Of the seven or so theories of personality taught at university psychology departments, perhaps the one with the most useful is taught the least.
Kelly’s Personal Construct theory was first introduced in 1955 by George Kelly. Personal Construct Theory argues that we all are actively engaged in making sense of the world. This is unlike other personality theories which treat humans as static “subjects” who need to be motivated by emotional forces or by rewards and punishments. He suggests that our personalities are constructed by us as we go along making sense of the world. That we make sense of the world through constructs in which we use polar opposites.
To offer some crass examples; some of us venerate knowledge and judge others and ourselves as stupid or clever. Others venerate beauty and judge ourselves and others by their looks. We do this by having observed in the past how some things are alike and thereby different from other things. Kelly insists there is only one way to understand ourselves and that is to ask why we have done or plan to do certain things. Through reflection, we examine our own construing. It is the same with understanding others.
We have to struggle to put ourselves into the shoes of the other person and look at the world through that person’s eyes. There are times when the personal constructs we have built are not able to deal with the full complexity of life. This produces feelings of anxiety, hostility, and guilt. Anxiety develops when a people encounter situations that their construct system did not cover, an event unlike any encountered before. So when a woman from a rural area moves to a densely populated inner city. She is caught “with her constructs down.” Similarly, a boy who has been abused in early childhood may not have the constructs to accommodate kindness from others. Such a boy might experience anxiety in outstretched hand that others view as benevolent. Kelly argued that feelings of guilt occur in us when we operate outside our core constructs. This means that an individual feels guilty if he or she feels fails to confirm the constructs that define him or her. This definition of guilt is radically different than in other theories of personality.
Hostility and violence is “attempting to extort confirmation of a social prediction that is already failing.” When a person encounters a situation in which they expect one outcome and receives quite a different one, they should change their constructs rather than trying to change the situation to match their constructs. But people who continually refuse to modify their belief systems to accommodate new data, and in fact try to change the data acts in bad faith and with hostility. So for example, convinced atheists who realise that most people do not agree with them but continue to have a spiritual life and adhere to rituals becomes hostile and aggressive.
George Kelly was born is Kansas and his background was in science, maths, education and sociology. He only came to psychology during the Second World War and this perhaps explains his innovative approach to psychology. George Kelly died this day in 1967.
– Doug Racionzer (keep track of Doug’s unique takes on history at http://serendipiday.blogspot.