It is unusual for a theory of personality to begin in the realm of philosophy, but we believe this is quite essential. Unless there is some understanding of the world in which the individual operates psychologically, it is very easy to make assumptions about that world. Indeed, most psychological theories make philosophical assumptions about the world in which they operate, but generally they do not do so explicitly. George Kelly, on the other hand, quite explicitly brought up this issue at the outset, defining his philosophy as that of constructive alternativism. This imposing title is rather daunting but it is not really difficult to understand. Essentially, he proposes that there is a real world out there. It exists, is interconnected and is in continual motion. As individuals we are continually trying to grasp that real world by constructing our own version of it. Kelly continually emphasised the importance of anticipation, saying “it is both the push and the pull of the psychology of personal constructs”. A person is trying to anticipate real events. “It is the future that tantalises us, not the past. Always we reach out to the future through the window of the present”. The constructions we make are infinitely variable and there are a huge range of alternative ways of construing and making sense of the same event. However to the individual, whatever construction we make is real to us. In one of his most often quoted paragraphs, Kelly wrote: We take the stand that there are always some alternative constructions available to choose among in dealing with the world. No one needs paint himself into a corner, no one needs to be completely hemmed in by circmstances; no one needs to be a victim of their biography. For all of us there are alternative ways of making sense of our experience, only bound by the rules we impose on ourselves. those rules, being created personally, can be altered by personal choice also. Person the Scientist Scientists examine phenomena and come up with theories about what might be going on. They make predictions based on their theories and carry out experiments to test them. Positive responses are regarded as validating all or part of the theory, whereas a negative response is regarded as invalidation, and the theory has to be re-examined to try to explain the problem. Kelly thought that, essentially, this was the type of activity in which we are all engaged. Everyone is making their own theories about the real world out there. We are doing this in order to anticipate our future. Our behaviour in the world becomes our experiment, through which we discover how our theories are working in practice. Behaviour which is validated is considered successful, and we incorporate those findings and understandings into our personal psychological system. Invalidation of our behavioural experiments leads to re-evaluation and reorganisation. For example, a young person who has always been shy is invited to a party for the first time. From listening to her sister’s stories and seeing them on television, she has a picture in her mind of a noisy crowded room, full of people talking brightly and ignoring her because she is quiet and dull. She is terrified but she goes. If what she has anticipated matches her experience, her theory will be proved, and she may not want to try again. If, however, she finds it is not a noisy affair, that several people talk to her and seem to find her interesting, she will probably reconstrue and her anticipations of parties will be modified in future. Construing and the nature of constructs When we construe we are actively trying to interpret something. In order to make sense of any event, action or situation, we attempt to construe it, to give it shape and meaning. It is important to emphasis from the beginning that construing is not the same as thinking. We do construe by thinking, but we also construe as we look, listen, touch, taste, feel and move. As we perceive something visually or auditorily, we are interpreting what we see and hear. some of our constructions of events remain as feelings, or as sensations we scarcely notice. Action is very much part of the construing process. If we reach out to pick something up, we are, in a sense, testing out a theory about what it will be like when we hold it. If we approach another person with certain feelings, we are again checking out our expectations of that person. If construing is the process by means of which we try to make sense of our world, a construct is one piece of that sense making structure. By comparing and contrasting aspects of our world we create bipolar constructs. We understand light by contrasting it with dark, hard with soft. Many of us may accept those constructs in general, but our personal constructs are often quite individual and may be uniques to each of us. A contrast that one person finds meaningful may not be so for another. For example, one may have a construct of ‘strong vs weak, whereas another may have a construct of ‘strong vs gentle’. If we really want to understand another person, we need to listen for the meanings those constructs have for that individual rather than try to impose our own. Constructs are psychological entities. We often use words to symbolise them but the words we use merely represent the construct: they are not the construct itself.
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