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Personal Constructs Theory – A Systematic Study
In this study we aim to provide an analysis of a subject’s problems using the Personal Constructs Theory (PCT) suggested by Kelly. The subject is a 35 year old female full time employee working in the same company as the researcher and has shown no barriers to construing. The subject’s problems with her relationships have been determined using the Repertory grid interview and we discuss results and provide an analysis of the findings following the interview and data collection. The interview was done to identify elements within the client’s relationships and all interview limitations have been considered for the study. We provide an analysis of Personal Constructs Theory in general giving a brief overview of its main premises and principles and then move on to its applications including the Grid interview technique on our client. We discuss the results and analyse the findings accordingly.
George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory (PCT) emphasises that the world is ‘perceived’ by a person according to the meaning the person applies to it and the person has the freedom to choose a meaning according to what he or she wants (Kelly, 1955). Thus a person has the freedom to choose a meaning in terms of which he perceives the world and can apply alternative constructions or meanings to his past, present and future events. Thus a person is not a victim of his events but can liberate himself from unpleasant events by reinterpreting and redefining them. According to Kelly (1955) PCT attempts to explain why a man does what he does and is a theory about ‘how the human process flows, how it strives in new directions as well as in old, and how it may dare for the first time to reach into the depths of newly perceived dimensions’
Kelly states that a ‘person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipate the events’(1955). Here, the subject is the process and the individual is a behaving organism who may need an external force to initiate an event. The processes include those of self-definition and relationships with others, and how we interpret events around us as well as the events we perceive and tasks at hand (Kelly 1955). Kelly based his theory of PCT on ‘man as the scientist’ model and the basic points were as follows:
the individual creates his or her own ways of seeing the world and interprets events according to how he perceive them
the individual builds percepts and constructs;
these constructs are organized into systems, or group of constructs which embody relationships;
two or more systems may contain the same events, yet the events are separate from any of the systems;
any individual’s systems have a definite foci
The term construct is a concept that represents the view a person has constructed about the world as he experiences it. Constructs also represent the way a person is likely to construe the world and the construct system as a whole represents the history and predisposition to perceive the world in a particular way.
Kelly also distinguished between social reality, individual reality and communality. Individuality denotes that every individual differ from each other in how they construct or perceive the world, communality refers to the underlying similarities or common elements in perception and how the construction of experience in one person is similar to that of another (Kelly, 1955). Social reality is perception of how one person construes the construction processes of another person and how they are involved in a social role. Personal construct theory has been used in several sociological and scientific disciplines and it has been emphasised that social reality and communality should be considered along with the individual or personal reality and both have to be considered together in developing an understanding of the psychological processes (Dalton, 1992).
The theory of Personal Constructs, points out that it is our personal psychological constructs that make the world predictable. We use construct systems to help in perception of the world and respond to all situations according to these perceptions. Our construct systems help us to make sense of the world, to make it predictable, to draw conclusions about causes and effects and we learn from experiences and adjust our behaviour accordingly (Fransella, 1995). Kelly wrote that the construct systems influence our expectations and perceptions and reflect our past experiences according to which we shape our future expectations. For example since we known from our past experiences that winters are cold, we would take adequate measures of protection during winter because we expect winters to be cold.
However according to Kelly, our construct systems grow and change and are not static and are either confirmed or challenged when we are conscious. We adapt and immunise our constructs according to the situation and alter our feelings according to our experiences. We also tend to think and react according to our construct systems and some constructs represent values and key relationships which are difficult to change and fixed whereas some other constructs are less complex and more flexible and adaptive. The truth about the world as understood and experienced determines the nature of the construct system. Construct systems are not generally judged according to any objective truth and depend on an individual’s personal feelings, perceptions and choices (Dalton, 1992). One individual’s construct system may be different from another’s and when there is a general disagreement in constructs, it is generally denoted by prejudice or preconception. Although conflicts and differences of opinions are unpleasant, these events help us to understand differences in people and help us to learn how other people perceive things (Stevens, 1996). However construct systems change and may not be altogether internally consistent. People may react or perceive things differently even in similar circumstances and this is normal as there is a certain degree of internal inconsistency in perception of events. Distortions of judgement due to internal inconsistency of personal constructs can be harmful for a person as he may suffer from personal distress. The extent to which one person can appreciate and react to another person’s constructs is a measure of empathy or how one perceives another (Banister, 1985). One person’s construct system may be markedly different from another person’s constructs yet one should be able to infer the other person’s construct in order to empathise and develop a sense of social oneness and responsibility. Kelly’s theory is one of the most effective theories in social research and helps to provide a psychological explanation of social similarities and differences.
