Chapter 14: Kelly – Personal Construct Theory

Part 1: George Kelly

George Kelly’s personal construct theory goes beyond the cognitive elements addressed by social learning theorists and provides a full-fledged cognitive theory.  Kelly believed that individuals act very much like scientists studying personality: they create constructs, or expectations, about the environment and people around them, and then they behave in ways that “test” those beliefs and expectations.  For Kelly, the personal constructs are more important than actual reality, since it is the construct that guides cognition and behavior, not the actual situation. His theory was unique, and quite unrelated to others that came before and after. This was, in part, Kelly’s very intention:

It is only fair to warn the reader about what may be in store…the term learning, so honorably embedded in most psychological texts, scarcely appears at all.  That is wholly intentional; we are for throwing it overboard altogether. There is no ego, no emotion, no motivation, no reinforcement, no drive, no unconscious, no need…all this will make for periods of strange, and perhaps uncomfortable, reading.  Yet, inevitably, a different approach calls for a different lexicon… (pg. x; Kelly, 1955a)

Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are best known for developing therapeutic techniques that are based on a cognitive perspective of personality and behavior.  Although they are not known for developing actual theories of personality, their clinical approaches are based on underlying theoretical perspectives, which shed light on how they view the nature of personality.  Thus, their influential work is naturally connected to that of Kelly, whose theory of personality was entirely cognitive (as compared to the cognitive social learning theorists Bandura, Rotter, and Mischel). More recently, there have been cognitive approaches to therapy put forth that are connected to much older approaches to human understanding.  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) takes an experiential approach to changing behavior that shares many similarities to Buddhist approaches (Hayes & Smith, 2005; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999), whereas Radical Acceptance relies directly on Buddhist teachings to encourage people to embrace their own lives (Brach, 2003).

Brief Biography of George Kelly

Not much is known about George Kelly as a person, particularly regarding his childhood.  Later in life he instructed his wife to destroy all of his personal correspondence. Thus, it has been somewhat difficult to piece together a picture of how this fascinating individual became the man he was.  He was born in 1905 on a farm near Perth, Kansas. His father had been educated for the Presbyterian ministry, and after getting married, his parents moved to the farm in Kansas where they had their only child.  The Kelly family moved around from farm to farm, including a failed farm in Colorado on some of the last free land given to settlers in the West. Kelly’s education was erratic, and he learned what he could when the family would occasionally spend a few weeks in town.  He attended four different high schools, and apparently never established any long-term relationships. He was, however, favorably influenced by the exciting stories told by his maternal grandfather, who had been the captain of a sailing ship in the North Atlantic (Fransella, 1995).

Despite his erratic education, Kelly attended college at Friends University and then Park College, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics.  Despite studying math and science, the collegiate debates he experienced had sparked a keen interest in social problems. So, he entered the University of Kansas to earn a Master’s degree in educational sociology, and in 1927, he completed his thesis on the distribution of leisure time activities of workers in Kansas City.  He then moved to Minneapolis and supported himself by teaching one night a week at three different night schools. He began studying sociology and biometrics at the University of Minnesota, but when the university found out that he couldn’t pay his tuition he was told to leave. He was then hired to teach psychology and speech at Sheldon Junior College in Iowa, where he spent a year and a half.  He then returned to the University of Minnesota for a semester of studying sociology, but then went back to Wichita, Kansas and worked as an aeronautical engineer for a few months. He then received an exchange scholar fellowship to study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in education in 1930, having written his thesis on predicting teaching success. He then returned to the United States, attended the State University of Iowa, and in 1931 he received a Ph.D. in psychology, with a focus on reading and speech disabilities.  Two days later he married Gladys Thompson (Fransella, 1995; Maher, 1969).

As uncharacteristic as it may seem, Kelly finally settled down.  He spent the next ten years teaching at Fort Hays Kansas State College.  His research and writings during this time focused on the practical aspects of providing clinical psychological services for schools.  Much like Alfred Adler had in Austria, he developed traveling clinics to provide training around the state of Kansas, and his model had a dramatic influence on the future of rural school psychology.  With the advent of World War II, however, Kelly entered the Navy as an aviation psychologist. At first he helped to train local civilian pilots, but then he transferred to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery of the Navy in Washington to help select naval air cadets.  After the war he spent a year at the University of Maryland, and in 1946, he was appointed Professor and Director of Clinical Psychology at Ohio State University, where he spent the next 20 years (Fransella, 1995; Maher, 1969).

During his first few years at Ohio State, Kelly focused on making their clinical psychology training program into one of the best in the country.  One of his colleagues in the department was Julian Rotter, also known for his role in shaping the training programs used in psychology today, and one of their students was Walter Mischel (who admired both Rotter and Kelly).  Kelly then turned his attention to the theory that made him famous, the two volume work entitled The Psychology of Personal Constructs (Kelly, 1955a,b).  Kelly’s theory gained immediate recognition as both unique and significant, and he was invited to teach and lecture around the United States and in Europe, the Soviet Union, South America, Asia, and the Caribbean.  He was elected president of both the Clinical Division and the Consulting Division of the American Psychological Association, and he served as president of the American Board of Examiners in Professional Psychology.  In 1965, Kelly left Ohio State for Brandeis University, where he was appointed to the Riklis Chair of Behavioral Science. He began working on a collection of his papers and lectures from the past decade, but he died unexpectedly in March, 1966.  As mentioned above, that collection of works was completed by the man who succeeded Kelly as Riklis Professor of Behavioral Science, and was published under the title Clinical Psychology and Personality: The Selected Papers of George Kelly (Maher, 1969).

Placing Kelly in Context:  A Cognitive Theory of Personality

Simply put, Kelly’s personal construct theory represents the culmination of the shift from animalistic behaviorism to humanistic cognition.  In American psychology, behaviorism was a powerful force, and it began with the very traditional approach of theorists such as John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner.  Alongside the experimental behaviorists were the learning theorists, such as Clark Hull. As Dollard and Miller tried to find some common ground between psychodynamic theory and traditional learning approaches, they were inevitably led to consider the role of social factors in human learning.  Bandura, Rotter, and Mischel built on the legacy of Dollard and Miller, but added to it the active role of cognition in the human species. Finally, Kelly moved to a purely cognitive description of how individuals become who they are.

However, we must address an important caveat.  Just as Skinner’s radical behaviorism was an extreme position of ignoring cognitive processes, perhaps Kelly’s position is equally extreme for attributing significant cognitive processing to all aspects of personality and personality development.  Although the man-the-scientist concept may hold a certain curious appeal for some, who doesn’t sometimes knowingly try acting in different ways to see what effect it has on others? Likewise, who isn’t attracted to a theory that says we desire the ability to both predict and control the events in our lives?  However, as Kelly the therapist was keenly aware, many people cannot predict or control the events surrounding them. Is this always the result of failed construct systems, or is it possible that sometimes we just aren’t thinking? Regardless of the answer, Kelly is the recognized leader of a significant development in the field of personality, a development that contributed to the highly regarded cognitive therapies of Ellis and Beck.

It is also interesting to note that the basis for his theory of constructive alternativism questions the reality of the self in a manner similar to Eastern/Buddhist concepts of consciousness and self.  Carl Jung was dramatically influenced by the ancient Vedic traditions of India, and Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, was influenced by the spiritual traditions of China. And now we have Kelly, whose theory represents the culmination of behavioral-cognitive theories, sharing a fundamental similarity with Buddhist psychology.  Clearly, throughout the history of personality theory, there have been important theorists who looked beyond the constraints of their own training and their own culture.


Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.