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Personal Construct Theory


Explanations > Theories > Personal Construct Theory

Description | Example | So What? | See also | References 



People develop internal models of reality, called constructs in order to understand and explain the world around them in the same way that scientists develop theories. Like scientists, they develop these constructs based on observation and experimentation. Constructs thus start as unstable conjecture, changing and stabilizing as more experience and proof is gained.

Constructs are often defined by words, but can also be non-verbal and hard to explain, such as the feeling you get when your football team just won the championship.

When constructs are challenged or incomplete the result is emotional states such as anxiety, confusion, anger and fear.

Constructs are often polar in that they have opposites (and are hence dichotomous). Thus the construct of good implies another of bad. Polar constructs create one another: thus 'good' cannot exist without 'bad'. When poles are denied, they are said to be submerged.

Although we share the idea of constructs through words, the detail of constructs are particular to the individual and hence are called personal constructs.

Constructs that are important to the person are core constructs, whilst others are called peripheral constructs.

Constructs may be expanded (dilated) to accommodate new ideas or constricted to become more specific.

Kelly's (1955) basic postulate is that 'A person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events'. He followed this with eleven corollaries.

  • The construction corollary: We conservatively construct anticipation based on past experiences.
  • The experience corollary: When things do not happen as expected, we change our constructs (thus reconstructing). This changes our future expectations.
  • The dichotomy corollary: We store experience as constructs, and then look at the world through them.
  • The organizational corollary: Constructs are connected to one another in hierarchies and network of relationships. These relationships may be loose or tight.
  • The range corollary: Constructs are useful only in limited range of situations. Some ranges are broad, whilst other ranges are narrow.
  • The modulation corollary: Some construct ranges can be 'modulated' to accommodate new ideas (e.g. 'big'). Others are 'impermeable'.
  •  The choice corollary: We can choose to gain new experiences to expand our constructs or stay in the safe but limiting zone of current constructs.
  • The individuality corollary: As everyone's experience is different, their constructs are different.
  • The commonality corollary: Many of our experiences are similar and/or shared, leading to similarity of constructs with others. Discussing constructs also helps to build shared constructs.
  • The fragmentation corollary: Many of our constructs conflict with one another. These may be dictated by different contexts and roles.
  • The sociality corollary: We interact with others through understanding of their constructs.


I look at a teenager and consider him uncouth, arrogant and thoughtless. All of these are constructs that I have created or learned in order to explain the behavior of teenagers I have met.

So what?

Using it

Listen to people. Hear the constructs they use. Then talk to them using their constructs. They will be amazed at how much you understand them.

You can also lead them in building new constructs.

To destabilize the other person, attack their constructs.


When you are building new ideas, consider where these have come from. Was there a conversation with an influential other person involved?

See also

Schema, Stereotypes, Denial



Kelly (1955)


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