The applications of Kelly’s theory of Personal constructs are wide and varied as it helps to provide mathematical representations of constructs systems. Construct systems are multidimensional mathematical models and a person’s language is used to classify his or her experiences. Kelly developed a number of mathematical models and representations of construct systems and tested hypotheses that followed from basic personal construct theory (Fransella and Bannister, 1977). To understand people’s personal construct systems the repertory Grid Interview technique was developed, also known as the Role Construct Repertory Test. The repertoire of constructs that a person develops represents some form of perception, judgement or evaluation and is always comparative. Thus judgement of anything good is in comparison with the concept of bad. Thus in using a Grid interview three elements are considered and then two are paired in contrast with a third. The theory of personal constructs can be applied to personal experiences and relationships and so parents, relations, friends, colleagues and the individual are largely responsible for the formation of constructs (Smith et al, 1995; Kalekin-Fishman et al, 1996). Kelly elicited a patient’s constructs, rated the different elements on the constructs and used the resultant grid to point out to the client what his primary problems or concerns were. This helped to decide which therapy would be important and helped to determine the progress and effectiveness of therapy. For example one could find the two elements in a personal relationship of a patient and his mother and use this technique to find out differences between a patient’s perception of himself and what his mother would like him to be. The patient would then be encouraged to provide a self description and work through means of making his relationship with his mother more pleasant and productive. If there are paranoid elements recognised in a patient’s perception of himself or his relationships, appropriate therapeutic interventions are suggested.
The Repertory Grid interviewing technique was developed by Kelly to overcome some of the methodological limitations of the interview method. The main steps of the Grid technique include
- Selecting a set of elements – this could be anything from relationships to issues and the elements could be people involved in these relationships with the client.
- The elements are taken in groups of three and the client is asked to pair two of them separating the third according to a special characteristic (Adams-Webber, 1983). Thus here the differentiation is done according to constructs determined by the client and is done on a bipolar scale with the interviewer setting up the question but the client determining the content (Anderson, 1987).
The constructs are examined in some detail and after the interview the constructs are made into scales of 1-5 and the interviewee is expected to rate every element for every construct on this scale. The result is a matrix and this is then analysed statistically to show the client his problems and how they can be tackled. The statistical analysis helps to give measurements of individual people characteristics and compares people’s perceptions before and after the interview. The Grid is thus a statistical, and content free process and although the interviewer initiates its functions, it is the patient who drives it allowing him to come out with his own perceptions thus giving the process a freedom from any interviewer bias and allows complete transparency(Anderson, 1987). Since it is also a standardised interviewing technique any interviewer can read the interview and understand its implications.
Russell and Cox (2003) and Morrison (1991) have stressed on the importance of repertory grid in the analysis of individual perceptions. Considering Kelly’s constructivist alternativism, we can assume that all our present perceptions of the world could be subject to changes and revisions and accordingly our perceptions of people and subsequently our interpersonal relationships could also be changed according to this principle.
A 35 year old female colleague, Marie Oliver was selected for the interview process. The client was having some relationship problems, especially with her work colleagues and has been showing maladjustment along with problems of anxiety, depression and lack of productivity at work. The participant was apprised of the purpose of the interviewing and was asked to participate suggesting that participation in the interview would help her in overcoming her personal problems. A Repertory Grid Interview was done and the first step was identifying elements or grid components. For this all the possible elements including people in relationships were identified. Thus elements are work colleagues known to the participant and to the researcher, and the participant used triad method with the elements to create constructs around any one chosen topic. Elements were then compared by asking participant to take 3 elements and ascertain where 2 are similar and 1 is different, and the participant was encouraged to continue until all possible combinations were exhausted of 3 elements from the set of 10. The instruction given in this case was , ‘choose any three of these known people and group two of them together separating a possible third to show why two of them are similar and how they differ from the third person.’
