Personal Construct Theory Summarised

A summary of Kelly's Personal Construct Theory, the basis of the Repertory Grid interview. Grid has many applications in business (particularly in human resources, organizational change and marketing), education and industrial psychology to help interview and understand how individuals and groups perceive the world around them.

Theory and Application




Kelly's full theory of personal constructs is very detailed but its main points are:

Our construct systems make our world more predictable:

We use our construct systems to make the world easier to find our way around. Because we know that countries closer to the Equator are hotter than those at the Poles, we can make a better job of packing what to take to a journey to Mexico. Because we know that cars built in the 1970's were not built with economy in mind, we know better than to make fuel consumption the deciding criterion when looking to buy an old banger. If we know that when our partner behaves in a particular way it usually means that they're feeling preoccupied, or loving, or harassed, then we adjust our expectations and our behaviour accordingly. Our construct systems reflect our constant efforts to make sense of our world, just as scientists make sense of their subject-matter: we observe, we draw conclusions about patterns of cause and effect, and we behave according to those conclusions.

Our construct systems can grow and change:

Our construct systems are not static. They are confirmed or challenged every moment we are conscious. If we believe that Arctic Airlines offers the best service in the world, and then we have a dreadful trip where everything goes wrong, we do one of two things: we either adapt our construct system, altering our feelings about them in the light of our experience; or we immunise our construct system, with thoughts like They must have been having a really bad day, or Yes, but the airport was so overcrowded they didn't stand a chance. Whether we adapt or immunise depends on a number of things: how open we are to new information, how much it matters to us to maintain our belief in the superiority of Arctic Airlines, how important it is to us to have a lot of information about airlines anyway.

Our construct systems influence our expectations and perceptions:

Also, if we're expecting Arctic Airlines to treat us well, we probably get on the plane in a better mood than we would on an airline which gave us poor treatment last time. If our experience is that Arctic's cabin staff always smile when they meet us, we probably board the plane with a smile ourselves. We might not notice when Arctic's service fails to live up to standard, but pay attention when it happens with the other airline. Because our construct systems reflect our past experience, they also influence our expectations and behaviour.

Some constructs, and some aspects of our construct systems, are more important than others:

The airline example repeats in every area of our experience. We feel, think, and behave according to our construct system; we adapt our constructs, immunise them, or have them confirmed. Some of our constructs - those which represent our core values and concern our key relationships - are complex, quite firmly fixed, wide-ranging, and difficult to change; others, about things which don't matter so much, or about which we haven't much experience, are simpler, narrower, and carry less personal commitment.

Your construct system is your truth as you understand and experience it - nobody else's:

A person's construct system represents the truth as they understand it. Construct systems cannot be judged in terms of their objective truth - whatever 'objective' means in the world of personal feelings and choices. When we meet someone whose construct system is different from our own - especially if we don't like it, or think it's wrong - we sometimes use words like prejudice or stereotype to convey our disagreement. We might try confronting them with opposing opinions or evidence, and get frustrated if we see them immunising their constructs instead of adapting them. But we have to accept that their system has worked, more or less, for them so far, and that if it is different from ours then that is a reflection of the fact that they've had different experiences, different reactions, and see different things as important.

Construct systems are not always internally consistent:

People can and do live with a degree of internal inconsistency within their construct systems. At the simplest level, many of us encounter this as small children when we hear an adult say 'This hurts me more than it hurts you,' and wonder why, under those circumstances, they don't stop doing it. At the more complex level, we observe this when we encounter someone whose self-perception seems to be at odds with reality, who seems to present different faces in different circumstances. Most people live with a certain level of inconsistency which does them no harm; but when the distortions of judgement become too costly or inappropriate the person (and/or those around them) is likely to suffer some form of personal distress.

The extent to which one person can understand another's construct system is a measure of that person's empathy:

You do not have to have the same construct system as another person in order to understand them; but you do have to be able to infer the other person's construct system. The simple example is when one mate says to another 'After a day like you've just had, I thought you'd like chicken soup,' and is rewarded with a grateful smile. Most of the advice on how to get on with other people, for whatever purpose, is reducible to the prayer to the Blessed Spirit to grant that I might not condemn my neighbour until I have walked a mile in his moccasins - or, as Kelly might have put it, his construct system.


Mathematical representations of construct systems

Kelly conceived of construct systems as multi-dimensional mathematical models in which the person's own language is used to classify his or her experience. In his theoretical work, he and his followers developed a number of mathematical representations of construct systems, which they used to test some of the hypotheses which followed from his basic personal construct theory.

The Repertory Grid Interview

Kelly also searched for a way of getting people to reveal their construct system. Repertory Grid interviewing technique was the answer (although he originally called it the Role Construct Repertory Test). The term repertory derives, of course, from repertoire - the repertoire of constructs which the person had developed. Because constructs represent some form of judgement or evaluation, by definition they are scalar: that is, the concept good can only exist in contrast to the concept bad, the concept gentle can only exist as a contrast to the concept harsh. Any evaluation we make - when we describe a car as sporty, or a politician as right-wing, or a sore toe as painful - could reasonably be answered with the question 'Compared with what?' The process of taking three elements and asking for two of them to be paired in contrast with the third is the most efficient way in which the two poles of the construct can be elicited.

Application to personal experiences and relationships

Being a clinician, Kelly mostly concerned himself with his patients' personal experiences and relationships; so he worked largely with what we would now call 'significant others' as elements - parents and relations, friends, colleagues, the self. He would discover the important elements, elicit the patient's constructs, have the elements rated on the constructs, and use the resulting grid to help the patient understand his or her key issues, to decide priorities for therapy, and to track the progress of therapy.

If you had eavesdropped on one of Kelly's sessions, you might had heard him discussing with the patient the distance between the two elements MYSELF and MYSELF AS MY FATHER WOULD LIKE ME TO BE - and then go on to discuss whose problem was it, did it matter, what needed to happen to reduce it if it did matter? You might have heard Kelly reflecting back the patient's self-description and working through ways of making it happier, more competent, less compulsed. You might have heard him, if his analysis of the themes of the constructs suggested it, reflecting back that most of the constructs could be summarised as takes my side - always against me and preparing an appropriate therapeutic intervention for one who appears paranoid.

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