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What does the future hold for personal construct psychology?

George Kelly was way ahead of his time when, in 1955, he published his two-volume magnum opus, The Psychology of Personal Constructs. This work was no less than a presentation of a whole new psychology, radically departing from the mechanistic, reductionist, and deterministic assumptions of the dominant approaches of the day. It clearly anticipated the trends that have occurred in psychology over the following half-century or so, as reflected in the debts that proponents of subsequent approaches have acknowledged that they owe to Kelly (Mischel, 1980). However, nowadays it is a rare psychology student who has even heard of personal construct psychology. Why is this so? Has personal construct psychology outlived its usefulness? What does its future hold? These are the questions that will be explored herein. A brief summary of personal construct theory is presented, followed by a review of developments in, and applications of, the theory. The current status of personal construct psychology is then considered, together with its links with other approaches. Finally, anticipations of the future of personal construct psychology are explored.


The psychology of personal constructs is based upon the philosophical assumption of "constructive alternativism," which states that "all of our present interpretations of the universe are subject to revision or replacement" (Kelly, 1955, p. 15). The existence of a real universe is not questioned, but it is assumed that no one can experience this universe directly, instead viewing it "through transparent patterns or templets which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which the world is composed" (Kelly, 1955, pp. 8-9). These transparent patterns or templates are personal constructs.

Kelly's theory was unusual in being set out very formally in terms of a fundamental postulate with eleven corollaries. The fundamental postulate, stating that a "person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events" (Kelly, 1955, p. 47), essentially reflects Kelly's metaphor of the person as a scientist, whose primary concern is the prediction of the world. Personal constructs are the basis of the individual's predictions of those events to which they are applicable, and since constructs are, in Kelly's view, bipolar (e.g., "constructivist" versus "realist"), each provides a choice in the way in which an event is construed. A person's choices are, for Kelly, directed towards maximizing his or her ability to predict the world.

An individual's predictions may or may not be validated by his or her construing of subsequent events. Optimally, invalidation will lead the person to reconstrue, formulating new predictions, but people vary in the extent to which they are able to do this, which also depends upon the nature of the constructs involved in the predictions. Each person's constructs are organized in a hierarchical system, in which some are more superordinate than others, and constructs also vary in the extent to which they can be applied to new events. The construct system generally consists of various subsystems, although these are not necessarily entirely consistent with each other.

People not only differ in their constructs, but also in the way in which these are organized into systems. However, there is also some commonality in people's construing, especially with others in the same cultural group. For Kelly (1955), the essence of social interaction is sociality, the attempt to construe another person's construction processes, or to see the world through his or her eyes.


The Theory

There have been few attempts to develop Kelly's theory in the years since it was first put forward, although some new corollaries have been proposed in the areas of the development of construing and social construing, in which the theory has been regarded by some writers as insufficiently elaborated (Katz, 1984; Procter, 1981; Thomas, 1979). Extensions have also been proposed to Kelly's taxonomy of emotions (Cummins, 2006; McCoy, 1981).

The dearth of theoretical developments in the psychology of personal constructs perhaps reflects the comprehensiveness of Kelly's original vision. It may also indicate research evidence that has been provided in support of aspects of the theory (Adams-Webber, 1979, 2003), for example the relative importance of personal as opposed to supplied constructs; the resistance to change of superordinate constructs (Hinkle, 1965); and the bipolarity of construing (Millis & Neimeyer, 1991; Riemann, 1990).


Of the two major methods for the assessment of construing developed by Kelly, the self-characterization and the role construct repertory test, it was the grid form of the latter that originally most captured the imagination of researchers and practitioners, being used in over 90 percent of personal construct research studies (Neimeyer, 1985; Neimeyer, Baker, & Neimeyer, 1990). Indeed, the repertory grid probably was, and is, better known than the theory from which it was derived, although it has been argued that it is most productively used in conjunction with that theory (Fransella, Bell, & Bannister, 2004). This popularity of the grid is in part due to the burgeoning of methods of grid analysis, mostly supported by computer software. Amongst other aspects of construing, these allow investigation of similarities and differences in the individual's view of particular aspects of his or her world; relationships between, and thus the meaning of, constructs; structural features of the construct system; conflicts in construing; and the content of personal constructs (Caputi, Bell, & Hennessy, 2012; Feixas, Geldschlager, & Neimeyer, 2002). The grid is an extremely flexible procedure, adaptable to innumerable areas of investigation and use in different cultural settings (e.g., Goins, Winter, Sundin, Patient, & Aslan, 2012). It can be used to analyze an individual's construing, can allow comparison of the construct systems of two or more people, or elucidate shared features of construing within a group of people. With its amenability to both quantitative and qualitative analysis, and its applicability in both nomothetic and idiographic investigations, it can be regarded as one of the first "mixed methods" approaches in psychology.

In recent years, the growth of narrative approaches in psychology has been conducive to renewed interest in story-telling methods, including the self-characterization and elaborations of this. There has also been the development of numerous alternative personal construct assessment techniques, ranging from interviews to non-verbal methods (Caputi et al., 2012).

