Chapter 14: Kelly – Personal Construct Theory

Part 2: Personal Construct Theory

Kelly’s personal construct theory departs from cognitive social learning in that he proposes it is not simply enough to know what a person is likely to do in a given situation, even when your predictions are correct.  More importantly, we need to know what a person might have done (Kelly, 1966). Thus, unlike the cognitive social learning theorists who consider cognitive processes as an aspect of the environmental circumstances associated with behavior, Kelly focused on the cognitive constructs first and foremost.

Kelly presented his personal construct theory in a two volume set, which was published in 1955 (Kelly, 1955a,b).  In the mid-1960s, Kelly was preparing a new book that was to include talks and papers he had presented around the world, many of which were never published.  Unfortunately, he did not survive to complete this task, but the project was later completed by Brendan Maher (Maher, 1969), thus furthering the information available on this unique theory.

Constructive Alternativism

Kelly begins by questioning the role that psychologists have assigned to themselves.  Psychologists consider themselves to be scientists, engaged in the systematic study of human behavior and thought.  Kelly questions why we, as psychologists, don’t extend the same perspective to all people. According to Kelly, doesn’t every person seek to predict and control the course of events in their lives?  Doesn’t every person have their own theories about situations in life, don’t they test their own hypotheses, and weigh the experimental evidence gained through experience?

Since Kelly proposes that each individual is theorizing about and testing their own life circumstances, he suggests the term man-the-scientist for understanding how all people (including, of course, women) approach the world around them.

In trying to understand the world around us, using arguments that sound either existential or like Eastern philosophy, Kelly questions the existence of the universe.  Of course it exists, he says, but so do the thoughts of each individual, and the correspondence between what people think exists and what does, in fact, exist is constantly changing.  Thus, Kelly suggests that it is better to say that the world around us is existing, rather than to say it exists.  Likewise, life can only be understood in the context of time, if it is to make sense.  However, life is not simply the changes that occur over time. Rather, it is a relationship between living things and their environment.  Kelly emphasizes the creative capacity of living things to represent their environment, as opposed to simply reacting to it. These representations are known as constructs, patterns that we create in our mind and attempt to fit over the realities of the world.  Since our constructs don’t always fit with reality, we are constantly modifying them, as well as trying to increase our repertoire of constructs.  Over time, we test our constructs for the ability to predict what will happen in our lives. With sufficient time and experience, and if we are willing to learn from our mistakes, we can evaluate all of our interpretations of the world in which we live (Kelly, 1955a).

Kelly believes that all of our present interpretations of the environment are open to revision or replacement; there are always alternative constructs that may help us deal with new or difficult situations.  It is this philosophical position that Kelly refers to as constructive alternativism.  It is important to keep in mind, of course, that not just any alternative will work in a given situation.  Therefore, each potential alternative construct must be evaluated in terms of its specific predictive efficiency, as well as in terms of overall predictive efficiency of the system it would become part of, if that alternative construct were adopted (Kelly, 1955a).

According to Kelly, it is more important to know what a person might have done, and he believed that people act as scientists, testing their constructs in order to become better at predicting and controlling their lives.  Can you think of situations in which someone did what you expected, but you really wanted to know what they had thought about doing as alternatives?

Basic Theory of Personal Constructs

Personal construct theory begins with a fundamental postulate, which is then elaborated with eleven corollaries.  The fundamental postulate states that “a person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events” (Kelly, 1955a).  The carefully chosen words in this postulate define the nature of personal construct theory.  The words person and he emphasize the individuality of this theory, the unique nature of each person’s constructs.  Each person is then recognized as a process.  The mind does not stop and start, simply reacting to stimuli, but rather it is constantly in motion, constantly experimenting with constructs.  These processes operate through a network of pathways, or channels, according to the devices, or ways, a person constructs in order to achieve their goals.  Since these processes, ways, and channels have not been identified as specific physiological mechanisms or anatomical structures, Kelly emphasizes that this is a psychological theory.  So when we discuss this mechanism we are not necessarily addressing neuroscience on one hand or sociology on the other hand, we are working within the constraints of the field of psychology.  We then have anticipation, the “push and pull of the psychology of personal constructs” (Kelly, 1955a).  Being man-the-scientist, each of us seeks to predict the future and choose our actions accordingly.  Finally, we have real-life events.  Kelly was always very practical about both his personality theory and his approach to psychotherapy.  Thus, the psychology of personal constructs is not an ethereal theory. Psychological processes, according to Kelly, are tied down to reality, and anticipation is carried forward in order to better represent future reality.  Having established the fundamental postulate, Kelly then described eleven corollaries, or propositions, which both follow from the postulate and amplify his system by elaborating on the fundamental idea (Kelly, 1955a).

Construction CorollaryA person anticipates events by construing their replicationsConstruing refers to placing an interpretation upon an event.  Since a new event will not occur exactly as a past event, our anticipation involves interpreting what the new event will be like.  Kelly uses the example of a day. Today is not the same as yesterday, tomorrow will not be the same as today, but each day follows something of a similar pattern.  Thus, our anticipation of tomorrow involves constructs based on both the similarities and differences between days we have experienced in the past. It is important to note that this process is not the same as cognition, as it is not simply thinking about tomorrow.  Much of this process is preverbal, or unconscious, and in that sense, occurs automatically.

