|EMOTIONS IN PERSONAL CONSTRUCT THEORY: A REVIEW
Richard Stockton College, Pomona, New
George Kelly claimed that there were no emotions in Personal Construct Theory (PCT). The present
paper notes that Kelly did define four important emotions and reviews the work
by McCoy in extending the range of emotions that can be explained by PCT. In
addition, the theories of personality formulated by non-PCT psychologists (Paul
McReynolds and Prescott Lecky), which are consistent with PCT and which are
provocative, are discusssed.
Keywords: emotions, personal construct theory, Mildred McCoy, Prescott Lecky.
We have to be careful in reporting George
Kelly's theory. It is not that George Kelly liked to mislead people, but he
liked to test people, to play games, perhaps to see whether they were sharp
enough to see the light. Part of this game playing is apparent in the way in
which he described his own theory. He noted very early in his exposition of the
theory of personal constructs that his theory had no place for emotions. He
said, “There is no ego, no emotion, no motivation, no reinforcement, no drive,
no unconscious, no need” (Kelly, 1955, p. x). Many readers of his theory accept
this, and I can imagine Kelly's eyes twinkling as he says to himself,
"Fooled you." |
One task for any scholar who proposes a new
theory is to show how this new theory is unlike any other that has been
proposed before - to sharpen the differences rather than look for similarities.
In his description of his theory above, Kelly is saying that his theory is not
like Freud's psychoanalytic theory and not like Skinner's theory of learning.
But he is also misleading us.
Personal Construct Theory (PCT) is certainly quite different from
Skinner’s learning theory and Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. There is no
reinforcement, ego or unconscious, as defined in those theories, in PCT. But
the theory is viewed by almost all textbooks on theories of personality as a
cognitive theory. Since modern psychology views motivation as involving the
choice of behavior made by an individual, Kelly’s Choice corollary is clearly a
motivational element. And since construct systems change on the basis of
people’s past experience, learning of a kind takes place.
According to McCoy (1977, p. 99), “Kelly’s
expressed wish [was] to abandon emotion as a separate category of human
behaviour...” Bannister (2003) phrased this issue in terms of a bipolar
construct, thought versus emotion, and admitted that Kelly chose to leave this
construct out of PCT. Bannister noted that reviewers of PCT typically viewed
PCT as a cognitive theory of personality and criticized PCT for not dealing
with emotions, but Bannister defended Kelly by arguing that there, “can be no
onus on any theory to duplicate the constructs of another” (p. 65).
Kelly said that his theory had no emotion
but, on the other hand, he provided definitions of threat, fear, anxiety, and
guilt. Therefore, Kelly did have a small place in his theory for emotions.
Later PCT writers have rejected Kelly’s position. Miall (1989), for example,
asserted that, “emotion therefore has a significant role in organizing the
construct system” (p. 185), but he admitted that PCT, “has not so far provided
a matrix for refocusing the issues in such a way that these long-standing
conflicts about the role of emotions could be resolved” (p. 187).
In this essay, Kelly’s own definitions of
these emotions will be presented. Next, McCoy’s elaboration of emotions based
on Kelly’s blueprint will be described. Finally a theorist whose views have
long been relegated to the footnotes of personality theory, Prescott Lecky,
will be described, with a focus on his description of emotions, descriptions
which fit neatly into PCT.
THE POSITION OF EMOTIONS IN THE PSYCHE
Emotions have long been a “problem” for
psychologists. Are they central to human experience or are they, as it were,
the “exhaust” of human experience, an unavoidable nuisance? This debate has
also concerned PC theorists and constructivists. As Miall (1989) noted, McCoy
(1977), whose ideas will be discussed later, explored how emotions can be
described in terms of the core and non-core structures of a personal construct
system, while Katz (1984) saw emotions as indicating the activation of
primitive constructs. Cummins (2003),
in discussing anger in PCT quickly moves to a discussion of anger constructs,
thereby changing the focus from emotions to cognitions.
In contrast, Mascolo and Mancuso (1990)
rejected the duality of human experience as consisting of emotions and
cognitions and advocated a unified adaptive system. Indeed, they quote Mandler
(1984) approvingly who denied the psychological relevance of emotions. Mascolo
and Mancuso conceptualised emotional states as “the intrapsychological context
in which there appears mobilization (or demobilization) activity that
accompanies and supports transitions in the relation between perceived events and
a person’s goals or concerns” (p. 209). Positive emotions accompany resolution
of input-concern discrepancies and negative emotions accompany mismatches
between input and concerns. Emotional experiences are, therefore, the result of
Mascolo and Mancuso (1990) did define the
following emotions. The first five are experienced when maintenance of some
state is threatened.
