Man the Scientist

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George Kelly’s Theory of Personality, Part 1

Jeffrey Thayne

I enjoy studying and reading George Kelly’s ideas, and many of them ring true to me (at least, more true than the majority of psychological theories). I do not believe Kelly’s ideas are perfect; in fact, I think they have some serious weaknesses, which I may address at the end of this series. In the meantime (with the disclaimer that I do not agree entirely with this point of view), I would like to present a basic summary of Kelly’s exciting view of human personality.


Scientists form theories about the world, and from these theories make predictions about future events. Kelly claims we are all scientists because we all form ideas about the world from which we form expectations, such as how others will react when we greet them, or who we can trust, etc.

First of all, said Kelly, “it is customary to say that the scientist’s ultimate aim is to predict and control.”1 In other words, scientists invent theoretical frameworks for understanding the world, and evaluate them by how well they allow the scientist to predict what happens in the world around them. When armed with theoretical frameworks that allow them to make reliable predictions about the world around them, physicists and engineers can exert greater control over their environment. Consider, for example, the theoretical framework physicists use to describe electromagnetism. This theory allows scientists to reliably predict the behavior of electromagnetic fields. Because of this, physicists and engineers have been able to develop miraculous technology that allows us to better control our surrounding world. This is part of what Kelly means when he says that the aim of the scientist is to “predict and control.”

Psychologists describe themselves as scientists. They sometimes claim that their purpose is to make sense of human behavior in a way that allows them to predict human behavior. For example, if we can predict which factors contribute to teenage delinquency, we then have greater power to prevent it. If we can predict when people will become schizophrenic, depressed, etc., we can then find ways to prevent, alter, or restore their condition to “normality.” In essence, some psychologists hope to do with people what physicists and engineers do with the natural world.

“Curiously enough,” said Kelly,

psychologists rarely credit the human subjects in their experiments with having similar aspirations. It is as though the psychologist were saying to himself, ‘I, being a psychologist, and therefore a scientist, am performing this experiment in order to improve the prediction and control of certain human phenomena; but my subject, being merely a human organism, is obviously propelled by inexorable drives welling up within him, or else he is in gluttonous pursuit of sustenance and shelter.'”1

In other words, psychologists describe people as motivated primarily by sexual drives, or by a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, or by stimulus and response, or by genetic determinism. Yet, they attribute their own motivation as a scientist to the desire to understand, predict, and control the world around them. What if, asked Kelly, psychologists began to see even their human subjects the same way they see themselves … as scientists, seeking to predict and control the world they experience? Why should the psychologist see his human subjects any differently than he sees himself?

“Let us,” continued Kelly, “instead of occupying ourselves with man-the-biological-organism or man-the-lucky-guy, have a look at man-the-scientist.”1 When Kelly said this, he was not referring to scientists. Rather, he was proposing that we, as scientists, think of the human beings we study as people who strive to make sense of the world around them, to find order in their experiences, and to predict and control future experiences.

Construing the World

One of George Kelly’s central claims is reminiscent of Kant’s philosophy (that we see the world through a lens which brings order to our perceptions); we don’t experience the world “as it is”, but rather, how we choose to interpret it. He explained,

Man looks at his world through transparent patterns or templates which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which his world is composed. The fit is not always very good. Yet without such patterns the world appears such an undifferentiated homogeneity that man is unable to make any sense out of it. Even a poor fit is more helpful to him than nothing at all.

Let us give the name constructs to these patterns which are tentatively tried on for size. They are ways of construing the world. They are what enables man … to chart a course of behavior, explicitly formulated or implicitly acted out, verbally expressed or utterly inarticulate, consistent with other courses of behavior or inconsistent with them, intellectually reasoned or vegetatively sensed.1

The core message is this: the world we perceive and talk about with others is not what is presented to us in the bare facts of experience; rather, we actively organize, make sense of, and articulate the bare facts of experience by forming constructs about them. We interpret our experience, and we can construe it one way or an infinite number of alternative ways.

Some philosophers of science define life life by its ability to react to its environment. In contrast, Kelly defines life by its ability to represent its environment. Kelly said that he likes his definition of life better “because it emphasizes the creative capacity of the living thing to represent the environment, not merely respond to it. Because he can represent his environment, he can place alternative constructions upon it and, indeed, do something about it if it doesn’t suit him. To the living creature, then, the universe is real, but it is not inexorable unless he chooses to construe it that way.”1

In Kelly’s philosophy, the world does exist independently of our construal of it, even though we can never access it without actively interpreting it. We don’t create the world itself, but only our interpretation of it. Our interpretive constructs can have a good or poor fit to the actual facts of reality. A poor construct does not allow us to predict our experiences or control the world as well as a good construct.


In summary, Kelly believed that we experience the world through constructs. In essence, we form “theories” about the world, from which we make predictions. When our theory about the world leads to good predictions, it will also help us control our world more effectively. In this sense, we are all scientists, and thus psychology is not just a scientific study of people, but the scientific study of scientists. Of course, the word theory in this metaphor has a slightly different connotation than Kelly’s term construct, because the constructs we use to make sense of our world are largely inarticulate and implicit, rather than the reflective, thought-through constructs of what we traditionally think of as a scientific theory. In the next post of this series, I will delve deeper into the details of Kelly’s theory of personality.


1. George Kelly, A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs (New York: Norton), 1963.

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