This process was used to identify similarities and differences of individuals until the participant ran out of constructs. Several mini-grids were developed in advance to ensure that the participant was comfortable with the process of grid construction. Then the Participant followed the process, generated the first grid, to ascertain whether each element is more like the similarity pole or difference pole by marking with ‘x’ or ‘o’ respectively. The participant then generated a second grid to rate each element on each of the 10 constructs using 1-5 point scale, but presented the grid to experimenter without ratings, experimenter then created the final grid as the participant.
The main aim and purpose of the interview was agreed with the participant and views about other work colleagues were thus taken. The participant was fully informed from outset regarding the possibility that the revelations from the Grid Interview could be unsettling for her.
However for these purposes, participant’s consent form was also signed in advance and the constructs were then set up on the grid allowing to be revealed. In the process of the interview, the researcher made notes on participant behaviour and perceptions as verbally revealed.
In this case, the participant Marie was asked to identify the elements in her workplace that could be considered in her relationships with colleagues. Marie identified 10 colleagues at her workplace and separated two of them as distinct from a third. The common points and the differences were noted. Each of the 10 constructs chosen were rated on a 1-5 scale and the grids were created with similarity and difference poles marked by x or an o. This was done in case of determining constructs and relationships with work colleagues. After the formation of a grid, an analysis was drawn up.
The two assumptions of the Grid Interview by Kelly were as follows:
1. If we can identify an individual’s ‘construct’ map there is a strong possibility we can predict that individual’s behaviour.
2. We may be able to modify an individual’s map, and therefore behaviour, by some form of training.
The two aspects of the Repertory Grid are
1. Elements which are the objects of an individual’s thinking and to which they relate their concepts or values. These elements may be people with qualities like effective, unprofessional, etc or they may be objects or abstract, concrete concepts like the interview or a test
2. Constructs are the qualities used to describe the elements in our personal, individual relationships thus a person is effective because he has a pleasant relationship with his staff which reflects personal construct as applied to the element of an effective individual
The main elements in an analysis when a grid is applied to an individual are:
1. The results relate to that individual alone
2. Only one grid has to be analysed for an individual’s report.
3. A grid scoring form is used to perform the analysis
The Findings and Analysis help us to probe the following questions:
To what extent was the study helpful in understanding the participant’s view of the topic of examination?
Identification and justification of apparent areas of understanding and lack of understanding
Is a pattern of understanding evident?
How does the analysis link with the notes made prior to completing grids on expected areas of degree of understanding?
What is the meaning revealed by the participant’s choice of elements and constructs?
Do the elements and constructs reveal a similar or different view of the topic of analysis chosen?
What does the degree of the match imply?
Was the study any more helpful when conversation elaboration was also used as an extended method?
Is some analysis of new understandings reached during feedback conversation helpful for the process?
What do the notes and quotes as revealed by the client suggest?
The findings are given as follows:
(Mostly worked together with these individuals)
Close agreement on 4, 5, 6 – elements
Less agreement on 9 – element
(Mostly worked separately with these individuals)
Little agreement on 1,2,3,7,8,10- elements with different negative personal experiences working with E7 and E8 on particular projects.
Close agreement on 6 – constructs (professional conduct). Upon discussion, views were similar regarding the meaning of professional conduct and who could be trusted.
Less agreement on 1,3,4,5,7,9 – constructs. Upon discussion, researcher and client shared similar/same definitions of each construct.
Little agreement on 2,8,10 constructs. Upon discussion, our definitions were different, hence our measurement of each element came from a different understanding of constructs.
The elements identified by Marie were individuals at the workplace and Marie revealed that she worked closely with elements 4, 5 and 6 although had less agreement with element or colleague 9. Marie revealed that she has worked separately and had negative personal experiences with colleagues identified as elements 1, 2, 3, 7, 8 and 10 although she said she was working on the same project with two of these negatively perceived colleagues 7 and 8. Mari suggested a close agreement with 6 on professional conduct and said that her views with 6 were similar regarding professional conduct, friendships and trust issues as to who in the office should or should not be trusted. Marie suggested that her constructs were either in contrast to or were not compatible with those of 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9 elements or colleagues identified. Marie and the researcher had some discussions on the nature and definition of particular perceptions and constructs and the general definition of these identified by the researcher were similar to that of the subject. The subject’s perceptions, feedback and opinions on the constructs were noted separately.
