Personal Construct Theory Overview

Serious, pensive mature woman below urban highrise

Hero Images / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Personal construct theory suggests that people develop personal constructs about how the world works. People then use these constructs to make sense of their observations and experiences.

The world we live in is the same for all of us, but the way we experience it is different for each individual. For example, imagine that you and your friend are going for a walk in the park and you spot a large brown dog. You immediately see a graceful and adorable animal that you would like to pet.

Your friend, on the other hand, sees a threatening animal that she wants to avoid. How can two people have such a different interpretation of the same event?

According to psychologist George Kelly, personality is composed of the various mental constructs through which each person views reality. Kelly believed that each person was much like a scientist. Just like scientists, we want to understand the world around us, make predictions about what will happen next, and create theories to explain events.

How Personal Construct Theory Works

Kelly believed that we start by first developing a set of personal constructs, which are essentially mental representations that we use to interpret events. These constructs are based on our experiences and observations.

During the early 1950s, the behavioral and psychoanalytic perspectives were still quite dominant in psychology. Kelly proposed his personal construct theory as an alternative view that departed from these two prominent points of view.

Rather than viewing human beings as passive subjects who were at the whims of the associations, reinforcements, and punishments they encountered in their environments (behaviorism) or their unconscious wishes and childhood experiences (psychoanalysis), Kelly believed that people take an active role in how they collect and interpret knowledge.

“Behavior is not the answer to the psychologist’s question; it is the question,” he suggested.

As we live our lives, we perform "experiments" that put our beliefs, perceptions, and interpretations to the test. If our experiments work, they strengthen our current beliefs. When they don't, we are able to change our views.

What makes these constructs so important? Because according to Kelly, we experience the world through the "lens" of our constructs. These constructs are used to predict and anticipate events, which in turn determines our behaviors, feelings, and thoughts.

Kelly also believed that all events that happen are open to multiple interpretations, which he referred to as constructive alternativism. When we are trying to make sense of an event or situation, he suggested that we are also able to pick and choose which construct we want to use. This sometimes happens as an event unfolds, but we can also reflect back on our experiences and then choose to view them in different ways.

How We Use Constructs

Kelly believed that the process of using constructs works in much the same way that a scientist utilizes a theory. First, we begin by hypothesizing that a particular construct will apply to a particular event.

We then test this hypothesis by applying the construct and predicting the outcome. If our prediction is correct, then we know that the construct is useful in this situation and we retain it for future use.

But what happens if our predictions don't come true? We might reconsider how and when we apply the construct, we might alter the construct, or we might decide to abandon the construct altogether.

Recurrences play an important role in personal construct theory. Constructs emerge because they reflect things that frequently recur in our experience. Kelly also believed that constructs tend to be organized in a hierarchical fashion. For example, more basic constructs might lie and the base of the hierarchy, while more complex and abstract constructs lie can be found at higher levels.

Kelly also believed that constructs are bipolar; essentially, each construct consists of a pair of two opposing sides. Some examples include "active versus passive," "stable versus changing," and "friendly versus unfriendly."

The side that a person applies to an event is known as the emergent pole. The side that is not being actively applied is the implicit pole.

It is essential to remember the emphasis on individuality in personal construct theory. Constructs are inherently personal because they are based on each person's life experiences. Each person's system of constructs is unique, and it is the individual nature of these experiences that form the differences between people.


"Might not the individual man, each in his own personal way, assume more of the stature of a scientist, ever seeking to predict and control the course of events with which he is involved? Would he not have his theories, test his hypotheses, and weigh his experimental evidence? And, if so, might not the differences between the personal viewpoints of different men correspond to the differences between the theoretical points of view of different scientists?" (Kelly, 1963)

"Kelly believed that people have a fundamental need to predict the events that they experience. They do so by developing a system of personal constructs, which they use to interpret or construe new events. Constructs are derived from recurring elements in one's experience, but because they're developed separately by each person, each person's system of constructs is unique." (Carver & Scheier, 2000)

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Carver CS, Scheier MF. Perspectives on Personality. Boston: Allyn & Bacon; 2000.

  • Kelly GA. A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 1963.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.