Individuality CorollaryPersons differ from each other in their construction of events.  No matter how closely associated two people are, they cannot play exactly the same role in any situation.  Therefore, they will interpret events differently. Although Kelly acknowledges that people often share similar experiences, particularly as they attend to the experiences of others in the same or similar situations, this corollary emphasizes the unique, subjective nature of interpreting and anticipating events.

Organization CorollaryEach person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs.  When faced with conflict, there may be solutions that contradict one another.  Thus, the constructs we develop may contradict each other. Kelly suggested that we develop our constructs in a systematic and organized way, with some constructs being ranked more highly than others.  For example, some constructs may be good vs. bad, or stupid vs. intelligent. A stupid construct might work in a given solution, but an intelligent one would probably be preferred. For instance, suppose you have an electric garage door opener, and the power is out.  You could put your car in the garage by driving through the garage door, however, it might be preferable to get out of the car, go into the garage through the house or side door, and then disconnect the garage door from the opener and open it by hand.

This is a color photograph of a garage door. The door is partially open and stuck. The bumper of the car parked in the garage is slightly visible.
Image Source: Oleg Alexandrov. (2008, February 9). Garage door sliding up. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CCO.

Dichotomy CorollaryA person’s construction system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs.  Every construct has both positive and negative aspects.  In the example used above, both ways of putting your car in the garage have advantages and disadvantages.  Driving through the garage door is quick and easy in the short term, but results in needing a new garage door.  Getting out of the car and using another entrance takes more time and effort, and may be unpleasant in a bad storm, but it protects your property (and saves time and money in the long run).  The essential nature of contrast was eloquently described some 2,600 years ago by Lao Tsu:

Under Heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.

All can know good as good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short contrast each other;

High and low rest upon each other;

Voice and sound harmonize each other;

Front and back follow one another.

Lao Tsu, c600 B.C. (pg. 4; Lao Tsu, c600 B.C./1989)

Choice CorollaryA person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomized construct through which he anticipates the greater possibility for extension and definition of his system.  Simply put, since each situation requires us to choose between the options we construct, Kelly believed we choose the alternative that serves us best (at least within our system of constructs, which may be different than the reality of the best choice).  But what about situations in which the best choice is not so obvious? Kelly believed that the choice corollary allowed for shades of gray when a decision is not clearly a choice between black and white alternatives. He did not view this as a contradiction, but rather, he proposed that the choice becomes one between options that are more gray or less gray.  Thus, we can maintain the dichotomy of the choice while still also allowing the choice itself.

Range CorollaryA construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only.  Every personal construct has a range or focus, and few, if any, are relevant to all events.  As Kelly points out, the construct tall vs. short may apply well to descriptions of people, trees, and buildings.  But what would we mean by tall weather, or short light? Clearly, the construct tall vs. short is limited to certain types of discrete, physical objects.

This is a color photograph of a tall woman and a short man. They are standing side-by-side in front of a wall-mounted measuring stick. The woman is wearing a white crop top and white shorts, and the man is wearing a black suit and tie. The woman is just under 8 feet tall, and the man is just over five feet tall.
Image Source: User: Azerfghj. (2017, June 19). Tall woman and short man. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Experience CorollaryA person’s construction system varies as he successively construes the replications of events.  As we apply constructs in our efforts to predict what happens in our lives, we sometimes experience unexpected outcomes.  As a result, we reconstruct our constructs, and learn from our experiences. In other words, man-the-scientist is by definition a work in process, and that process is ongoing.

Modulation Corollary: The variation in a person’s construction system is limited by the permeability of the constructs within whose range of convenience the variants lie.  This corollary addresses the ease with which the experience corollary can occur.  Although all individuals modify the constructs that guide their anticipation of events, some constructs are modified more easily, and some people are more open to changing their perspectives (and, hence, reconstructing their constructs).  This is one area where Kelly re-emphasizes the difference between psychological processes and the process of science. Scientists seek hypotheses, theories, and laws that are not likely to change. Indeed, there is a continuum from hypothesis to law based on how likely it is that a scientific observation is true.  People, however, are constantly testing and retesting their constructs, and reconstructing them as necessary and appropriate. Therefore, people may act like scientists, but their psychological processes serve to facilitate the individual’s life, not the lives of others (as scientific theories and laws are meant to apply to the whole universe).

Fragmentation CorollaryA person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other.  This corollary extends from the previous one, but with a twist.  As an individual encounters unexpected events, they modify their constructs to the extent that they are able. Thus, their behavior may change slowly, or more quickly, depending on the nature of the constructs that guide their openness to change.  The twist comes into play when individuals are either resisting change, or in the process of change, and it involves the dichotomy corollary. If an individual is failing to predict and control events in their life, they may choose an incompatible construct, essentially reversing the course of their behavior.  One of the advantages of Kelly’s personal construct theory is that these dramatic changes in behavior can now be seen as reasonable progressions in one’s ongoing desire for predictability and control.