Clinical Applications

The clinical field is the "focus of convenience" of personal construct psychology, the area in which it was originally developed and has been most extensively applied. Kelly's (1955, p. 831) view of psychological disorder as "any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation" was in contrast to the traditional psychiatric view. Indeed, Kelly regarded psychiatric diagnosis as "all too frequently an attempt to cram a whole live struggling client into a nosological category" (p. 775). His alternative approach of "transitive diagnosis" mapped the client's pathways of movement in terms of a set of "diagnostic constructs" which were "neither good nor bad, healthy nor unhealthy, adaptive nor maladaptive" (p. 453). In Kelly's view, "it is not complete until a plan for management and treatment has been formulated" (p. 180). This, in effect, is the currently fashionable approach of formulation, often claimed as deriving from the cognitive-behavioral tradition (Bruch, 1998), with no apparent awareness that formulation was the term that Kelly used to describe his approach in 1955. Although it can be refined somewhat (Winter, 2003a, 2009; Winter & Procter, 2013), it still provides a necessarily radical alternative to the cramming of ever larger numbers of the population into the nosological categories ingeniously developed by the authors of successive editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and other such systems.

The work of personal construct psychologists in the clinical field has included the elucidation of processes of construing in a range of client groups, throughout the life cycle, and the development and evaluation of treatment methods (Winter, 1992a; Winter & Viney, 2005). The latter range from approaches that focus on particular aspects of the client's construing, such as dilemmas (Feixas & Saul, 2005), to those, such as Leitner's (1988) "experiential personal construct psychotherapy," that are more concerned with the therapeutic relationship. There is also now a growing evidence base for personal construct psychotherapy, which has generally been found to be as effective as alternative, including cognitive-behavioral, approaches (Holland et al., 2007; Metcalfe, Winter, & Viney, 2007; Viney, Metcalfe, & Winter, 2005; Winter, 2003b).

Educational Applications

George Kelly himself ran a traveling psychological service to schools, and later personal construct psychologists have considered the development of children's construing (e.g., Mancuso, 2003; Salmon, 1970) and extended the application of personal construct psychology in educational settings. This work has included the development of novel techniques tailored for the exploration of children's views of the world (Ravenette, 1997). Of particular importance has been a stance that when children are presented as problems, this is often because they invalidate the construing of adults, whose response to this, including reaching for diagnostic labels, may be less than useful (Mancuso, Yelich, & Sarbin, 2002; Ravenette, 1997). It follows that problem resolution is likely to necessitate reconstruing by adults as much as by the "problem child."

Other applications of personal construct psychology in the educational setting have focused on the learning process, including increasing both students' and teachers' awareness of their own processes (Pope & Denicolo, 2001; Thomas & Harri-Augstein, 1985), and facilitating learning that is lifelong (Kompf, in press). One area of concern has been the development of a pedagogical relationship that is inviting and fosters creativity (Novak, 1990).

Organizational Applications

A further major area of application of personal construct psychology has been consultancy in the organizational or business setting. Some of this work has simply involved assisting individuals in organizations by such means as vocational guidance, counseling, and coaching (Brophy, Fransella, & Reed, 2003; Fransella, Jones, & Watson, 1988; Savickas, 1997). The other focus is on aspects of the organization itself, such as market research (i.e., others' construing of the organization), employee selection, team building, decision making, and conflict resolution (Brophy et al, 2003; Coopman, 1997; Jankowicz, 1990). It has included the use of methods to explore an organization's "corporate construing," which may then be compared with the construing of its major stakeholders (Balnaves & Caputi, 2000).

Social Applications

Although Kelly's theory has sometimes been criticized for over-emphasizing the individuality of construing, it has been counter-argued that it is a social psychology, as evidenced in its consideration of commonality, sociality, dependency, and people being "validating agents" for others' construing (Walker, 1996; Walker & Winter, 2007). In his later work, Kelly (1962) extended these concerns by focusing upon the "cultural matrix" of construing, and there have been numerous further elaborations and applications of personal construct psychology in relation to social and cultural issues (Kalekin-Fishman & Walker, 1996; Stringer & Bannister, 1979). Initial research on a personal construct model of friendship formation (Duck, 1979), which produced consistent findings, was followed by work on the development and deterioration of personal relationships (Neimeyer & Hudson, 1985; Neimeyer & Neimeyer, 1985). However, perhaps the development of greatest significance was Procter's (1981) family construct psychology, in which families were viewed as having construct systems with similar properties to personal construct systems. This has now been extended to a "relational construct psychology" (Procter, 2014).

Other Applications

The very extensive range of convenience of personal construct psychology (those areas to which it is applicable) is indicated by the diversity of the fields to which it has been applied since the publication of Kelly's magnum opus (Fransella, 2003a; Winter & Reed, in press). To name but a few, these include the arts (Scheer & Sewell, 2006), politics (Scheer, 2008), anthropology (Orley, 1976), religion (Todd, 1988), forensic psychology (Horley, 2003), restorative justice (Tschudi, 2008), sport (Savage, 2003), accounting (Purdy, 2000), and environmental issues (Reed & Page, in press).


