George Kelly and His Personal Construct Theory

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George Kelly was a famed psychologist best known for his contributions to personal construct theory. He is commonly referred to as the father of cognitive clinical psychology and he played a role in the early development of the field of cognitive psychology

Early Life

George Kelly was born near Perth, Kansas. His parents, Theodore Vincent Kelly and Elfleda Merriam Kelly were poor but hard-working 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 the Friends University academy 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 Ph.D. 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 called 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.

Most importantly, 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.

"It is not so much what man is that counts as it is what he ventures to make of himself," he wrote in his 1964 article, The Language of Hypothesis. "To make the leap he must do more than disclose himself; he must risk a certain amount of confusion. Then, as soon as he does catch a glimpse of a different kind of life, he needs to find some way of overcoming the paralyzing moment of threat, for this is the instant when he wonders who he really is—whether he is what he just was or is what he is about to be."

Selected Publications

  • Kelly, G. A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs: Vol 1 and 2. New York: WW Norton.
  • Kelly, G. A. (1963). A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. W.W. Norton and Company.
  • Maher, B., Ed. (1969). Clinical Psychology and Personality: The Selected Papers of George Kelly. New York, Wiley.

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.

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

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 shares some elements similar to the work of other humanistic and cognitive theories, he felt that his personal construct theory was unrelated.

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  1. Benjafield, J. George Kelly: Cognitive psychologist, humanistic psychologist, or something else entirely? History of Psychology. 2008;11(4):239-262. doi:10.1037/a0014108

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