Personal construct psychology (PCP) is a theory of personality and cognition developed by the Americanpsychologist George Kelly in the 1950s. From the theory, Kelly derived a psychotherapy approach and also a technique called the repertory grid interview that helped his patients to uncover their own “constructs” (ways of seeing the world) with minimal intervention or interpretation by the therapist. The repertory grid was later adapted for various uses within organizations, including decision-making and interpretation of other people’s world-views.
Kelly explicitly stated that each individual’s task in understanding their personal psychology is to put in order the facts of his or her own experience. Then each of us, like the scientist, is to test the accuracy of that constructed knowledge by performing those actions the constructs suggest. If the results of our actions are in line with what the knowledge predicted then we have done a good job of finding the order in our personal experience. If not, then we can modify the construct: our interpretations or our predictions or both. This method of discovering and correcting our constructs is simply the scientific method used by all modern sciences to discover the truths about the universe we live in.
People develop constructs as internal ideas of reality in order to understand the world around them. They are based on our interpretations of our observations and experiences. Every construct is bipolar, specifying how two things are similar to each other (lying on the same pole) and different from a third thing. They can be expanded with new ideas.
A main tenet of PCP theory is that A person’s unique psychological processes are channeled by the way s/he anticipates events. Kelly believed that anticipation and prediction are the main drivers of our mind. “Every man is, in his own particular way, a scientist,” said Kelly, in that he is always building up and refining theories and models about how the world works so that he can anticipate events. We start on this at birth (a child discovers, “if I cry, mother will come”) and continue refining our theories as we grow up. We build theories—often stereotypes—about other people and also try to control them or impose on others our own theories so that we are better able to predict their actions.
All these theories are built up from a system of constructs. A construct has two extreme points, such as “happy-sad” and we tend to place people at either extreme or at some point in between. Our mind, said Kelly, is filled up with these constructs, at a low level of awareness. Kelly did not use the concept unconscious; instead, he believed that some constructs are preverbal, ‘their lack of verbal labels often being because they were developed before the person had the use of words’ (Winter, 1993, p. 244). A given person or set of persons or any event or circumstance can be characterized fairly precisely by the set of constructs we apply to it and the position of the thing within the range of each construct. So Fred for instance may be just half between happy and sad (one construct) and definitively clever rather than stupid (another construct). The baby above may have a preverbal construct “Comes… doesn’t come when I cry”.
Constructs are applied to anything we put our attention to, including ourselves, and also strongly influence what we fix our attention on. We construe reality constructing constructs. Hence, determining a person’s system of constructs would go a long way towards understanding him, especially the person’s essential constructs that represent very strong and unchangeable beliefs; and also the constructs a person applies to him/herself.
Kelly believed in a non-invasive approach to psychotherapy. Rather than having the therapist interpret the person’s psyche, which would amount to imposing the doctor’s constructs on the patient, the therapist should just act as a facilitator of the patient finding his own constructs. The patient’s behavior is then mainly explained as ways to selectively observe the world, act upon it and update the construct system in such a way as to increase predictability. To help the patient find his constructs, Kelly developed the repertory grid interview technique.
To build a repertory grid (a sort of matrix) for a patient, Kelly would first ask the patient to select about seven elements whose nature might depend on whatever the patient or therapist are trying to discover. For instance, “Two specific friends, two work-mates, two people you dislike, your mother and yourself”, or something of that sort. Then, three of the elements would be selected at random, and then the therapist would ask:”In relation to… (whatever is of interest), in which way are two of these people alike but different from the third”? The answer is sure to indicate one of the extreme points of one of the patient’s constructs. He might say for instance that Fred and Sarah are very communicative whereas John isn’t. Further questioning would reveal the other end of the construct (say, introvert) and the positions of the three characters between extremes. Repeating the procedure with different sets of three elements ends up revealing several constructs the patient might not have been fully aware of.
The repertory grid itself is a matrix where the rows represent constructs found, the columns represent the elements, and cells indicate with a number the position of each element within each construct. There is software available to produce several reports and graphs from these Grids.