Reflexive Evaluation

Kelly's (1955) ten "design specifications" for a psychological theory provide a means of evaluating personal construct psychology reflexively, in its own terms. The first of these, that it should have an appropriate focus and range of convenience, can be considered, as indicated above, to be well met in view of its demonstrated utility in the clinical setting (its focus of convenience) and its extraordinarily broad range of other applications (its range of convenience). These latter applications also demonstrate the fertility of the theory, another of Kelly's design specifications, as do the various new approaches, techniques, and research programs developed from it. As we have seen, the theory has also fulfilled two further specifications in that it has produced testable hypotheses, the testing and general confirmation of which have shown it to be valid (Adams-Webber, 2003). The theory's generality is also demonstrated by its applicability well beyond the setting and historical context in which it was developed, and is enabled by the abstract way in which the theory is presented. The theory's concepts have been shown to be amenable to operational definition, particularly in terms of measures derived from personal construct assessment procedures such as the repertory grid (Fransella, Bell, & Bannister, 2004). It has avoided the problems associated with the assumptions of mental energy, which had no place in Kelly's theory, without any consequent diminution of its explanatory power. It has also been able to account for the choices that people make, there being some empirical support for its view of choice, which has even provided some understanding of choices that are apparently destructive to the self or others (Fransella, 1972; Neimeyer & Winter, 2006; Winter, 2006). It also goes without saying that the theory recognizes individuality.

Paradoxically, the only one of Kelly's design specifications that his theory fails to meet is that it should be modifiable and ultimately expendable. Although there have been numerous modifications and developments in approaches derived from it, the theory itself remains largely unmodified, perhaps being a victim of its own success in meeting Kelly's other specifications. Nevertheless, its integration with other models has been proposed--although, as we shall see, this remains a subject of debate.

Sociohistorical Analysis

Personal construct theory can therefore be considered to have met the "test of time" in its own terms, but what is its status from a more external perspective? Neimeyer's (1985) sociohistorical analysis indicated that personal construct theorists met Mullins' (1973) criteria for a cohesive scientific group, namely "a theoretical break from its parent discipline," "the emergence of a social organizational leader," "the establishment of research and training centers," and "the publication of intellectual materials" (Neimeyer, 1985, pp. 94-5). Neimeyer also charted the theory's development through the stages delineated by Mullins, namely a "normal stage" of piecing the theory together up to 1955; a "network stage" up to 1966, in which personal construct psychologists discussed their work amongst themselves; a "cluster stage" up to 1972, in which groups were formed around leaders at different research centers; and a "specialty stage," from then onwards, in which the primary concern has been the institutionalization of the group's work. This development proceeded at different rates in different countries, and, for example at a faster pace in the United Kingdom than in personal construct theory's country of origin. There have been separate analyses of the theory's development in particular continents or countries (e.g., Feixas, 1989; Viney, 2006; Winter, 1992b). Neimeyer (1985) went on to consider four problems facing the theory, namely its intellectual isolationism, extending occasionally to disdain for theorists of other persuasions; the crisis of methodology associated with an overreliance on repertory grid technique; the theory's relationship to the cognitive therapies; and differing views concerning the formation of an international organization. We shall return to some of these issues when considering current choices facing personal construct theorists and anticipations of the future.

Neimeyer's own explorations of the future of personal construct psychology involved conducting a Delphi poll, in which 130 members of the "Clearing House for Personal Construct Theory" (which regularly circulated reference lists on the theory) were asked to respond to questions concerning predictions about developments in the theory, methods, research, psychotherapy, and the social organization of the theory group (Neimeyer, Davis, & Rist, 1986). The questions were then repeated, but with respondents knowing the identities and aggregate views of their fellow panelists. In terms of theory, panelists predicted refinement of models of construct interrelationships, incorporation of cognitive psychology concepts, and a more social emphasis to the theory, but little revision of the basic theory itself. In regard to methods, refinement and extension of repertory grid technique was predicted, including use of interactive software for eliciting data. The development of non-grid, and particularly qualitative, methods was also predicted. Increases in research were anticipated in various areas, including models of particular disorders and psychotherapy, particularly in relation to the therapeutic process, with the use of rigorous research designs but also a focus on idiographic research. Further research output in the areas of social, educational, vocational, and developmental psychology were also considered likely. Developments in personal construct family, couple, group, and child psychotherapy were considered particularly likely, but, although it was expected that the therapy would become more technically eclectic, there was little anticipation of integration with other approaches. Panelists also tended to predict the establishment of formal personal construct organizations and a journal, as well as an increase in adherents, the impact of the theory, and training programs. Just as in Neimeyer's sociohistorical analysis, national differences between personal construct psychologists were very apparent, but in general most of the panelists' predictions (although not, for example, the incorporation of cognitive psychology concepts, and not a substantial increase in the theory's adherents) have been confirmed in subsequent years.

Neimeyer, Baker, and Neimeyer (1990) subsequently updated Neimeyer's (1985) analysis, concluding that "construct theory's rate of development has been dramatic" on the basis of such findings that "the number of personal construct publications has more than doubled in the last eight years" (p. 12). Although they still accounted for the majority of these publications, the percentage of repertory grid-based publications had dropped, with a corresponding increase in publications relating to theoretical and therapeutic issues, as well as other areas of application. The situation described by Neimeyer et al. (1990) was one of exponential growth, and "an international base of support enjoyed by few psychological theories" (p. 17). A later review, conducted at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kelly's magnum opus, saw little reason to change this assessment of the status of personal construct psychology (Walker & Winter, 2007).


