George Kelly's Concerns


George Kelly wanted to develop a theory, and an investigative technique, which would remove the influence of the observer's frame of reference on what was observed and which would enable him to make precise statements - and confident predictions - about the behaviour of individual people. He was also impatient with what he saw as the rather patronising attitude of most practitioners in the field of psychology.


Observer Bias

Kelly saw that current theories of personality were so loosely defined, and difficult to test, that in many clinical cases the observer contributed more to the diagnosis than the patient. If you took your problems to a Freudian analyst, they would be analysed in Freudian terms; a Jungian would interpret them in Jungian terms; a behaviourist would interpret them in terms of conditioning, and so on.

The problem of observer bias is particularly acute in the 'soft' sciences such as psychology, sociology, economics, etc., where it is obvious that the commentators' frame of reference influences what they see, how they describe it, and what they prescribe. You can find explanations of schizophrenia which rely on brain chemistry at one end of the spectrum and family dynamics at the other. Some educationalists advocate streaming of bright children; some are totally against it. Some economists see government spending as a strategy to be used, and some see it as a strategy to be avoided. It's rare for them to find common ground.

Kelly wanted to develop a theory, and an investigative technique, which would remove the influence of the observer's frame of reference on what was observed.

Precision and Prediction.

A satirical, but by no means inaccurate, description of the state of psychology at the time Kelly worked would identify two different methodologies by which psychology was struggling to become a science. One methodology relied on the use of large-scale correlational studies which investigated the relationships between different personality traits: if you study enough people you can prove small but statistically significant links between (say) cigarette smoking and extraversion, birth order and language skills, etc. The other methodology relied on the study of fruit flies, rats, and monkeys - presumably in the hope that a later generation of psychologists would be able to generalise from these results to human beings.

Kelly was impatient with this. As a clinician, he dealt with people one at a time, or in small groups such as families. He wanted to develop a methodology which would enable him to make precise statements - and confident predictions - about the behaviour of individual people.

Over-reliance on the expert.

Kelly was also impatient with what he saw as the rather patronising attitude of most practitioners in the field - that they had 'expert' knowledge about human function and dysfunction, which they would communicate to the ignorant lay person. Kelly saw the role of the therapist as radically different, and in this he was one of the first person-centred psychotherapists: he took the view that if you want to know what's wrong with someone, ask them - they probably know. Which does not remove the need for a therapist: a therapist can ask questions which the patient might not have thought of, a therapist can reflect and re-frame and persist; but at heart Kelly believed that most people can take responsibility for how they conduct their lives, and that the prime role of the therapist is to help them to be clear about their issues and to explore with them the consequences of their choices.


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