- Anger: the concern is to maintain
conditions which ought to exist.
- Sadness: the concern is to maintain contact
with a valued object.
- Fear: the concern is to maintain the
integrity of the self.
- Guilt: the concern is to maintain internal
- Shame: the concern is to maintain another’s
validation of one’s identity.
The final two are experienced when goals
- Joy: when any salient goal is attained.
- Pride: when a goal is attained that
enhances one’s identity.
However, Mascolo and Mancuso “spurn the
task of building a theory of the different emotions” (p. 219). Furthermore,
emotions do not cause behavior but rather they are the result of a breakdown in
construing with accompanying bodily changes (see Miall, 1989, p. 186). Miall
viewed their approach as similar to that of William James (1884) and, later, of
Schachter (1971) in which emotions were merely the subjective interpretation of
a state of arousal (with physiological and cognitive components).
Miall (1989) defined emotions as signalling
“an active self-related concern: an emotion is the constructive anticipation of
evolution or change in the construct system relating to the self” (p. 190).
“Emotion in the construct system in thus self-referential and anticipatory” (p.
191). Kirsch and Jordan (2000) stated that, “emotions are contained implicitly
as a result of a previous construction and its verification (e.g.
validation/invalidation)” (p. 291). This approach was pursued by McCoy (1977;
KELLY AND EMOTION
Threat was defined by Kelly as an awareness
that a comprehensive change was imminent in your core constructs and,
therefore, in your conception of yourself. In the broadest sense, threat can be
induced when we perceive any plausible alternative to our core constructs. A
comprehensive change in one’s core constructs is what occurs during an
“identity crisis,” when one’s conception of oneself is shaken and needs to be
re-construed. The assistance of a long-term psychotherapist is helpful in this
In contrast, fear, defined as an awareness
that an incidental change is imminent in your core constructs, is much less
interesting. Since the change in one’s core constructs is small, people
typically handle fear without recourse to psychotherapy.
Guilt is defined as an experience that
accompanies your perception that you have become dislodged from your core role.
Your core role is the subsystem of constructs that enables you to predict and
describe your behavior. It gives you a sense of identity. Guilt is the result
of invalidating your core constructs, that is, finding out that you are not the
kind of person whom you thought you were. The discrepancy between what you
thought you were and what you now realise you are has to be relevant to your
core role for the guilt to be strong and psychologically important.
This definition of guilt is similar to that
provided by Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. For Freud, guilt is experienced when
some of your desires come into conflict with your superego desires, desires
that include the dos and don'ts (the ego ideal and conscience, respectively),
most of which were introjected from your parents. For Kelly, guilt is
experienced when your behaviors are not consistent with your theory of
yourself. Although Kelly does not take a position on the sources of the core
role, in particular, the degree to which it is formed by the expectations of
the parents for their children, it is quite likely that many aspects of the
core role are based on parental expectations for their children.
Anxiety is experienced when your
construction system no longer applies to the situation that confronts you. You
cannot construe (make sense of) what is happening. Finding yourself in any new
situation leads to some anxiety. If you have developed a sound construction
system, you will eventually make sense of the situation and make effective choices
as to how to respond. If you do this, your construction grows in its range of
However, if your construction system
suggests no appropriate behavior for you, then your anxiety may become extreme
and chronic and you may choose an unhealthy strategy. For example, you may
withdraw into a more predictable world (constriction), or you may loosen your
construction system so that it provides some guidance, even though the
decisions you make may be ineffective.
Independently of PCT, McReynolds (1956,
1960) suggested that anxiety is aroused in four situations.
|(1)||the rate of influx of information is
|(2)||the information is too novel to
|(3)||the additional constructs needed to
assimilate the information is not presently available, and
|(4)|| the information is internally
The first three sources may disappear with
time, but the fourth source may generate long-term anxiety.
McReynolds noted several hypotheses that
could be derived from these ideas. First, the greater a person's anxiety, the
stronger will be his/her tendency to assimilate new percepts that cannot be
avoided (c.f., Kelly's tactic of loose construing). This will prevent his/her
level of anxiety rising still further. Second, the more anxious a person is,
the more he/she will resist giving up a conceptual schema according to which
percepts have been assimilated. To give up a schema would result in more
unassimilated percepts and raise the anxiety level still higher. Third, anxious
persons should tend to deny or avoid the perception of incongruent stimuli
(c.f., Kelly's strategy of hostility). McReynolds noted that the person did not
have to be aware of the incongruencies for this to happen.