Subsuming or Being Subsumed

The intellectual isolationism and insularity of personal construct theory noted by Neimeyer (1985) was regarded by him as an adaptive stage in the theory group's early development. However, he and others have argued that in order for personal construct psychology to survive and maintain its vitality, this stage should be followed by more openness to integration with other approaches. For example, while personal construct psychotherapy was always technically eclectic (Lazarus, 1967) in borrowing techniques from other theoretical persuasions but conceptualizing their mode of action in personal construct theory terms, Neimeyer (1988, p. 290) encouraged it to move on to a "Theoretically Progressive Integrationism," including an integrative dialectic with other theories that share a comparable metatheory. Such integrative directions in the therapeutic sphere could extend to treatment services with an overall constructive alternativist philosophy and view of the healing process (Harter, 1988) while employing therapists from a range of different traditions (Winter, 1985, 1990).

Attempts to classify personal construct theory, and align or integrate it with other approaches, have resulted in numerous different labels being applied to it over the years, for example in personality textbooks. While, from the perspective of constructive alternativism, this is only to be expected, Kelly (1969a) himself found some of the labels (e.g., "cognitive") puzzling, and others (e.g., that he was a "learning theorist") so "patently ridiculous" as to provide him with "no end of amusement" (p. 216). In the view of Bannister and Fransella (1986), such labels are no more than an attempt to put a revolutionary "in his place." Since the theory is still very commonly presented as cognitive, we shall consider the arguments concerning its integration with cognitive approaches, particularly in the therapeutic sphere, before going on to discuss its positioning within the constructivist movement.

Personal Construct Psychology and Cognitive Approaches

Despite Kelly's own position on this matter, based on his holistic view of the person, typical descriptions of him are that he was "perhaps the first cognitive-behavioral theorist" (Ivey, Ivey, & Simek-Downing, 1987, p. 302) and "the first truly cognitive personologist" (Wiggins & Pincus, 1992, p. 496). Interestingly, there is some evidence that authors who classify personal construct theory as cognitive tend to show the most misinterpretations of Kelly's ideas (Walker, 1991).

A particular area of debate, as noted in Neimeyer's (1985) sociohistorical analysis, has been the relationship of personal construct psychotherapy to the cognitive therapies. Whereas leading cognitive therapists acknowledged debts to Kelly (Beck et al, 1979; Ellis, 1977), and some personal construct theorists were also able to see compatibilities between the two approaches (Neimeyer, 1985), others (particularly those whose sympathies were more with humanistic psychology) eschewed any such linkages, largely on the basis of differences at a metatheoretical level. For example, Leitner regarded cognitive approaches as "essentially behavioristic positions in sheep's clothing" and "in a sense very antithetical to construct theory when you look at the image of man implicit in them" (Neimeyer, 1985, p. 125). Mancuso made his position even clearer: "These people who call themselves cognitive psychotherapists are full of hogwash. There is nothing cognitive about their work. They're very mechanistic" (Neimeyer, 1985, p. 125).

More recently, there has been empirical investigation of differences between personal construct and cognitive approaches to therapy. Viney (1994) demonstrated more acknowledgement of the client's negative emotions in the former approach than in rational-emotive therapy, but her study only examined sessions of one therapist for each form of therapy. Winter and Watson (1999) found that transcripts of personal construct psychotherapy and rationalist cognitive therapy could be blindly identified with considerable accuracy by a leading personal construct psychotherapist and a leading rationalist cognitive therapist. The two types of therapy were also differentiated on a range of therapy process measures, tapping therapist and client behavior in sessions, client perceptual processing, and therapist facilitative conditions. This study therefore indicated that personal construct and cognitive therapies are different not just in theory but also in practice. Arguably, though, there may be greater similarities between personal construct psychotherapy and some of the more contemporary, "third wave" (Hayes, 2004) cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approaches.

However, it was when behavior therapy was in the throes of its "second wave," namely the "cognitive revolution," that personal construct psychologists perhaps missed a major opportunity. During this period, addressing the first gathering of personal construct psychologists to be labeled an international congress, Fay Fransella, referring to the cognitive revolution, asserted that "If behaviour therapy is up for grabs--we must be in there doing the grabbing!" (Fransella, 1978, p. 6), and that "We must not allow" personal construct psychology "to be incorporated within existing psychological frameworks--if we had to we must do the incorporating" (p. 6). That her ambitions did not cease with grabbing behavior therapy was indicated when she went on to say that " We are making a take-over bid for the discipline of psychology" (p. 6, italics in original). The mixed reaction to her address brought into sharp focus differences within the personal construct movement concerning its direction, and, in particular, the stance towards integration with other approaches. For many of the audience, Fransella's position was regarded as too aggressive, and one leading personal construct theorist went so far as to want to stop speaking to her for years as a result (Fransella, 1996). There was also the formation of a "subsuming group," which, albeit not with the greatest seriousness, met regularly to consider what other approaches personal construct psychology might be able to subsume. Twenty-two years later, Fransella returned to a similar theme at an international congress on personal construct psychology when invited to speculate on the future: "Why integrate, to some common approach, that will swamp one of the most powerful and useful psychological theories that has ever been created?" (Fransella, 2000a, p. 444). She also expressed similar anticipations to those at the 1977 congress: "Perhaps it will become THE mainstream psychology taught and practiced around the world?" (p. 447).