Commonality CorollaryTo the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his psychological processes are similar to those of the other person.  This corollary is important for interpersonal relations.  Even though two people cannot experience the same event in exactly the same way, their ability to share their experiences is facilitated by the similarity of their experiences.  This raises important implications for therapists working with clients of different cultures, since they might not share similar constructs based on certain events. It also raises an important distinction between cognitive and behavioral approaches to understanding personality.  In behavioral perspectives, simple stimulus-response relationships are the same for everyone who experiences them. However, in the cognitive perspective, each person necessarily experiences any event in a unique way.

Sociality CorollaryTo the extent that one person construes the construction processes of another, he may play a role in a social process involving the other person.  Humans are social creatures.  Our ability to predict and control our lives is largely based on our ability to predict and either control or work with other people.  Thus, it is important for individuals to construe to thoughts and behaviors of others, and in so doing we can each play a role in the lives of others.  Kelly suggests that this provides a natural connection between personal construct theory and social psychology, as well as a connection between personal construct theory and cross-cultural psychology.

Dimensions of Transition

Since life is an ongoing process, there are regular transitions in one’s personal constructs.  According to the organizational and modulation corollaries, individuals have certain preferences amongst their constructs and differences in their ability to reconstruct them.  Problems in life arise when individuals find it difficult to transition from an ineffective construct, one that does not allow for predicting or controlling events, to an effective construct.  According to Kelly (1955a), the major problems are seen as the psychological phenomena of threat, fear, guilt, and anxiety.  Kelly defines these terms as follows:

Threat is the awareness of imminent comprehensive change in one’s core structures.

Fear is like threat, except that in this case, it is a new incidental construct, rather than a comprehensive construct that seems about to take over.

Perception of one’s apparent dislodgment from his core role structure constitutes the experience of guilt.

Anxiety is the recognition that the events with which one is confronted lie outside the range of convenience of one’s construct system.

In each case, the psychological phenomenon is based on either the failure of one’s constructs to provide courses of action or a direct challenge to the system of constructs available to the individual.  Given that the individual’s personal construct systems define the larger construct of self, these psychological phenomena represent a challenge to the very self experiencing them. In defense of the individual, aggressiveness is seen as the active elaboration of one’s perceptual field.  In other words, aggressive individuals try to control events in ways that force decisions favorable to the individual.  Similarly, hostility is viewed as the continued effort to extort validational evidence in favor of a type of social prediction which has already proved itself a failure.  In this case, the individual tries to find confirmation of success following failed constructs, and this can only be done at the expense of others (Kelly, 1955a).

As people live their everyday lives, there are two typical cycles of transition: the C-P-C Cycle and the Creativity Cycle.  The C-P-C Cycle involves circumspection, preemption, and control.  Being circumspect refers to being wary or not taking risks.  Thus, as we construe events we try to be precise in the development of our constructs.  We then preempt these constructs for membership in an exclusive realm, one that best fits the event we are trying to predict and control.  Finally, the first two steps have control as their natural consequence.  Still, the individual must make the choice of that course of action, so Kelly suggests that the final C could just as well stand for choice as it does for control.

In contrast, the Creativity Cycle begins with loose constructions, and then leads to tightened and validated constructions.   What makes the Creativity Cycle meaningful is the individual’s ability to quickly experiment with various constructs and then seize upon the most promising, which is then tightened up and tested.  Since much of this process is preverbal, the thought processes of creative individuals may not be apparent to others. According to Kelly, although individuals who begin with tight constructions might be productive, they cannot be creative.  Creativity requires beginning with loose constructions (Kelly, 1955a). The value of creativity is not simply to be found as a distinction between the types of cycles experienced by individuals in their daily lives. Creativity is an important component of well-being, and a common topic in books on positive psychology and human strengths and virtues (Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003; Cloninger, 2004; Compton, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Snyder & Lopez, 2005).  Indeed, Carl Rogers identified creativity as a significant aspect of the personality of a fully functioning person (Rogers, 1961).

Many psychologists, including Kelly and Carl Rogers, consider creativity to be an essential aspect of healthy psychological development.  Have you ever entered into an unfamiliar situation and tried to be creative in how you handled it? Was it difficult to set aside preconceived notions about how to act, or do you find it easy to try different things in new situations?

Supplemental Materials

George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory

This video [18:37] begins by providing a brief biography of George Kelly before introducing his theory on personal constructs.  Constructive alternativism, the eleven corollaries, and abnormal development are also discussed in this video.



Personal Construct Theory (Kelly)

This video [7:23] presents concepts from George Kelly’s personal construct theory, including the eleven corollaries, experience cycle, personal constructs, and the repertory test.



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

Jennifer Tellez.  (2016, February 22).  George Kelly’s personal construct theory presentation.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Christopher Tong.  (2018, November 27).  Personal construct theory (Kelly) | Brief video on personality psychology.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © 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.