Your Constructs of Personality–George Kelly's 20th Century Theory

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

The following article/post represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

What is personality and what is it composed of? Plenty of psychologists have proffered different definitions throughout the decades:

  • “That which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation.” -Raymond B. Cattell, 1950 [1]
  • “The dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristic behavior and thought.” -Gordon W. Allport, 1961 [1]
  • “The distinctive patterns of behavior (including thoughts and well as ‘affects,’ that is, feelings, and emotions and actions) that characterize each individual enduringly.” -Walter Mischel, 1999 [2]
  • “Personality refers to individuals’ characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms — hidden or not — behind those patterns.” -Funder, 2001 [2]
  • “Although no single definition is acceptable to all personality theorists, we can say that personality is a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give both consistency and individuality to a person’s behavior.” -Feist and Feist, 2009 [3]

Unanimity may be lacking on the exact definition, but we can at least still agree that personality makes each of us distinguishable from each other, based on our long-established, idiosyncratic styles of interacting with other individuals and surroundings. Right? These styles may not be easily changeable, but they are not eternally fixed. The Latin word ‘persona,’ understood in the ancient world as an actor’s mask worn on stage, is the word from which we get ‘personality.’ Contrary to our present-day assumption that a mask’s purpose is to hide identity, the ancient people’s use of the theatrical mask was purposed to portray a particular personality trait or character [4].

Personality is constituted by the many different subjective conceptual elements through which each person sees reality. George Kelly was a 20th Century psychologist who defined these elements as ‘constructs’ that we erect based on observation and experience to make sense of them all. We need these constructs to forecast what could happen in the future and how we should prepare. Then, that self-imposed forecast dictates and modifies our feelings, behaviors, and thoughts. All events are open to interpretation, according to constructive alternativism, leaving us to choose which construct or lens through which we want to see the world, and as events transpire, we can change our views of the past based on self-reflection [5].

George Kelly devised the Personal Construct Theory, in which he deemed all humans to be like scientists with hypothetical ideas about everything around them and in them, always testing and revising according to how they either contradict or cohere with their already confirmed constructs. Although, we are not scientists in the pedagogical, laborious, professional way. We are always naïve, in some way, about the world around us [6].

“I began to pursue the notion that one’s current acts and undertakings might have as much to do with the development of his personality as did the imprint of events with which he came in contact or the insights he was able to conjure up with the help of his therapist.” (George Kelly, 1963) [7]

We relate things according to two extremities (e.g. good—bad, pleasant—unpleasant, nice—mean), from which we choose, quite often without verbal labels, to simplify and accelerate our foresights. But it can also be said that our constructs are contrived and engineered in hierarchical style: those that represent the recurrent things in our lives are the simpler ones and exist at the bottom rungs whereas the more complex and abstract ones exist in the higher levels. Each of our construct systems differ, even though we can find common threads amongst each of them due to living in the same culture. We each have constructs that are fundamental to our innermost being or identity, hence we may often witness fervent emotion provoked in response to anything challenging those constructs. In this context of personal constructs, emotion may serve the purpose of making one aware of a shift or changeover in perception [8].

 Guilt may serve the purpose of making you aware that your behaviors, thoughts, and choices are antithetical to your fundamental or proclaimed role/status during social interactions. Anxiety may serve the purpose of making you aware that you are ill-prepared for what could happen next. Aggression and hostility could be defined as a kind of desperation and panic, wherein you fabricate evidence for your predictions or wring illusory accuracy from your situation instead of gently prying it out and revising your predictions that have been nullified. Desperation and panic can coerce you into using other coping strategies in the face of nullification and dissimilitude: 1) downsizing one’s world to only include easily foreseeable events, 2) over-aggrandizing new experiences, 3) loosening interpretations to make predictions less precise, or 4) tighten these predictions. It seems that a good mental strategist is someone who can rotate between these things while concocting, articulating, and reworking their constructs along the pathway of living life [8].

The psychologically disordered person has difficulty making reconstructions after being invalidated. In other words, they struggle to adapt. Personal construct psychotherapy would be the practice for helping one to make these reconstructions possible [8].

The repertory test/grid is said to be an admired and widespread approach to evaluating personal and interpersonal systems of meaning [8].

George Kelly would have us think that humans are propelled by the need for personal control, acquired through being able to uninterruptedly envisage the events of daily life in a stable framework. These constructs, full of similar and dissimilar abstractions, through which people calculate and predict events, can be aptly observed when hearing the markedly different described accounts from a group of people witnessing the same event. Imagine a classroom of students, wherein an experiment takes place involving an actor bursting into the room and pretending to murder someone. If you ask each student, he/she will differ as to what he/she remembered and paid attention to. It is because everyone has a different method of managing information in the brain. Not only will perception determine your interpretation of a murder, but also how you interpret things later [9].  

The Role Construct Repertory (REP) Test volunteer would juxtapose three sets of noteworthy things or people (e.g. my mother, my girlfriend, and myself), and discern which two share commonalities and differ from the third. One could say, “My girlfriend and I are very affectionate whereas my mother is distant and cold,” which would set up a dimension (affectionate vs. distant and cold) to be studied as a noteworthy pattern or construct handy for managing, structuring, construing, and advancing toward the social world with the appropriate character and responsibility in that world. Impressionistic interpretations of these constructs are made possible for the reptest volunteer through the presentation of many triad sets of different components and become a foundation upon which a therapy program can build for the respondent/client [10].