Fransella's underlying message in 1977 and thereafter, namely that personal construct psychology was faced with a choice between subsuming other approaches or being subsumed, has proved prophetic. In subsequent years it has not been personal construct psychology but the cognitive-behavioral approach that has been "doing the grabbing," not even Buddhism or existentialism being safe from its rapacious clutches. As Aaron Beck is reported to have said, "if it works, it's CBT," and it is instructive to note that even in reviews of psychotherapy research that acknowledge that there is an evidence base for personal construct psychotherapy, this evidence is included under a general heading of cognitive-behavioral therapies (Carr, 2009; Cooper, 2009). In health services that are increasingly dominated by short-term cognitive behavioral therapies, with little opportunity to practice alternative approaches, personal construct psychotherapists are therefore increasingly confronted with the dilemma of either facing marginalization and possible extinction or "selling their souls" and jumping on the bandwagon by accepting the cognitive-behavioral label (Winter, 2008, 2010).

Personal Construct Psychology and Constructivism

At first glance, the alignment of personal construct psychology with the constructivist movement would seem much less problematic than that with cognitive approaches (although a report of Kelly using the term constructivist to describe his approach [Priest & Nishimura, 2008] appears to be a complete misquote). Thus, one might think that there is little doubt that personal construct theory is one of "a family of theories that share the assertion that human knowledge and experience entail the (pro)active participation of the individual" (Mahoney, 1988, p. 27), and is therefore constructivist rather than realist. However, although Kelly was regarded as a "critical constructivist" by Mahoney because he acknowledged the existence of a real world, with which constructions differ in their goodness of fit, for others this implies that he was a "limited realist" (Stevens, 1998). Finer tuned analyses of constructivism than that of Mahoney have generally positioned personal construct psychology with epistemological constructivism, again because of its emphasis on constructions of an external reality (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1996; Raskin, 2002), although claims have also been made for it being regarded as a hermeneutic constructivism (Warren, 1998), emphasizing subject/object interdependence. Furthermore, while personal construct psychology has been generally contrasted with social constructionism because of its emphasis on personal knowing, these approaches have also been considered "two sides of the same coin" (Paris & Epting, 2004).

For our present purposes, the question of what type of constructivism best characterizes personal construct psychology is of less interest than how the future of personal construct psychology may be affected by its relationship with constructivism. To consider this question, we shall return to Fransella and her concerns about personal construct psychology being subsumed. Her views on this matter appeared to change over the space of a page in her book on George Kelly, where she wrote that "I see no problem at all in personal construct theory being subsumed under the label constructivist" (Fransella, 1995, p. 130, italics in original), but then that if "personal construct theory is allowed to be subsumed under the umbrella of constructivism as if it were nothing but constructivist, Kelly's philosophy may well survive, but his theory will sink without trace" (p. 131, italics in original). Subsequently, she seemed to acknowledge that this latter anticipation was probably unfounded, writing that

I thought the constructivist movement might result in Kelly's psychological theory being lost sight of. But I now think that unlikely.... It is now clear to me that the constructivist movement and interest in qualitative methods have paved the way for a much wider acceptance of personal construct theory and repertory grid method, and I see no reason why they will not continue to be accepted and used. (Fransella, 2001, p. 379)

Nevertheless, she later asserted that "it is certainly an issue that is not going away" (Fransella, 2007, p. 44).

Fransella's views on this matter appear to be based upon her construal of personal construct psychology as a theory and associated methodology, and of constructivism as a philosophy that can lead to atheoretical eclecticism--albeit a construal that has been challenged by Raskin (2004). This is not dissimilar to earlier debates concerning the relationship between personal construct and humanistic psychologies. While these approaches share various basic assumptions about human nature (Bugental, 1964; Epting, 1984), their differences are exemplified by Kelly's (1969, p. 135) statement that "humanistic psychology needs a technology through which to express its humane intentions" and by his criticism of the eschewal of diagnostic constructs by person-centered therapists. Carl Rogers in turn viewed Kelly's approach as too intellectual, but Epting (1984, p. 187) regards it as having "both a heart and a head." In Rychlak's (1977) terms, it can be viewed as a "rigorous humanism," and similarly it can perhaps also be construed as a "rigorous constructivism." This does not imply that it is the only constructivist approach that merits this label, although in my view none, including the examples provided by Raskin (2004) in countering Fransella's views, share the degree of rigor in both theory and methodology that characterizes personal construct psychology.

At an organizational level, Fransella's concern that personal construct psychology might "sink without trace" in a sea of constructivism has perhaps received some validation by developments initiated by North American personal construct psychologists. For example, the International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology metamorphosed into the Journal of Constructivist Psychology, while the North American Personal Construct Network became the Constructivist Psychology Network. By contrast, in Europe and Australia, there are still associations devoted purely to personal construct psychology (albeit in some European countries together with some associations and training courses with a more broadly constructivist base), together with a journal and newsletters edited by personal construct psychologists from these continents. Given Neimeyer's (1985) analysis of the development of personal construct psychology, such international differences need not surprise us.

Fransella's views regarding personal construct theory and constructivism were interpreted by Raskin (2004) as reflecting the threat and anxiety experienced by the personal construct psychology community in the face of change. In his view,
   If we turn hostile in response to our threat and anxiety by
   insisting that PCP is the only bet for successfully transporting
   meaning making from our fragile suburban neighborhood into the
   larger metropolis of psychology, then I am afraid we risk our
   standing in city and suburb alike.... it won't be long before the
   bank forecloses on our house and we wind up homeless and
   irrelevant, wandering aimlessly around what will by then have
   evolved into a PCP-less constructivist neighborhood. (p. 330)

Raskin's alternative solution to the threat and anxiety posed by the impact of constructivism is for the personal construct community to increase the permeability of their constructs so as to embrace constructivism.

While threat and anxiety would be understandable responses to awareness of the possibility of imminent and fundamental changes to personal construct psychology when that psychology has been, as for Fransella, one's way of life (Winter, 2013), she did not accept this interpretation of her views about constructivism. Nor was there any real evidence of impermeability in her use of the theory's professional constructs, which extended to subjects as varied as mathematics, cancer, and the construing of plants (Fransella, 2000b, 20003b). The concerns that she and some other personal construct theorists have expressed were less about the evolution of the theory (which, as we have seen, should be welcomed as it is one of Kelly's design specifications for a psychological theory) than about it being seen as just one amongst many approaches to the study of meaning, the precise and elaborate details of which can be ignored, diluted, or misunderstood. The extent and nature of these latter misunderstandings, which we shall now consider, perhaps indicate the importance of the role that Fransella and others have taken as "guardians" of personal construct theory and the purity of its concepts.

Individuality, Commonality, and Sociality

In view of personal construct theory's emphasis on the individuality of construing, it is perhaps not surprising that many personal construct psychologists highlight the individuality of their approach and de-emphasize its commonality with other approaches. The importance of stressing the distinctiveness of personal construct concepts is indicated by the frequent misunderstanding of these concepts in psychology textbooks (Walker, 1991), as also occasionally in the personal construct literature. For example, Kelly's (1955) diagnostic construct of hostility, which he defined as "the continued effort to extort validational evidence in favor of a type of social prediction which has already proved itself a failure" (p. 510, italics in original), is often presented simply--including seemingly to some extent in the passage quoted from Raskin (2004) above--as continuing to assert one's failed predictions and ignoring evidence that disconfirms these. Such descriptions effectively view Kellian hostility as no more than a cognitive process of selective attention, and fail to acknowledge that it involves actively manipulating social events to generate evidence in support of predictions that are being challenged. A further example is provided by accounts of fixed-role therapy that indicate that the authors have failed to grasp key, theory-based aspects of this technique (Adams-Webber, 1981), which involves the client being asked to experiment with playing a new role for a short period of time. Kelly carefully incorporated into the fixed-role therapy procedure features that were designed to minimize the threat and guilt (in Kelly's sense of the client feeling dislodged from his or her core role) experienced by the client. For example, the sketch of the new character whose role the client is asked to play should demonstrate acceptance of the client, and experimentation with dimensions orthogonal to the client's major construct dimensions rather than simply "slot rattling" the client to the opposite poles of these dimensions (Bonarius, 1970). It is also made clear in introducing the procedure that the client's old self is not being sent into permanent exile but is merely going on a two-week vacation, on the return from which "we will ... see what we can do to help him" (Kelly, 1955, p. 385). These aspects of fixed-role therapy are mostly conspicuous by their absence in descriptions of its use by cognitive-behavioral therapists, which generally involve the client being required to role play being a person who is the complete opposite of someone with their particular symptoms: for example, inorgasmic women being asked to role play having orgasms (Lobitz & LoPiccolo, 1972), and clients who are viewed (by rational-emotive therapists) as irrational being asked to role play being rational (Dryden, 1987)!

It is therefore entirely appropriate for personal construct psychologists to disavow commonalities with other approaches when these are claimed on the basis of less than accurate understanding of the concepts and techniques concerned. However, it also behooves personal construct psychologists to acknowledge commonalities at a superordinate level with certain approaches, including but not limited to several that fall under the constructivist umbrella. As the personal construct literature on friendship formation (e.g., Duck, 1973) indicates, a lack of perceived commonality may leave the personal construct community alone and friendless, as described in the previously mentioned scenario presented by Raskin (2004).

Another central feature of the personal construct view of relationships is sociality, the construing of the other person's construction processes, essentially in an attempt to see the world through that person's eyes. In addition, Kelly (1955) emphasized the importance of taking a "credulous attitude," involving an acceptance of (although not necessarily agreement with) the other person's view of the world, but strangely this is sometimes less than evident in the views expressed by personal construct psychologists, including Kelly himself, about the work of theorists of other persuasions. As Neimeyer (1985) has indicated, this may have been necessary in the early stages of the development of personal construct theory to emphasize its distinctiveness, but it is now only likely to lead to further intellectual isolationism.

Showing sociality and being credulous should enable one to speak the language of the other person, but a problem arises when that language is based on assumptions that are at variance with one's own. This is a particular issue for personal construct theory since Kelly (1955) considered that "a different approach calls for a different lexicon" and "many old terms are unhitched from their familiar meanings" (p. xi). A common complaint of newcomers to personal construct writings is that they are couched in rather obscure terms--impermeability, constriction, suspension, and so forth, not to mention such tongue-twisters as the circumspection-preemption-control cycle--with little attempt to use more familiar psychological language. Furthermore, even when the reader derives some comfort from finding an everyday term like guilt, this soon disappears when it is discovered that this term has an entirely different meaning from that to which he or she is accustomed. Arguably, the need to learn a new language also arises when studying many other psychological theories (including other constructivist approaches, with their use of such terms as autopoeisis and structural coupling), but is perhaps less so with those, such as psychoanalysis, whose terms have entered common parlance.

Dilemmas faced by personal construct psychologists in the use of language are particularly evident in the clinical sphere. For example, although, as we have seen, conventional psychiatric diagnostic terms were eschewed by personal construct theory, paradoxically the theory became widely known in the 1960s because of a diagnostic grid test of schizophrenic thought disorder (Bannister & Fransella, 1967) and the research that this generated. Although Fransella (2001, p. 375) subsequently wrote that she was "not proud of having used the repertory grid in that nomothetic way," the test and associated research served an important purpose in demonstrating that people diagnosed as thought disordered schizophrenic were characterized by the same processes of construing as anyone else, albeit using one of these--loose construing--to a greater degree. This also resulted in greater receptiveness to, and a burgeoning of research on, personal construct perspectives on other psychological disorders. While some reports of clinical applications of personal construct theory (e.g., Button, 1985) have been structured in terms of psychiatric diagnostic categories in order better to communicate with clinicians who used this language, others have been structured in personal construct terms, reserving psychiatric categories for the index (e.g., Winter, 1992a).

Such issues are of particular relevance to the future of personal construct psychology because of the increasing requirement from funders of health services (but not limited to this domain) that interventions should be "evidence-based" or "empirically supported." This demand was initially resisted by some personal construct psychotherapists, who, together with leading humanistic therapists, regarded it as an "empirical violation" of their approach (Bohart, O'Hara, & Leitner, 1998). However, it was clear that such a stance would only be likely to lead to the extinction of personal construct psychotherapy since, in the words of a policy document from the English National Health Service, "it is unacceptable ... to continue to provide therapies which decline to subject themselves to research evaluation" (Parry & Richardson, 1996, p. 43). Therefore, as we have seen, other personal construct psychotherapists have now produced not inconsiderable evidence of the effectiveness of personal construct psychotherapy. However, this evidence still fails to appear in most guidelines for health service providers and commissioners (such as those published in the U.K. by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), largely because most of the research concerned was conducted on heterogeneous client groups, not diagnosed in terms of traditional psychiatric categories.

A further reason for much of this research being discounted has been its tendency to use less conventional designs and outcome measures. Thus, there has been an unfortunate tendency by some personal construct psychologists not only to regard "natural science methodology" (Bohart et al., 1998)--such as the albeit flawed gold standard of the randomized controlled trial--as anathema, but to view qualitative research as the only approach compatible with the basic assumptions of their theory. This is despite the ability of methods such as the repertory grid to quantify, as well as allow qualitative examination of, highly personal processes of meaning-making. A similar resistance to the use of symptom-focused outcome measures, in addition to those viewed as more compatible with personal construct theory, displays a singular lack of sociality with clients as well as commissioners of health services. After all, these individuals, in selecting which of the over 500 available types of psychological therapy are likely to be helpful, are generally most concerned with whether a particular therapy will reduce the symptoms of their psychological distress, whatever else it might also have to offer. To quote Kelly (1955, p. 831, italics in original), "We may say, simply, that the goal of psychotherapy is to alleviate complaints." As Roth and Fonagy (2005) remark concerning these issues and the consequent lack of coverage of personal construct psychotherapy in their influential review of psychotherapy research commissioned by the English Department of Health:
   This compounds the fact of a small evidence base with the problem
   that what is available is philosophically at variance with a
   conventional review such as this one. This latter point could be
   used to argue that the absence of reports of evidence for PCT in
   this book reflects our selection bias rather than a real absence of
   evidence, (p. 492)


So what does the future hold for personal construct psychology? In my own university environment, it is not difficult to convince myself (perhaps with the aid of a little Kellian hostility, manufacturing some of the evidence) that this future is bright. The university houses the Centre for Personal Construct Psychology, founded by Fay Fransella and now directed by Nick Reed, as well as the archives of Fransella and another leading personal construct psychologist, Miller Mair. Its Doctorate in Clinical Psychology is highly influenced by personal construct psychology, its undergraduate psychology course has a personal construct psychology module, and an MSc in Personal Construct Psychology has been validated, as has a top-up Doctorate in Psychotherapy which will allow personal construct psychotherapists to carry out major research projects in this area. It is also looking forward to hosting the International Congress in Personal Construct Psychology in 2015. A new handbook of personal construct psychology has been commissioned (Winter & Reed, in press), and there are plans for publication of collected works of various personal construct psychologists (e.g., Winter & Reed, 2015), including Kelly himself.

Although there are some other pockets of personal construct psychology activity in academic institutions worldwide, these are few and far between. Nevertheless, the breadth of application of personal construct psychology and its methodology, as in the various examples presented above, is hardly indicative of an approach that is in terminal decline. In summary, to ensure that their approach continues to flourish, I would suggest that personal construct psychologists take heed of the following.

1. Show Aggressiveness

Kelly (1955) viewed aggressiveness as the active elaboration of one's perceptual field. It is displayed by personal construct psychologists in extending their applications of Kelly's theory and methods to an ever broader range of domains (Walker & Winter, 2007). In my own work, when faced with problems in relatively uncharted territory that has seemed to defy any understanding or possibility of constructive intervention, I have invariably turned to personal construct psychology and have not found it wanting. Such problems have included serial killing (Winter, 2007; Winter et al., 2007), mass murder (Winter & Tschudi, in press), and the aftermath of a brutal African civil war, many of the psychological casualties of which were kept in chains (Goins et al., 2012; Winter et al., 2011; Winter & Wood, 2013).

2. Be Open to Dilation, but Resist Dilution, of Personal Construct Theory

Broadening of the perceptual field may lead to its reorganization "on a more comprehensive level," as Kelly (1955, p. 476) described in his notion of "dilation." For example, as Raskin (2004) remarks, if personal construct psychology shows the permeability to new approaches that he regards as necessary for its evolution and survival, "our constructions of PCP will change" (p. 332). While thoughtful evolution of personal construct psychology is to be welcomed, as we have seen, Kelly's intricate theory has often been misrepresented when attempts have been made to subsume it within other approaches. If the precision and distinctiveness of personal construct concepts are not upheld in the face of such careless misunderstanding, the theory is indeed in danger, as Fransella (1995) feared, of sinking without trace. Its dilution should not be equated with, and indeed is in marked contrast to, its evolution. Correction of misrepresentations of core features of the theory therefore goes beyond mere fruitless quibbling about what Kelly "really meant" (Raskin, 2006).

3. Celebrate Personal Construct Psychology's Individuality and Distinctiveness

While the complexity of its language and its over-reliance on repertory grid technique in research have been viewed as barriers to the development of personal construct psychology (eg., Neimeyer, 1985), these unique features of personal construct theory should, in my view, be celebrated rather than relinquished. Lessons may be learnt from the plight of clinical psychology, at least in the U.K., in which a once flourishing National Health Service profession is now faced with significant reductions in posts, at least at senior levels, and their replacement in many cases by less highly paid therapists. Arguably, one reason for this has been that, in embracing psychological therapies, clinical psychologists have ignored and deemphasized other, particularly more quantitative and psychometric, areas in which they could claim to be uniquely qualified. Similarly, if personal construct psychology regards features such as repertory grid technique as dispensable quantitative encumbrances rather than innovative and unique jewels in its crown that still have great potential to attract newcomers to the approach, it is likely to consign itself to being just another, not particularly remarkable, psychology of human meaning-making.

4. Acknowledge Commonalities at a Superordinate Level with Other Approaches

Where commonalities exist with other approaches, these need pose no threat to personal construct psychology, but should instead be welcomed as offering fertile possibilities for collaboration rather than continuing to engage in sterile arguments, for example concerning which, if any, branch of constructivism best characterizes Kelly's theory. Although personal construct psychologists, seeing themselves as radical outsiders, have often seemed to take Groucho Marx's (1959) view that they would not want to belong to any club that would accept people like them as members, they are likely to find that some clubs offer more congenial company and support than do others. Such solidarity is perhaps particularly necessary in a world in which pronouncements by politicians and policy makers tend to be couched in rationalist terms, far removed from constructive alternativism, as in the following quote from a British Secretary of State for Health, introducing a new initiative to expand (almost exclusively cognitive-behavioral) psychological therapy services: "Successful psychological therapies ensure that the right number of people are offered a choice of the right services at the right time with the right results" (Hewitt, 2007, p. 2, bold in original).

5. Display Sociality

To extend the influence of their approach, personal construct psychologists may occasionally need to display greater sociality, construing the construction processes of those whom they wish to influence and adapting their message accordingly. This may include, for example, presenting the "evidence base" for applications of the theory in a manner that is understandable by colleagues and policy-makers; publishing in journals read by a wider audience, and adapting the language accordingly; and greater attention to marketing of personal construct psychology and its applications. Although occasionally a degree of compromise and adaptation may be required, this need not extend to core aspects of construing. The alternative may be the equivalent of Kelly's (1961) notion of suicide as a "dedicated act," in which the individual chooses death rather than an anticipated relinquishing of cherished beliefs. In this case, while personal construct theory may be maintained in a pure, unsullied form, the result is likely to be professional suicide where applications of the theory, such as personal construct psychotherapy, being starved of support from funders and interest by potential clients.

In short, the prescription for a healthy future for personal construct psychology is no different from that for any individual, namely, without necessarily abandoning core constructs, to seek out experiences, experiment, and be open to reconstruction, all the while attempting to understand the construing of others. As Kelly (1977, p. 9) put it, "The cycle of human experience remains incomplete unless it terminates in fresh hopes never before envisioned. This, as I see it, is no less true for the puzzled scientist" (or personal construct psychologist) "than for the distraught person who seeks psychotherapeutic escape from the psychological redundancies that he has allowed to encompass him." If such an approach is taken, there is no reason why anticipations for personal construct psychology cannot be of fresh hopes rather than extinction.


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Author:Winter, David A.
Publication:Studies in Meaning
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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