| 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
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
This implies that people engage in continuous extension,
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
in terms that are both personally significant and shared by relevant
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
'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
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
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
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
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
using this method are the body images of anorexic clients; the ability
family members to understand one another’s outlooks; children’s
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
F. (1996). George Kelly. Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Sage.
G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New
R. A., & Raskin, J. (Eds.). (2001). Constructions of
disorder: Meaning making frameworks in psychotherapy.
R. A. & Neimeyer, G. J. (Eds.), (2002). Advances
in Personal Construct Psychology. New York: Praeger.
J. D. & Bridges, S. K. (Eds.). (2002). Studies
in meaning: Exploring constructivist psychology.
Pace University Press.
Robert A. Neimeyer and Sara K.