George Kelly grew up on a farm and had an unusual educational history, being educated at home for many years and only attending school in Wichita, Kansas in 1918. He went on to complete baccalaureate studies, majoring in mathematics and physics and was headed for a career in engineering, but then gave it up to study for a masters degree in educational sociology at the university of Kansas.

Before completing his masters thesis, he moved to Minneapolis and supported himself by teaching various classes for labour organisers. He enrolled in the University of Minnesota in sociology and biometrics but had to leave again as he couldn’t pay the fees. In 1927, he found a job teaching psychology and speech to Sheldon Junior College in Iowa, where he met his future wife Gladys Thomson. He then went to Edinburgh University, Scotland to study for a Bachelor of Education degree, which he completed in 1930. He received his doctorate at the University of Iowa in 1931, married Gladys in 1931 and in the midst of the Great Depression, gained his first permanent employment at Fort Hayes State College where he began to develop ideas about psychological change.

Kelly’s journey towards a theory

Initially, in his work to help troubled students, he looked to Freud’s ideas for inspiration.

While he appreciated Freud’s work, he was less convinced by the notion of offering ‘correct interpretations’ of people’s distress.

He wasn’t at all sure about standard Freudian explanations, finding them a bit far-fetched at times, and not quite appropriate to the lives of the Kansan farm families with whom he was working.

As time went by, he noticed that his interpretations of dreams and the like were becoming increasingly unorthodox. In fact, he began “making up” explanations! His clients listened as carefully as before, believed in him as much as ever, and improved at the same slow but steady pace while Kelly became increasingly interested in what his clients did with these interpretations.

It began to occur to him that what truly mattered to his clients was that they had an explanation of their difficulties and a way of understanding them. What mattered was that the “chaos” of their lives developed some sort of order. And he discovered that, while just about any order and understanding that came from an authority was accepted gladly, an order and understanding that came out of their own lives and their own culture, was even better.

He believed that every viewpoint has value, particularly in the situation, time, and place of the person who holds it. And it was from this standpoint that he began to play with the idea that persons create themselves through their constructions of the world and they can therefore re-create themselves if they have the courage and the imagination to do so by developing and using alternative constructions.

Kelly’s personal construct theory suggests that there are an infinite number of alternative constructions one may adopt to understand the world and if the ones we are using aren’t doing a very good job, we can change by developing and experimenting with another one. Individual differences result from the different ways that each of us predicts and interprets the world around us.

After World War II, Kelly taught psychology at the Ohio State University for almost 20 years. It was here that he formally developed his personal construct theory. When he published The Psychology of Personal Constructs in 1955 in two volumes, it was revolutionary.

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