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Kelly’s cognitive theory Analytical Essay

Human personality has been a complex issue for long and has inspired theorists to create ideas to enhance the understanding of the subject. The theorists have made several attempts to understand and explain how the personalities are developed, their variations, how they affect human interactions with the world and their relationships with different psychologically-related disorders.

George Kelly is one of the proponents of the cognitive theory which is the focus of this study. The center of Kelly’s cognitive theory is the manner in which individuals think because their thoughts affect their feelings and actions.The thoughts and feelings of individuals determine their personalities. Kelly identifies the major role in which the human cognition element plays in determining personality.

This aspect forms the foundation of the terminology of personal constructs which refers to the different ways in which individuals collect information and with the support of their understanding, use it to predict events (Kelly, 2006). The individual interacts with the world based on the outcome of his prediction and this interaction becomes his personality.

Kelly’s incisive evaluation on individuality is informed by the need to equate individuals to scientists. He postulates that the objectives of scientists can be linked to those of other beings. He suggests that in the same way that scientists build hypotheses and conduct experiments to establish their validity, people also develop theories based on their personal constructs and consequently employ various theories to predict events.

However, the constructs may at times be influenced by the individuals’ past experiences that may not be relevant to their present societal circumstances hence rendering the constructs invalid. The distorted constructs cannot be used to predict events because they cannot hold new data entry due to their unchangeable nature.

Given that constructs are limited in nature and cannot therefore be employed in all situations, individuals may at times be required to revise their constructs to accommodate data that is created by new experiences. The choice that an individual makes in order to change his construct is what Kelly calls “constructive alternativism”.

The premise of his theory is based on the fact that “a person’s processes are psychologically determined by the ways in which he anticipates events” (Van der Kolk, & Fisler, 2005). This proposition is known as the fundamental postulate, meaning that individuals’ actions determine their worldly expectations especially those which are founded on past experiences.

A child who has previously experienced abuse from his parent can neither expect nor become appreciative of affection from another guardian. Kelly also categorizes 11 corollaries under the postulate to expound the process of information interpretation which include expectation, experience and action.

The construction corollary

The individuals’ construction of anticipation is founded on their interpretation of replication meaning that their expectations are based on past happenings.

The experience corollary

Here, the construction system of an individual differs with his understanding of replication meaning that when events are not as anticipated, their constructs are altered or reconstructed.

The dichotomy corollary

The constructs are stored experiences which the individuals use to perceive the world and “guide” their actions. These constructs are usually unique to every individual hence the term, “personal constructs”.

The organization corollary

An interrelation exists between the constructs in regard to associational networks and chains of command in that the associations may be strong or weak.

The range corollary

The effectiveness of constructs is limited to several situations meaning that certain constructs can be extensive, whereas others can be narrow.

The modulation corollary

The range of certain constructs can be adjusted so as to hold new information but others cannot, meaning that certain ranges can be expanded and others cannot. The expansion of the range is known as dilation and the narrowing of the range is called constriction.

The choice corollary

The individual has the choice of acquiring new experiences in order to broaden his constructs or reject them and keep them as “safe” but minimized constructs.

The individuality corollary

Due to the fact that individuals’ experiences vary, their constructs also tend to be different.

The commonality corollary

Even though individuals are different, to some extent certain of their experiences are alike leading to similar constructs. This fact is necessitated by the concept that shows that their perception of the world may be similar.

The fragmentation corollary

The variation in situations and positions in which an individual can be destined to be in can bring out divergence in the constructs.

The sociality corollary

This cognitive scope determines how an individual interacts with another depending on their comprehension of their constructs. Kelly’s theory suggests that individuals do not need motivation since they are not inactive nor are they recipients. This fact is enhanced by the idea that individuals may be living and hence destined to move. The only time individuals stop moving is when they die (Target & Fonagy, 2001).