“Although the analysis of construct content is often revealing, most contemporary users prefer to extend the method beyond the simple elicitation of constructs by prompting the respondent subsequently to rate or rank each of the elements (e.g., people) on the resulting construct dimensions. For example, a respondent might generate a set of 15 constructs, on which 10 important elements (e.g., my mother, father, self, partner) could be rated, yielding a matrix of 150 specific ratings that would then be amenable to a wide range of analyses. Although the repgrid was originally devised as an interview-based or paper-and-pencil measure, most contemporary users rely on any of a number of computer programs for their elicitation and analysis, such as the popular WebGrid III program available via the Internet [10].”

The study can remain focused on simple components (e.g. viewing myself as affectionate, warm, friendly, outgoing, etc.), although it would be desirable to expand the grid of components to reach out to larger patterns, entrenched constructs, and psychic contents that are likely substrata to catastrophic issues or keeping the person in a symptomatic state. There must be a matrix of ratings allowing us to see which constructs belong together for the client/respondent (e.g. affectionate means being a good friend or boyfriend whereas being distant and cold means being a bad friend or boyfriend). Why would a person insist on seeing themselves as depressed and refuse to believe they are a happy person? Perhaps it could be that happiness is associated with being insincere and depression is associated with emotional honesty [10]. 

Referencing constructive alternativism again, humans are capable of supplanting current explanations of events with satisfactory alternatives, while always remembering that there are influential forces outside of our control, despite our natural, basic, unending need for fierce personal control [9].

“Determinism and freedom are inseparable, for that which determines another is, by the same token, free of the other,” said George Kelly in 1955.

The construct of estimating what will occur from a specific event alongside an interpretation of that specific event could be demonstrated by the wish to win an Olympic games gold medal, with the accompanying desire to practice many hours to fulfill that wish. The desire to practice is a “superordinate construct” that is smoothly chosen and has “subordinate constructs” to accompany it, such as limited time for spending with friends and completing schoolwork. The subordinate constructs are not chosen by you; rather they impose themselves on you because of your choice [9]. 

In your mental universe of successive acts of information-gathering, testing, predicting, and controlling events, there is your theory on what is going on. It is a theory forged by experiences and manipulated, biased data helping you to feel consistency. The events as they appear to the viewer may not be completely verifiable, but the perception that was prompted by the events, as the person believes, certainly is real [9]. 

What strikes me as odd is the premise, that, when calculating effects and consequences based on past experiences in triadic formula, we select two experiences that parallel together but are unparalleled with the third. It is imperative that we have no fewer than 3 ingredients, but we can have more than 3. Divergent ingredients will be bipolar as exemplified by the fact that if we designate something to be a chair, we imply that it is not a table. Distinct tags and stickers must be attached to similar situations due to the personal landscape of constructs. You may ascribe benevolence and goodness to a person willing to help anyone at the drop of a hat while someone else might regard him/her as people-pleasing prey. These constructs can exist without conscious deliberation, and it appears to me as though maybe our ‘core constructs’ are often the unattended, non-updated ones that are also most important to us, paradoxically. Perhaps they are the seemingly inextirpable ones rooting deep within us while there are plenty others (e.g. peripheral constructs) we can easily talk about and are readily able to change. The peripheral constructs are those we can comfortably alter without impacting our core constructs. Think about the peripheral construct that the Beatles recorded nothing new after 1971 and the core construct that God exists. You later find out the Beatles released new music in 1996. Your core construct, belief in God, will not shift after this Beatles-construct shifts [9].

Other necessary properties to discuss here would be the ‘range of convenience’ involving the extent and number of other related constructs. Obesity and frailty are qualities only relevant to constructs about people and not the color red, for example. ‘Permeability’ is the extent to which new components can be integrated within a construct, something that George Kelly qualified as the “natural process of growth, personal development, and realization of self.” While humans are at liberty to choose their superordinate goals and change their constructs to what makes sense, they also have ‘preemptive types of constructs’ that discriminate certain components and do not allow them to apply to other constructs. ‘Constellatory constructs’ would allow components to be invited into other constructs simultaneously but become permanent once recognized in a specific way.  Stereotypes are an example of constellatory constructs. Blonde women can be found in your stereotypical construct of sexy women, dainty women, high-class women, or dumb women, but we seldom allow people to undermine our classifications once we assign them, despite whatever other classifications we witness belonging to them, such as “intelligent,” “resourceful,” or “my supervisor at work.” But we allow components of some constructs, called propositional constructs, to be pliant and open to adjustment. For instance, a ball can be a spherical object, but can also be an ellipse [9].      

Let us remember George Kelly’s ‘fundamental postulate’ which is that “a person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events.” Perceptual adjustments are in response to new information updating our senses. They are maintained to authenticate one’s views for feeling consistent and acting predictably and stably in the world. It all could boil down to “the human need to know and to control one’s own universe,” which Kelly believed was a human’s paramount characteristic when sensing the surrounding world [9].

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.

 References:

[1] Engler, Barbara, Personality Theories: An Introduction, Publication date: August 25, 2008. Print.

[2]  McKey, Zoe, Who You Were Meant To Be: Boost Your Strengths, Understand and Control Your Shortcomings, Improve Your Relationships – Achieve Your Deepest Desires, Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC, Publication date: November 19, 2018. Print.

[3] Makrani, Irfan khan, A Psychological Study of Personality Creativity, Publisher: REDSHINE Publication (4 October 2016). Print.

[4] https://courses.lumenlearning.com/intropsych/chapter/what-is-personality/

[5] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-personal-construct-theory-2795957

[6] https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~jfkihlstrom/PersonalityWeb/Ch12Cognitive.htm

[7] N. Sollod, Robert and F. Monte, Christopher, Beneath the Mask: An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Publisher: Wiley; 8 edition (January 22, 2008). Print.

[8] https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/npb/people/amc/articles-pdfs/personal.pdf

[9] https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED397368.pdf

[10] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/personal-construct-theory

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