George Kelly and His Personal Construct Theory

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George Kelly was a psychologist best known for his contributions to personal construct theory. This theory suggests that each person has their own mental framework from which they see the world. People develop their own constructs, or schemas, that they then use to interpret information and experiences.

Kelly is commonly referred to as the founder of cognitive clinical psychology. He played a role in the early development of the field of cognitive psychology

This article discusses George Kelly's life and theories. It also explores the impact that his work had on psychology.

Early Life

George Kelly was born near Perth, Kansas, in 1905. His parents, Theodore Vincent Kelly and Elfleda Merriam Kelly, were farmers. During much of his early life, Kelly's education was limited to teachings from his parents. He did not receive any formal education until 1918 when he attended school in Wichita, Kansas.

At the age of 16, he started attending Friends University and began taking college courses.

Kelly never graduated high school but went on to earn his bachelor's degree in 1926, majoring in mathematics and physics.

Kelly initially planned on a career in engineering but abandoned that idea in favor of studying educational sociology at the University of Kansas. Before completing his master's, however, he left to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He had to withdraw from school when he found himself unable to pay tuition. In 1927, he found a position teaching psychology at Sheldon Junior College in Iowa.

In 1931, Kelly completed a PhD in psychology from the University of Iowa.


Kelly began teaching at the Fort Hays Kansas State College in 1931.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Kelly started applying his knowledge towards something he found useful—evaluating school children and adults—and developing his landmark theory.

During this time, he also established a traveling clinic that offered psychological services to people throughout the state of Kansas, working to serve people who had been hard hit by the economic upheaval of the time.

Freudian Influences

As Kelly formed his theory, he studied the works of Austrian psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, for ideas and inspiration. While Kelly appreciated Freud's work, he felt there were some problems with the psychoanalyst's approach. In Freud's therapy, the therapist would provide the "correct interpretation" of the client's situation, which Freud believed was the key to change. 

Based on his observations, Kelly developed an idea that he referred to as constructive alternativism. Essentially, each individual has their own unique construction or perspective of reality. Each construction is different, and while some may be better than others, no one interpretation is complete or completely accurate. Kelly's idea suggested that everyone's viewpoint has value, particularly for their own unique situation, time, place, and moment. 

Personal Construct Theory

After World War II, Kelly became a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, where he worked for almost 20 years. It was here that he formally developed his personal construct theory. He published two texts, The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Volumes I and II, which summarized the majority of his theory.

Kelly's personal construct theory suggested that the differences between people result from the different ways that we predict and interpret events in the world around us.

Personal constructs, he suggested, were the ways that each person gathers information, evaluates it, and develops interpretations.

Much like a scientist forms a hypothesis, collects data, and analyzes the results, people also take in information and perform their own "experiments" to test ideas and interpretations of events. The results of our everyday investigations influence our personalities and our way of interacting with our environment and the people around us.

Examples of Personal Construct Theory

Personal constructs are bipolar, which means they are composed of two opposing sides. Constructs are unique to each person because they are developed as a result of each individual's differing experiences. Consider how different people approach the same experience in different ways.

Adventure vs. Risk

One person might view new experiences as exciting opportunities for adventure and a way to break free from boredom. Another person might view the same experience as a risky, frightening prospect that interrupts their peace. 

In this case, the first person has a construct for security vs. adventure, where they see security as boring and stagnant and adventure as desirable. The second person has a personal construct for security vs. risk, where they see security as desirable and safe and risk represents fear and insecurity.

Friendly vs. Unfriendly

Imagine that two friends are out for a walk in the park when a large dog runs toward them. One person might have a personal construct that suggests that dogs are friendly, lovable creatures that respond to affection and warmth. The other person, however, believes that dogs are intimidating and potentially dangerous.

Because of these two differing constructs, the first person responds by approaching the dog while the other shrinks back and tries to avoid the animal.

Kelly suggested that these constructs can change. While a construct might work at one point in a person's life, it might need to adapt or change as the situation changes.

Contributions to Psychology

Kelly played an important role in the development of clinical psychology, both through his position at Ohio State University and through his leadership roles with the American Psychological Association.

His work is part of the early start of the cognitive movement in psychology and he is often described as one of the first cognitive theorists. Others identify him as a humanist thinker since his theory emphasized elements of human potential and personal change, similar to that of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory.

Interestingly, Kelly disliked being thought of as a cognitive theorist. While his theory shared some elements similar to the work of other humanistic and cognitive theories, he felt that his personal construct theory was unrelated.

Kelly's perspective that people are essentially natural scientists played a role in the later development of cognitive-behavioral therapy.


George Kelly was an influential psychologist who played an important role in the development of cognitive psychology. Despite having little formal education during his youth, he went on to earn a doctorate degree in psychology. 

His work drew from Freudian influences but also incorporated aspects of both cognitive psychology and humanism. Kelly's personal construct theory suggested that people form their own unique ideas about how the world works, which they then use to interpret information and experiences.

5 Sources
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."