George Kelly and the Psychology of Personal Constructs

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The psychology of personal constructs was a theory developed by George Kelly in the 1950s. He devised a new way of thinking about his patients’ thought processes and how they could be changed for more effective living. Much of his work was developed during the Depression among the farmers and townspeople that were suffering economically. His work offered an alternative to classical Freudian therapies that were often too academic for down-to-earth people to utilize in their everyday lives.

About George Kelly

George Kelly was born in 1905 near Perth, Kansas. He was the only child of a Presbyterian minister turned farmer and an ex-schoolteacher. Though he attended mainly one-room schools as a child, his parents assisted him in his studies. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychics and math in 1926 from Park College, and a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Kansas. Later, he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology, then a PhD in psychology from the State University of Iowa. During the Depression, he formed his theory and clinical techniques. He refined his theory at Ohio State University, writing his two-volume book, The Psychology of Personal Constructs. He died in 1967.

Personal Constructs

Like most of his fellow psychologists, George Kelly was trained in Freudian methods of psychological analysis. However, in his work with ordinary people, he found these methods often lacking in relevance to his patients. He began to consider a better way to help his patients, but using practical concepts that could be implemented easily in their everyday life. At the heart of George Kelly’s technique was the idea of the “personal construct.” He looked at people as scientists that could study their own thought processes to understand their own reactions and those of others. Personal constructs can be defined as ideas that are formed by our experiences and emotions in certain circumstances. Since everyone experiences the world individually, a range of choices of how we interpret these experiences and emotions are available. These constructs determine how people anticipate experiences that happen to them. George Kelly’s idea was to help his patients to know and understand their own personal constructs and to redesign them, when needed, to provide more effective ways to deal with the world.

The Repertory Grid

In the psychology of personal construct method, the practitioner builds a repertory grid, which is a sort of matrix of engrained concepts. Patients may be asked to list two specific friends, two relatives, two people they dislike, their parents and themselves. They then examine similarities and differences between these people. Different combinations are examined to reveal similarities in the patients’ patterns of thinking. This process can lead to  understanding of how the patient “anticipates” certain experiences.

The Use of PCP

Though a minority of therapists accepted George Kelly’s techniques in the past, the theory has received more attention over time. Today, practitioners all over the world use PCP, attracted by its clarity and utility. Rather than the vague and sometimes obscure concepts of Freudian analytical techniques, patients undergoing PCP are encouraged to take a active role in their own analysis.

The psychology of personal constructs offer yet another method of therapy that can help individuals understand their reactions and behaviors so that they can live more successfully.

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