Construction transitions

Kelly’s constructs of transition refer to emotions and occur when an individual alters his construction systems after an experience which can in turn create anxiety, hostility and in certain cases, guilt. However, the construction systems also offer opportunities for reconstruction.

When individuals find themselves in circumstances that their constructs have not earlier foreseen or encountered, they experience anxiety because they realize that their constructs are ineffective. Guilt manifests itself when one does not keep to the constructs that he identifies with. In the event that one’s constructs are not in line with the world, one can attempt to modulate the reality to fit into one’s constructs.

This aspect is known as aggression which can turn into hostility when the individual is persistent in trying to change reality so that it can conform to their constructs instead of their altering the constructs. An individual is said to have a psychological disorder when he refuses to reconstruct.

Subsequently, he may not able to anticipate and accommodate new information. Kelly’s theory has had massive influence on later psychology and movement as it has been applied in disorders like schizophrenia, depression and addiction. The Kellian therapy functions by making individuals to either “relax” their constructs. The constructs are tested to determine their functionality and are used to verify their applicability and movement.

The mentioned steps can be accomplished by employing “role-play”. The psychotherapy is based on reconstruction, which is founded on encouraging the individuals to change their constructs. This aspect is what is referred to as movement. Kelly states that a theory has to be useful to be declared valid.

The fact that his theory has been applicable in psychotherapy and psychology worldwide leads one to determine that his theory is indeed valid. Kelly’s theory is supported by several peer reviewed articles. One of the articles is titled, Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect written by Troy Higgins. It states that the vulnerabilities of emotions are interrelated with different inconsistencies involving “self-state” representations.

It suggests that these inconsistencies are symbolic of the various harmful psychological circumstances related to various anxieties. The variations connecting the real self-concept and the model self-concept indicate that positive results may be inexistent. These inconsistencies and negative results can be related to emotions like hostility, threats and anxiety. The peer reviewed article thus supports Kelly’s constructs of transition.

In another article titled, Personal construct psychology and the cognitive revolution, the writers Brien Graines and Mildred Shaw relate learning and motivation to the psychology of personal constructs. They state that the process of learning conforms to the postulate formulated by Kelly in the sense that an individual needs to alter his constructs to accommodate new information.

In regard to motivation, Kelly includes this aspect within the choice corollary whereby the individual can choose to acquire new information in order to expand his construct (Schultz & Schultz, 2009).

The article by Dr. Christopher L. Heffra titled, Personality perspective on the other hand also validates Kelly’s theory by highlighting its usefulness. It does this by stating the relevance of the cognitive theory in treating psychological disorders like depression and other disorders associated with anxiety. The two “cognitivists” who stand out most in the theories’ application include Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis.

Their application is successful because they concur that by changing the way in which one thinks; actions and feelings can also be changed since the latter aspects are determined by thoughts or constructs and as a result, various negative personality features can be eliminated.

The application of the theory in treatment can be evidenced by Becks evaluation systems; Beck Depression and Anxiety Inventory (BDI and BAI) and Ellis’ ABC technique. Heffra cites the important role that studies have played in bringing out the importance of employing cognitive treatment over medication in dealing with depression as its effects last longer.

Although the theory received a great deal of support through the insights into individuals’ thought processes and perceptions as provided by studies, it did record some faults. Critics term the theory as “weak” because of the theoretical nature of constructs and the lack of consensus in the way the theory is described or applied.


Kelly, G. A. (2006). A Brief Introduction to Personal Construct Theory. In: Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory, Ed. Bannister. London, UK: Academic Press.

Schultz, D.P., & Schultz, S.E. (2009). Theories of personality, 9th ed. Belmont, USA: Wadsworth Publishers.

Target, M., & Fonagy, S. P. (2001). Playing with reality: The development of psychic reality from a theoretical perspective. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 77(3), 459–479.

Van der Kolk, B. A., & Fisler, R. (2005). Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and explanatory study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8(1), 505–525.

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