George Kelly was an American psychologist whose work helped to shape modern mental health treatment. Through this lesson, you will explore a brief biography on Kelly and learn some of the specifics of his personal construct theory.
Who Was George Kelly?
If you’ve spent a lot of time studying psychology or therapeutic modalities, you probably know that psychotherapy has come a long way over the last fifty years or so. Late 19th and early 20th century approaches to psychotherapy often operated on deterministic beliefs that were generalizing and reductive.
By the mid-20th century, however, the paradigm made a large shift, thanks in part to the pioneering work of George Kelly.George Kelly was an American psychologist whose work throughout the mid-20th century has strongly influenced modern theorists and mental health treatment. Born in Kansas in 1905, Kelly spent much of his early life working on his family’s farm rather than attending school. When he turned sixteen years old, he enrolled at Friends University in Wichita where he studied science and math. Despite having never graduated from high school, Kelly graduated from Friends University in 1926 with a bachelor’s degree.Although he had a strong interest in science, Kelly made the decision to pursue a graduate degree in sociology at the University of Kansas, transferring shortly after to the University of Minnesota.
Struggling to pay his tuition, he dropped out school and took a job teaching psychology at a junior college in Iowa, eventually returning to school at the University of Iowa to complete his Ph.D. in Psychology, which he received in 1930.
Early Career and Theory
Having received his Ph.D., George Kelly returned to Kansas in 1931, during a time in which many Americans around the country were out of work and suffering due to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. As the child of poor Midwestern farmers, Kelly recognized the growing needs of those affected by the Depression and established a traveling clinic to serve the people of Kansas. It was during this time that he began to develop his theories about the role of personality in the context of mental health.During this era, the predominant theory in psychology was that people were driven by a number of innate and unconscious needs that could manifest in ways that would cause emotional upset (i.
e., neurosis). Although Kelly didn’t necessarily dispute this theory, he posited that what was more important was how the individual perceived their own experiences and the larger world around them. Kelly referred to this as personal construct theory.Unlike the predominant theory, Kelly’s theory suggested that the individual’s perspective was a significant influence on their emotional well-being. For example, a person that was out of work during the Dust Bowl likely felt bad about their inability to support their family, which was exacerbated by their ongoing struggles to find work.
This might lead to increased negative feelings and a sense of hopelessness.
The Repertory Grid
Rather than interpret their experiences and beliefs for them, as was common at the time, Kelly theorized that it was more important for the patient to explore and interpret these experiences with minimal input from the therapist. Given that, he created an interviewing tool that he called the repertory grid, which helped them to do a kind of self-analysis.The repertory grid is a fairly simple tool that begins with the person identifying a topic that is influencing their emotional state, like their social skills. The purpose of the grid is to ultimately identify what Kelly referred to as constructs, which are how we understand people or things, and contrasts, which are the opposites of constructs. For example, a common construct might be that mothers are comforting and caring, while the contrast might be that fathers are disciplinarians or stoic. We use constructs and contrasts consciously and unconsciously in order to inform our behavior and anticipate what will happen.
According to Kelly’s theory, this exercise gave the patient the space and opportunity to identify the various constructs on which they have based their outlook on life. By identifying these constructs in an almost scientific method, the patient could gain insight into how they formed their opinions and beliefs and bring clarity and meaning to otherwise abstract terms like ‘happy’ and ‘sad.’
Benefits of Exploring Constructs
One of the more important aspects of personal construct therapy and the repertory grid is that it is easily accessible in terms of form and language.
By identifying constructs in binary terms, the patient not only identifies their own position in relation to the construct, but also identifies an alternative.The reason that this is significant is because the repertory grid uses what Kelly called elements to help clarify the constructs. In simple terms, elements are like examples that fit within the construct, which are often people in the person’s life.
For ‘happy’ and ‘sad,’ the patient might say that their wife and their mother are on the happy side for reasons A, B, and C. Their brother, on the other hand, is on the sad side for reasons X, Y, and Z, which are not present in either their mother or wife. This not only shows the patient how they arrived at the construct but also identifies criteria for each side that can serve as a kind of roadmap.Identifying the elements allows them to see what it looks like to be on each side of the construction.
If they are sad, for example, they now know what they mean when they say ‘sad.’ Conversely, they also know what they mean when they say ‘happy,’ which gives them a sense of what it would take to get themselves to that point.
Let’s review what we’ve learned. George Kelly was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to the field during the first half of the century. In his personal construct theory, Kelly posited that people’s worldview and interpretation of experience had a major influence on their mental health.
Using the repertory grid, which was a fairly simple tool that begins with the person identifying a topic that is influencing their emotional state, Kelly worked with patients to identify constructs (which are how we understand people or things), contrasts (which are the opposites of constructs), and elements (which are examples that fit within the construct) that shaped their lives, ultimately helping them to develop better insight and self-awareness.