Marie identified that two of the colleagues were friendly and amicable and compared with the other person who in contrast has been described as unfriendly and not easy to get along with.
The Repertory Grid Scoring sheet is drawn as follows:
Good style appearance
The process of producing the Repertory Grid can be broken down into the following steps:
Step One –
The participant Marie identifies ten colleagues whom she knows well. Among these ten colleagues Marie should go along well with at least two of them ideally.
Step Two –
Marie is given six pieces of card or paper on which she is asked to write the names of the people she has identified. These are the elements described. A number can also be added to the card/paper to signify description and added at the head of column on the scoring sheet. Alternatively, the name itself of the element identified can be entered on the scoring sheet as well.
Step Three –
Three cards are selected, for example 1, 2 and 3, and Marie is asked to identify some aspect related to these colleagues’ behaviour which makes two of the three people selected different from the third.
The construct word or phrase is written in the top left side of the vertical columns. In the top right side of the vertical columns is written the description of the person one who is different from the other two.
This process of obtaining constructs from the three people is continued until no further constructs or perceived characteristics could be elicited from the participant.
Step Four –
Once the constructs have been completely elicited and entered on the scoresheet, the cards are returned.
Each ‘element’ person is then given a score on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 1 or 2 is allocated to those who are suited to the description in the left-hand column, the column with the description of the pair. Scores of 5 or 4 are allocated to those who match with the description in the right-hand column, the description of the odd person out
Step Five –
A different set of three cards is then selected, cards 4, 5 and 6 and the process in steps 3 and 4 is repeated, ensuring that the description of pairs is recorded in the left-hand column and a score of 1 or 2 relates to the pairs similarity and score points of 4 and 5 relate to the description of the single person. A score of 3 is average score. A score of at least one 1 and one 5 is helpful when allocated usually from the set of three people for whom the constructs are being elicited.
Step Six –
Step five is repeated and the various combinations of the elements are aimed to be covered until the participants run out of perceived characteristics or constructs that could be entered on the card.
After the grid consideration, the grid scoring sheet is used to record the views of the participant for each element against each construct which has been offered. The data collected is then subject to analysis. A manual analysis can generate and extract considerable information from the grid and all the constructs are related to the personal characteristics of each work colleague considered in the study by Marie.
Step Seven –
In this case study we consider the behavioural aspects of work colleagues of Marie which is related to their overall friendliness, therefore at the end of the grid Marie is asked to rate the elements in a single, given construct over a scale of friendly to unfriendly.
The scoring for friendliness is then compared with other individual aspects to highlight differences and to provide indicators for friendliness.
Step Eight –
The scores for each construct are obtained by marking the difference for each element against the general friendliness figure.
Step Nine –
In this phase, we analyse the various constructs on the basis that if the score is low the aspect measured is significant in the ranking for friendliness
It is the duty of interviewer to remain without any bias and to refrain from giving any suggestion to the participant on what constructs should be drawn. Forming the constructs is entirely dependent on the participant and the researcher has no role in its formation. They must be according to the thoughts and perceptions of the individual who is being interviewed in this case, Marie although the constructs must be clear, meaningful. Here the analyst has helped her in one or two cases when she couldn’t describe the construct and sought help of the analyst to come out with the right word. After the constructs are listed against the elements, the grid results are scored and are ready to be used for analysis.
