invalidation hypothesis. British Journal of Psychiatry, 109, 680-686.
  • Fransella, F. (2003) From theory to research to change. In F. Fransella (ed) International Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Fay Fransella

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004