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George Alexander Kelly

American psychologist best known for developing the psychology of personal constructs.

George Alexander Kelly, originator of personal construct theory of personality, was born on farm near Perth Kansas. He was the only child of Elfleda Merriam Kelly and Theodore Vincent Kelly. Kelly's father trained for the Presbyterian ministry but gave that up and moved to the farm soon after wedding Kelly's mother. When Kelly was four, his family moved to Eastern Colorado to make a claim on land given to settlers for free by the U. S. government. Because no water could be located beneath the land, the family moved back to the Kansas farm.

Kelly's early schooling was, by his own words, "rather irregular." He attended various grade schools and was also schooled at home, an obligation his parents took seriously as they were themselves relatively well educated. After age 13 he was sent away to school and attended four different high schools. When he was 16 he transferred to Friends University academy in Wichita, Kansas. There he took a mix of college and academy courses. He then transferred to Park College, Missouri, where he graduated in 1926 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics. During these years he became involved in his college debate team, and was seen as an excellent speaker.

He had planned on going into engineering after college, but his success at debating, and the fact that it provoked his interest in social issues, made him wonder about the real value of an engineering career. Thus, the following fall he entered the educational sociology program of the University of Kansas with minors in sociology and labor relations. In the fall of 1927, with his master's thesis (a study of how Kansas City workers distributed their leisure time activities) incomplete, he moved to Minneapolis. He had sent out many applications for teaching jobs with no success. There he taught three nights a week, one night each for three different schools. He enrolled in the University of Minnesota in biometrics and sociology but was forced to leave after a few weeks, when the school found out he had to been able to pay his fees. He finished his master's thesis in 1927.

In the winter of 1927 Kelly got a job at Sheldon Junior College in Sheldon, Iowa, teaching psychology and speech, and coaching drama. He spent one and a half years there. He then spent a summer at the University of Minnesota, and some months in Wichita, Kansas as an aeronautical engineer for an aircraft company. He then went to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland as an exchange student, where he received his Bachelor's in Education in 1930. He then enrolled in the University of Iowa and received his Ph.D. in psychology in 1931. His doctoral dissertation was on common factors in reading and speech disabilities.

He married Gladys Thompson just two days after attaining his Ph.D. In 1931, Kelly accepted a faculty position at Fort Hays Kansas State College (now called Fort Hays State University) where he was to remain for 12 years. He had wanted to pursue work in physiological psychology but found little opportunity to do so. So he turned his attention to an area he felt needed some work—providing clinical psychological services to adults and school-aged children on the university's campus. These services included counseling (vocational and academic), academic skill development, psychotherapy, and speech therapy.

Eventually, there was a demand for these services beyond campus, and Kelly developed a program for a clinic that traveled to schools in rural Kansas, there providing diagnostic formulations and treatment recommendations for students, typically twelve per day. At this time the United States was in the grips of a severe economic depression and the Midwest had experienced a major drought. Economic devastation was commonplace and many families were distressed. Kelly and his crew of four to five undergraduate and graduate students found people who had serious problems in their daily living. The need for these services was so strong and publicly recognized that the state legislature funded the traveling clinic directly through a legislative act.

He found that Freudian approaches to psychological problems worked to help some of the people he saw, but that his own formulations also worked if they were relevant to the person's problem and provided the person with a different way of looking at the problem. In these constructions one can see the seeds of Kelly's constructive alternativism. In his view, different people have alternative ways of looking at the world, and each view can capture some element of truth. None are right or wrong, all views are constructed by the individuals and reflect reality for them. In a way, people construct their own reality.

Shortly after World War II started, Kelly entered the U. S. Navy in the aviation psychology division, where he and fellow psychologists worked on ways of choosing the best naval air cadets. After the war ended Kelly taught at the University of Maryland for a year before being appointed a professorship at Ohio State University in 1945. In 1946 he became director of the clinical psychology program where he remained until 1965. Kelly served as president of both the Consulting (1954-1955) and Clinical (1956-1957) divisions of the American Psychological Association. In 1965 he took the position of Distinguished Professorial Chair in Theoretical Psychology at Brandeis University, which he held until his sudden death in 1967.

Kelly's personal construct theory of personality is perhaps his most significant contribution to psychology. It is a broad theory based on the idea that people are like scientists who go around testing personal theories, or personal constructs, about the world and how it works, and about themselves. Behavior is seen as an experiment. Individuals use these constructs in an attempt to anticipate events and exert control over their lives. He believed that people tend to have certain main personal constructs about large areas of life that guide their behavior. These constructs or concepts can be revised in the face of conflicting information, or they can become stable and internalized as basic personality tendencies. Kelly laid out the theory in his 1955 two-volume book entitled The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Kelly also developed the Role Construct Repertory Test, a method of assessing how an individual sees his or her world or personal-role constructs. In addition, Kelly experimented with fixed-role therapy, in which a client would "try on" various roles.

Personal construct theory was internationally recognized as a unique theoretical contribution to psychology. Indeed, his work has enjoyed more popularity in Britain than anywhere else. Hundreds of scholarly papers have been published that have personal constructs as their theme. Personal construct methods and ideas have been used to study numerous and varied topics, such as relationship development and breakdown, vocational decision making, psychopathology, education, and cognitive complexity. Since his death in 1967, interest in Kelly's work has grown, and its influence has become even stronger. Since 1975, biennial International Congresses on Personal Construct Psychology have been held, and on alternate years regional conferences are held. The International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology was founded in 1988, changing its title and focus in 1994 to the Journal of Constructivist Psychology.

Marie Doorey

Further Reading

Fransella, Fay. George Kelly London: Sage Publications, 1995.

Kelly, George A. The Psychology of Personal Constructs. London: Routledge, 1991 (originally published in 1955).

Neimeyer, Robert A. "Kelly, George Alexander," In 2000 Encyclopedia of Psychology, V.4. Alan E. Kazdin, ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association & New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2000.

Peyser, C.S. "Kelly, George A." In Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd Ed., V. 4. R.J. Corsini, Editor. NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1994.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists