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This post does not contain psychological advice. If you are in need of psychological advice or services, see a local mental health provider or ask your primary care doctor for a referral. 

George Kelly was an American clinical psychologist in the middle of the 20th Century. Kelly developed one of the earliest cognitively-based, personality theories applicable to clinical and research settings.

Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory is a proposal that different individuals organize their perceptions of events, social relationships, objects, timelines, emotions in idiosyncratic ways. A personal construct system is the way that objects are clustered together or the set of dimensions along which objects are ranked by the individual. Mind maps are a good way to summarize the personal constructs of the individual.

Here is a series of six schema for grouping animals. There are, of course, many more ways to group these animals, and to explain what the groupings mean. Your way(s) of grouping these animals could be quite different.

Please click twice on the picture to see it at full size. A single graphic includes all six schema.


If you think that there are a lot of different ways to group a few animals, consider the different ways that people might group (perceive) their acquaintances, ethical dilemmas, marital roles, work stressors, and justifications and priorities for spending money. Kelly’s theory was one of determining the personal construct systems of individuals and then helping them assess whether such ways of thinking were associated with positive or negative consequences within the present culture.

The underlying model of Personal Construct Theory is that “Each Person is a Scientist” making observations, organizing them, and using these schema to make decisions or observations that then influence emotion, social interaction, happiness, and perceived quality of life. Kelly stresses that the flexible individual is always seeking to test, validate, enhance, and expand the personal construct systems.

While a clinician and a client can draw diagrams to explain how the client appears to group ideas, it is also possible to use empirical (statistical, data analytic) means to do so. Kelly himself proposed an old data analysis method (P-technique factor analysis); better alternatives using present day methodologies are multidimensional scaling, cluster analysis, correspondence analysis, or ordinal factor analysis. These latter statistical techniques will be the subject of future posts.

The bottom line here is that mind maps are a very good way to visually portray personal construct systems. More about theoretical and methodological refinements in forthcoming posts.



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  1. April 19, 2013

    This reminds me of Bowlby’s internal working models, do you think?

    • April 19, 2013

      Let me preface this by saying that I am not a clinical psychologist and do not conduct therapy. My interest in Kelly and others with therapy-based personality theories is how these theories fall within the larger body of psychological research literature. And my own fascination with Kelly comes because of his early emphasis on information processing and formal psychometric methods for mapping cognitive processes. That being said, I see Kelly’s work as being a rough model of a human information processing machine (he was writing his theory as computers were being developed) while the Bowlby work derives from a much more psychodynamic tradition with much of its emphasis upon social-cognitive-emotional development during early childhood. I think that these are actually distinctly different. The Kelly work was happening at about the same time as Simon’s monumental studies of cognitive schemata and learning and seems to me to be quite related; Kelly studied individual differences in information processing while the general principles were being developed by cognitive psychologists.

      • April 20, 2013

        We’ll agree to disagree then :). They may be different in their foundations, but the two psychologists assumed the same things. Kelly (1955) assumes that individuals develop personal constructs about the events in their lives in order to predict the future and to act effectively. Bowlby (1960’s) basically said the same thing, apart from the internal working models are derived from attachment bonds in childhood.

        • April 20, 2013

          I agree 90% but the sticking point for me is the etiology in early childhood. I consider this a show stopper. Nonetheless, lots of similarities. My favorite work on cognitive personality theories from the 1950s/60s is that of Gardner, Jackson, and Messick (cognitive styles).

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