From the example used in this study -the aspects which go towards the behavioural skills of colleague at work, are identified as follows:
Has empathy with other colleagues
Has a proper work culture and attitude
Has an ethical sense
Is friendly and amicable
Is knowledgeable and professional
Always has a good style and appearance
Is a team oriented person
Is a leader in the group
Comes out with fresh new ideas
Is helpful and cooperative
In this study we selected Marie Oliver, a 35 year old colleague who was suffering from some initial maladjustment in the workplace. Marie was asked to participate in the Repertory Grid Interview process to identify the reasons of her problems, categorise them and come out with possible suggestions. The approach taken was qualitative analysis by using the Personal Constructs theory developed by Kelly and a final analysis using scoring sheet and identifying elements through the Repertory Grid Interview technique. Marie was asked to select characteristics and constructs of persons in her workplace. She identified the most desirable and friendly characteristics in her colleagues against the least desirable ones. The notes taken during conversation with Marie reveal that Marie felt she got along only with a few colleagues only three as mentioned. There were basic differences in professional ethic and conduct with at least two colleagues she was working in collaboration with. The behavioural skills Marie identified as important in defining her good relationship with the colleagues are empathic characteristics in others; any concept of an ideal colleague is also associated with being able to follow a proper work culture and having a proper attitude. Having an ethical sense, a sense of justice and being knowledgeable, professional with a good sense of humour are also identified as important characteristics in a proper friendly colleague. Marie indicated that being friendly, amicable and with good style and appearance has been noted in at least two of her colleagues and this is stark contrast to a third colleague she identified and with whom she doesn’t seem to get along. If we consider Kelly’s perspective of constructive alternativism, it is possible to have alternative perceptions as our perceptions of the world depend completely on our personal constructs.
Marie also identified leadership skills, helpfulness and cooperativeness, being able to come out with fresh ideas and following a proper work culture as important aspects of professional behaviour and gave high scores on these aspects to at least two of her colleagues. Overall, a Repertory Grid Interview on Marie showed that she has good and easygoing relations with two of her colleagues but doesn’t seem to go well with many of them. The negative implications of the findings which suggest why Marie did not get along with most of her colleagues and seem to show anxiety and depression symptoms as well as dissatisfaction with her workplace were revealed in her perception of constructs on most of her colleagues. Marie suggested that some of her colleagues were low on cooperativeness and helpfulness, friendliness and proper professional attitude making the atmosphere competitive and hostile. The dynamics of Marie’s actual relations with her colleagues were thus revealed using this Grid interviewing procedure and Marie’s own perception of her work situation, perception of her situation and role in the office, and perception of her relations with her colleagues and her job were also revealed through this study. As Morrison (1991) used the repertory grid technique to understand nurses’ perception of care and their evaluation of caring attitudes in nursing, Marie’s perception of her work culture could easily reveal her ideal understanding of a workplace and what she sought in her colleagues. Her inner constructs, precepts and how she saw the world as an individual were revealed and so were her expectations in the future. Considering Marie’s perceptions, some psychological counselling to improve her working and professional relationships was recommended.
The methodological limitations and concerns of interview as a means of knowing people’s construct system were many, as noted by Kelly. These are:
- Interview Bias – sometimes the interviewer and the school he belongs to whether behaviourist or psychoanalytic could determine the way the session goes and this undermines the objectivity and validity of the study
- Dependence on the interviewer – the role of the therapist should be minimal and the therapist should just be a tool to facilitate self perception according to Kelly. Most individuals have the capacity to understand his or her problems and any overdependence on the researcher should be avoided.
- There may be problems with measuring and predicting individual or group characteristics. Although psychology seeks to understand laws of human behaviour, large scale studies showing correlations of different behaviour may not be helpful for study of personal constructs which is based on the understanding of individuals or a small group of people.
These methodological limitations have been kept in mind while conducting the interview and interviewer bias and any dependence on the interviewer has been kept to a minimum. Interviewer intervention has also been minimal.
In this discussion, we set out with an overview of the Personal Constructs Theory proposed by Kelly (1955). We discussed the different tenets of the constructs theory, the inconsistency of personal constructs and how constructs tend to vary in different people or in same people in different situations. Thus situational factors seem important in constructs and perceptions on other people. Individual constructs form the construct systems and Kelly established the grid method to determine the different elements in a social situation that can be considered as responsible for an individual’s disturbed social relationships. In our study of Marie Oliver, a 35 year old employee, her social relationships and possible disturbances were studied using the Repertory Grid Interview technique and her analysis of good and bad characteristics of ten of her colleagues were indicated on the card given to her. The scores were drawn up and according to the analysis the desirable characteristics that Marie perceived in some of her workmates and not in others, were found out. Marie’s behavioural problems and her unique relationships with her colleagues are then analysed suggesting whether Marie needed any further psychological help for her anxiety, depression and other work related maladjustments.
Kelly, George Alexander
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