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Personal Construct Theory
Personal Construct Theory (PCT) represents a coherent, comprehensive psychology of personality that has special relevance for psychotherapy. Originally drafted by the American psychologist George Kelly in 1955, PCT has been extended to a variety of domains, including organizational development, education, business and marketing, and cognitive science. However, its predominant focus remains on the study of individuals, families, and social groups, with particular emphasis on how people organize and change their views of self and world in the counseling context.

At the base of Kelly’s theory is the image of the person-as-scientist, a view that emphasizes the human capacity for meaning making, agency, and ongoing revision of personal systems of knowing across time. Thus, individuals, like incipient scientists, are seen as creatively formulating constructs, or hypotheses about the apparent regularities of their lives, in an attempt to make them understandable, and to some extent, predictable. However, predictability is not pursued for its own sake, but is instead sought as a guide to practical action in concrete contexts and relationships. This implies that people engage in continuous extension, refinement, and revision of their systems of meaning as they meet with events that challenge, or invalidate their assumptions, prompting their personal theories toward greater adequacy.

Kelly formally developed his theory through a series of corollaries , which can be broadly grouped into those concerned with the process of construing, the structure of personal knowledge, and the social embeddedness of our construing efforts.  At the level of process, PCT envisions people as actively organizing their perceptions of events on the basis of recurring themes, meanings attributed to the 'booming, buzzing confusion' of life in an attempt to render it interpretable. By punctuating the unending flow of experience into coherent units, people are able to discern similarities and differences of events in terms that are both personally significant and shared by relevant others. At the level of structure, PCT suggests that meaning is a matter of contrast - an individual attributes meaning to an event not only by construing what it is, but also by differentiating it from what it is not.  For example, a given person’s unique description of some acquaintances as 'laid back' can only be fully understood in the context of its personal contrast—say, 'ambitious' as opposed to 'uptight'.  At a broader level, individuals, social groups, and whole cultures orient themselves according to (partially) shared constructs such as 'liberal vs. conservative', 'pro-life vs. pro-choice'”and 'democratic vs. totalitarian', which provide a basis for self-definition and social interaction.  Especially important in this regard are core constructs, frequently unverbalizable meanings that play critical organizing roles for the entirety of our construct systems, ultimately embodying our most basic values and sense of self. Finally, at the level of the social embeddedness of our construing, PCT stresses both the importance of private, idiosyncratic meanings, and the way in which these arise and find validation within relational, family, and cultural contexts.

To a greater extent than other 'cognitively' oriented theories of personality and psychotherapy, PCT places a strong emphasis on emotional experiences, understood as signals of actual or impending transitions in one’s fundamental constructs for anticipating the world. For example, individuals might experience threat when faced with the prospect of imminent and comprehensive change in their core structures of identity (e.g., when facing dismissal from a valued career, or abandonment by a partner they counted on to validate a familiar image of themselves).  Alternatively, people might experience anxiety when confronted with events that seem almost completely alien and uninterpretable within their previous construct system.  This attention to the delicate interweaving of meaning and affect has made PCT an attractive framework for contemporary researchers and clinicians concerned with such topics as relational breakdown, trauma, and loss, all of which can fundamentally undercut one’s assumptive world, triggering a host of significant emotional and behavioral responses.

As an approach to psychotherapy, PCT stresses the importance of the therapist making a concerted effort to enter the client’s world of meaning and understand it 'from the inside out', as a precondition to assisting with its revision.  In this way the therapist does not assume to be an expert who guides clients toward a more 'rational' or 'objectively true' way of thinking.  Instead, he or she works to help clients recognize the coherence in their own ways of construing experience, as well as their personal agency in making modifications in these constructions when necessary. At times the therapist prompts the client’s self-reflection by making use of various interviewing strategies such as the laddering technique to help articulate core constructs, or narrative exercises such as self-characterization methods, as a precursor to experimenting with new ways of construing self and others.  Such changes may be further fostered by the creative use of in-session enactment, fixed role therapy (in which clients 'try out' new identities in the course of daily life), and other psychodramatic techniques.

A unique feature of PCT is its extensive program of empirical research, conducted by hundreds of social scientists around the world. Most of this research has drawn on repertory grid methods, a flexible set of tools for assessing systems of personal meanings, which have been used in literally thousands of studies since Kelly first proposed it. By providing visual and semantic 'maps' of an individual’s construct system and how it applies to important facets of one’s life (e.g., relationships with friends, partners, and family members), grids have proven useful in both applied and research settings.  Among the many topics investigated using this method are the body images of anorexic clients; the ability of family members to understand one another’s outlooks; children’s reliance on concrete versus abstract construing of people; and the degree of commonality of work team members in their construing of common projects.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that PCT, despite its status as the original clinical constructivist theory, remains a living tradition that continues to attract scholars, researchers and practitioners from a broad range of disciplines. More than many theories, it has established a sizable following and annual conferences outside of North America, with vigorous programs of training, research, and practice in countries as diverse as Australia, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As it has grown in influence, it has also begun to articulate with other, more recent 'postmodern' traditions of scholarship, including other constructivist, social constructionist, and narrative therapy approaches.  While these various perspectives differ in some respects, each draws attention to the way in which personal identity is constructed and transformed in a social context.  Likewise, each focuses on the role of language in defining reality, and each suggests a collaborative role for the psychotherapist attempting to assist clients with the problems of living.


  • Fransella, F. (1996). George Kelly. Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Sage.
  • Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.
  • Neimeyer, R. A., & Raskin, J. (Eds.). (2001). Constructions of disorder:  Meaning making frameworks in psychotherapy. Washington: American Psychological Association.
  • Neimeyer, R. A. & Neimeyer, G. J. (Eds.), (2002).  Advances in Personal Construct Psychology.  New York:  Praeger.
  • Raskin, J. D. & Bridges, S. K. (Eds.).  (2002).  Studies in meaning:  Exploring  constructivist psychology.  New York:  Pace University Press.

Robert A. Neimeyer and Sara K. Bridges

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004