McReynolds noted that normal and
pathological anxiety are the same because both arise from unassimilated
percepts. The only differences are those of degree and of coping strategies
necessary. When unassimilated percepts are relatively easy to assimilate, we
experience thrill but, when they are not, we experience anxiety.
Trauma leads to anxiety because it results
in percepts that are not readily assimilated. Sometimes, new percepts
destabilize earlier experiences (and schemata), resulting in a flood of now
unassimilated percepts. Psychotherapy seeks to reverse these processes by helping
the patient to assimilate previously unassimilated percepts and to reintegrate
perceptual systems that were incongruent with other systems.
McCoy (1977, 1981) has provided a thorough
analysis of how emotions can be fitted into PCT in a way that is consistent
with Kelly’s approach. McCoy discussed Kelly’s concepts of aggression and
hostility, in addition to threat, fear, anxiety and guilt, because she saw them
as antecedents and the consequences of emotions. This may be incorrect, confusing
aggression and hostility as defined in common usage with the specific
definitions provided by Kelly.
Most of us commonly define people as
aggressive when their behavior hurts us. Kelly, as in his discussion of other
concepts, tried to look at this behavior from the subject's point of view. What
is the aim of the aggressive person? Kelly defined aggression as the active
elaboration by people of their perceptual field. Aggressive people seek out and
get involved in situations that require decisions and actions. The contrast of
aggressiveness is passivity. Thus, aggressive sexual people seek out sexual
situations and get involved sexually with others. Aggressive business people
seek out business opportunities and actively pursue them. Aggressive scholars conduct
and publish a large amount of research. Other people may sometimes suffer as a
result of the aggressive person's behavior. However, the goal is not to hurt
others, but rather to get involved with and achieve in particular types of
situations. It is not clear what emotions accompany such behavior.
Suppose that you test a part of your
construction system and find that it does not predict well what happened to you
and so is of little use to you. This part of your construction system is
invalid. What can you do? You could try to replace this part with a more useful
construction system that anticipates the outcome of the events more accurately.
If you do this, you are building a better construction system.
Alternatively you could refuse to accept
the disconfirming evidence that has invalidated your construction system and,
instead, seek to distort the information so that it is no longer inconsistent
with your construction system, or you could even seek to extort information
from the environment that is consistent with your construction system. These
strategies are the essence of Kelly’s concept of hostility. Again, it is far
from clear what emotions accompany hostile strategies.
McCoy sought to expand the set of emotions
explained by PCT, endeavoring to include what other psychologists have
described as the fundamental emotions (e.g., Tomkins, 1970; Izard, 1972; Ekman,
Friesen & Ellsworth, 1972).
First, McCoy considered changes in core
structure, with threat being an awareness of imminent comprehensive change in
your core constructs and fear being an awareness of imminent incidental change
in your core constructs. These are identical to Kelly’s definitions and have
been discussed above. McCoy continued by considering changes in non-core
constructs (that is, peripheral constructs), with an awareness of imminent
comprehensive change resulting in bewilderment and an awareness of imminent
incidental change resulting in doubt. This is overly negative. An awareness of
change in peripheral constructs could arouse curiosity or interest.
The third category of emotions results from
validation of core structures. Love is experienced when your core structure is
comprehensively validated, that is, “feeling accepted for the self you know you
are” (p. 109). If the validation is only partial, that is, that only part of
your core structure is validated, then happiness (or joy, pleasure, delight or
mirth) is experienced.
The fourth category of emotions arises from
validation of non-core structures, that is, peripheral constructs.
Comprehensive validation results in satisfaction while partial validation
results in complacency.
The fifth category of emotions arises from invalidation
of core structures, with sadness as the result. McCoy did not distinguish
between total and partial validation here.
The sixth category was fit of self and core
role structure. Following Kelly, McCoy defined guilt as an awareness of one’s
apparent dislodgment from your core role structure, whereas self-confidence is
an awareness of a good fit between the self and one’s core role structure. Shame
results as an awareness of the dislodgment of the self from someone else’s
construing of your role. McCoy omits the critical term “core role” here, but it
would probably make more sense to restrict shame to the core constructs and use
embarrassment for dislodgment in the peripheral constructs.
The seventh category is fit between one’s
own core structure and that of someone else. Contempt and disgust result when
you become aware that the core role of someone else is comprehensively
different from one’s own, and McCoy added that this may also involve the other
person experiencing guilt. Clearly some factor is missing in McCoy’s definition
here. Individuals who are very different from oneself can be interesting and
attractive as well as, in other cases, arousing our disgust. Thus, disgust
should involve a perception of a difference in core roles plus some additional
The eighth category is recognition of
construct system functionality. Here, McCoy followed Kelly in defining anxiety
as an awareness that your construct system cannot explain or predict events in
the situation in which you find yourself. When faced with a sudden requirement
to construe, we experience surprise. When we are in situations which we can
construe adequately, we experience contentment. Again, McCoy chooses one
emotion when others might be equally likely, in this case boredom.
Finally, McCoy discussed aggression and
hostility, and she saw anger as an awareness of invalidation of constructs
leading to hostility. This was mentioned above, as well as objections to it.
Cummins (2003) also found fault with McCoy’s definition of anger on the grounds
that McCoy linked anger too definitively with hostility. Cummins questioned
whether anger always precedes hostility. Cummins proposed that anger was one of
a range of possible responses to invalidation.
McCoy’s analysis is of interest because of
the framework she provided for the classification of emotions and the
bipolarity of many of the categories. However, whether the definitions of the
emotions that she provided are satisfactory or heuristic is open to question.
For example, defining love as an emotion experienced when your core structure
is validated (feeling accepted for the self you know you are) seems much too
broad. For example, there may be times when this happens to a client in
psychotherapy (the psychotherapist validates the client’s core structure), but
it is doubtful that all such clients “love” their psychotherapists in this situation.
There are, of course, many types of love, but McCoy’s definition seems
inconsistent with many of these types.
Second, it does not seem as if McCoy’s
definitions of emotions result in an advancement of the theory, provide ways of
better understanding clients, or provoke hypotheses for research. Kelly’s
definition of threat, for example, or hostility were provocative and did result
in clinical insights and occasional research. For example, Lester (1968)
reconceptualized manipulative attempts at suicide as hostile strategies which
enhanced our understanding of the behavior. Third, as mentioned, McCoy often
settles on one emotion in each situation rather than exploring the full range
of emotions that could be stimulated by each situation.
Finally, some have objected that McCoy’s
analysis is not in the spirit of Kelly’s approach. Walker and Winter (2007)
noted that McCoy’s analysis casts positive emotions as indications of
validation of construing, while negative emotions are indications of
invalidation of construing. This conceptualizes emotions as similar to positive
and negative reinforcement, a link that Kelly rejected.
In the next section, the ideas of a
theorist who was a precursor to PCT, Prescott Lecky, will be presented, and his
ideas, although limited, are provocative.
Lecky (1949) was an early holistic
theorist, proposing that humans are units, systems that operate as a whole.
Lecky felt that such dynamic systems can have only one purpose, one source of
motivation, and he proposed the need for unity or self-consistency as this
universal dynamic principle.
Personality is an organization of values
that are consistent with one another. The individual always tries to maintain
his integrity and unity of the organization, even though we might judge his
behavior to be irrational or disturbed. This organization defines his role,
furnishes him with standards, and makes his behavior appear regular. Conflict
is a result of environmental input conflicting with the system. The system then
tries to eliminate this conflict.
Lecky saw individuals as having two tasks:
(a) maintaining what he called "inner harmony" within their minds,
that is, an internally consistent set of ideas and interpretations, and (b)
maintaining harmony between their minds and the environment, that is, between
their experience of the outside world and their interpretations of this
experience. In his choice of a system principle that focused on consistency,
Lecky foreshadowed Kelly’s PCT.
For Lecky, learning was a process of
assimilating new experiences. As the person assimilates these experiences and
maintains his organization in a greater variety of situations, he maintains his
independence and sense of freedom. Psychological development is a process of
assimilating new information so as to maintain a self-consistent organization
of values and attitudes. Whereas learning serves to resolve conflict, conflict
must always precede learning. Conflict may profitably be viewed as a clash
between two modes or ways of organizing. This anticipates Kelly’s notion that
healthy individuals are always trying to extend their construction system.
We need to feel that we live in a stable
and intelligible environment. We need to be able to foresee and predict
environmental events and, by anticipating them, prevent sudden adjustments.
Anxiety is caused by breakdowns in our predictive system. To do this we may
have to avoid certain situations or make overly simplistic judgments, but the
goal is self-consistency. For some individuals, preservation of their
predictive system without change becomes a goal in itself, and they seek
experiences that confirm their predictions and avoid situations that disconfirm
their predictions. This definition of anxiety is identical to that of Kelly,
and the strategy described by Lecky is what Kelly called hostility.
Lecky brought emotions into his theory in a
way consistent with Kelly's ideas but extending them.
Lecky defined love as the reaction toward
someone who has already been assimilated and who serves as a strong support to
your idea of self. In this definition, Lecky added a component to the
definition provided by McCoy. If we translate this into PCT, in order to love
someone, we first have to be able to construe the individual. Then, the way in
which they construe our core self has to be consistent with the way in which we
construe our core self. If this is the case, then they agree with our
self-concept and, thereby, support it. “Love at first sight” does not fit into
this definition of love (unless the person is a superb clinician and can
construe another individual in a few brief moments).
Lecky defined grief as an emotion that is
experienced when your personality must be reorganized due to the loss of one of
its supports. This is a very narrow view of grief. If the President of the
United States is assassinated, as in the case of John F. Kennedy, then the
emotion that people experience is not this type of grief since the President
did not support the way in which we construe ourselves. If our pet dies, then
we may experience grief for it is possible that our pet did support the way in
which we construe ourselves. For example, if we construe ourselves as a kind
and caring individual, and if we showed this facet of ourselves with our pet,
then losing the pet loses a support for our self-concept.
Hatred/rage and horror
Hatred and rage are emotions felt toward
objects that we cannot assimilate, that is, events which we cannot construe. In
this situation, we experience anxiety, and the anxiety cannot be reduced. In
some of these situations, we may eventually be able to construe the objects,
and then the hatred will diminish. Alternatively, we can avoid or destroy those
objects so that we do not have to attempt to construe them (a hostile manoeuver).
Horror is the emotion felt when we are
confronted with experiences that we are not prepared to assimilate, such as a
ghastly accident. In time, we may be able to assimilate this experience, and
then the horror will diminish.
Experiences that increase consistency and
unity give rise to joy and pleasure. Pleasure is experienced when we master new
experiences, for example, when we learn to like nasty tasting foods, such as
olives or bitter coffee. If we could learn to tolerate more bitter substances than
coffee, other pleasures would replace our liking for coffee. The same is true
for other sensory modalities. For example, as we mature, we come to like more
and more complex music, art, and literature. The more difficult an
accomplishment, the more pleasure we derive from it. Pleasure is clearly
related to the basic desire for unity or self-consistency, and it can be
understood only historically. Pleasure comes into existence because of a
difficulty that is overcome, and continuous pleasure demands continuous
solution of new problems. This definition of pleasure differs considerably from
related emotions defined by McCoy such as happiness, joy, pleasure, delight,
mirth and satisfaction.
If your behavior violates your
self-concept, you feel guilt. Clearly, this anticipates Kelly’s definition of
guilt. In PCT, this is when you have become dislodged from your core role.
Fear is experienced when we fail to resolve
inconsistencies. This is very different from Kelly’s definition of fear and
seems to be equivalent to a low level of anxiety.
Emotions were seen by Lecky as
characteristics of behavior when first encountering a new problem. They are, in
fact, a way of assisting the acquisition of control over the experience and,
when the experience is assimilated, the emotion will be reduced. Emotions do
not disorganize behavior. The new experience disorganizes the behavior, or
rather the personality, which in turn leads to greater stereotypy in the
Any comprehensive theory of personality
cannot dismiss emotion and refuse to discuss or account for them. Although
George Kelly claimed to have no emotion in his theory, he did discuss at least
four basic emotions (threat, fear, guilt and anxiety). McCoy explored how other
emotions could be incorporated into PCT and extended the range of emotions that
could be accounted for. Lecky, writing eleven years before the publication of
Kelly’s two-volume work, anticipated some of the elements of PCT, albeit in a
crude manner, and provided definitions
of emotions such as pleasure, love and hatred, that are consistent with PCT and
provocative. The result is that we can conclude that PCT is not a theory of
personality in which emotions have no place. Rather, the full range of human
emotion can be explained using the concepts of PCT.
Katz’s proposal of “phylogenetically rooted primitive constructs
which emerge during characteristic periods in the individual’s ontogenetic
development” (p. 318) does not seem to have received wide acceptance.
In a subsequent article, Mascolo and Mancuso (1992) defined pride,
guilt and shame in terms of appraisal and felt motive-action tendency
For a modern presentation of Kelly’s definitions, see Bannister
(2003) and Butt (2008).
McReynolds used the term “percepts” rather than “information.”
This is found in double-bind communications where the different
levels of communication (verbal and non-verbal) may conflict.
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David Lester, Ph.D., is Professor of
Psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He obtained his
doctorate at Brandeis
University where he
studied under Abraham Maslow and George Kelly.
Lester, D. (2009). Emotions in personal construct theory: A review.
Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 90-98, 2009.
(Retrieved from http://www.pcp-net.org/journal/pctp09/lester09.html)
|Received: 17 February 2009 – Accepted: 28 September 2009 –
Published: 22 October 2009