Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009


Perception, of course, does not only involve that-which-is-given.  We participate in it.  We add to it.

The great American psychologist George Kelly had a philosophy he called constructive alternativism. Constructive alternativism is the idea that, while there is only one true reality, reality is always experienced from one or another perspective, or alternative construction. I have a construction, you have one, a person on the other side of the planet has one, someone living long ago had one, a primitive person has one, a modern scientist has one, every child has one, even someone who is seriously mentally ill has one.

Some constructions are better than others. Mine, I hope, is better than that of someone who is seriously mentally ill. My physician's construction of my ills is better, I trust, than the construction of the local faith healer. Yet no-one's construction is ever complete - the world is just too complicated, too big, for anyone to have the perfect perspective. And no-one's perspective is ever to be completely ignored. Each perspective is, in fact, a perspective on the ultimate reality, and has some value to that person in that time and place.

In fact, Kelly says, there are an infinite number of alternative constructions one may take towards the world, and if ours is not doing a very good job, we can take another!

Take a look at this photograph:

You probably see a young girl playing chess.  If you are familiar with the game, you will know the names of the various pieces, such as knights (not horses) and rooks (not castles).  You may "see" the potential moves of the pieces - which others would not notice.  You might note that she must be playing black, so that the piece in her hand has been captured (a knight - not a bad catch!).  You may notice what a novice might not:  She has castled (a move involving both king and rook).  I, as a chess player, notice that she could probably beat the pants off of me!

If a baby were looking at the chess set, he or she might respond by attempting to eat the pieces.  A young child may see the pieces as little people.  A chess master may see weaknesses in her position, or traps she may develop.  It all depends on who is doing the looking!  Perception, although it begins "out there," quickly involves the person, his or her mind, his or her knowledge, based on his or her previous experiences, and so on.  Nothing in psychology is ever as simple as it seems!

Kelly began his theorizing with what he called his "fruitful metaphor." He had noticed long before that scientists and therapists often displayed a peculiar attitude towards people: While they thought quite well of themselves, they tended to look down on their subjects or clients. While they saw themselves as engaged in the fine arts of reason and empiricism, they tended to see ordinary people as the victims of their sexual energies or conditioning histories. But Kelly, with his experience teaching Kansas college students and counseling Kansas farm people, noted that these ordinary people, too, were engaged in science, and they, too, were trying to understand what was going on.

So people - ordinary people - are scientists, too. They have their constructions of reality, like scientists have theories. They have anticipations or expectations, like scientists have hypotheses. They engage in behaviors that test those expectations, like scientists do experiments. They improve their understandings of reality on the bases of their experiences, like scientists adjust their theories to fit the facts. From this metaphor comes Kelly's entire theory.



Here is a highly simplified model of the interaction between ourselves and the world around us.  At its simplest, the world gives us events; we in turn give those events meaning by interpreting and acting upon them.There are some obvious details here:  sensations (input from the world, stimuli) and actions (output to the world, responses).  There was a time when psychologists thought this was enough.  Now we know better, and we add two more details, which I will call anticipation and adaptation.

Anticipation is a little difficult to explain.  We have a certain knowledge of the world, a "model" of it.  This model includes everything from little details like which shoe you put on first to complex things like how you feel about yourself and your life.  We use this model to anticipate - expect, predict - what will happen in the next moment or in the next ten years.

If I close my eyes, I expect that when I open them the room will still be there, I will still be there, and so on.  If it were to all disappear on me, I would be seriously surprised.

If I keep my eyes closed and focus on the expectation, rather than on the world "out there," I can imagine it.  We can understand images and thoughts as anticipations temporarily detached from the stream of events!

We also anticipate on a more long term basis:  We have expectations about what college will and won't do for us, about love being forever, and the sun rising, and so on.

Anticipation is particularly significant in understanding language: from moment to moment, we anticipate which sounds are likely to come next, which grammatical constructions, which meaningful combinations... We can make sense even of a fuzzy, somewhat jumbled conversation.

Anticipation also helps us to understand how we manage to pay attention to some things and not others. How is it we can be listening to a friend in a noisy bar and manage to somehow "filter out" all the other conversations and yet "let in" our friend's voice? We don’t perceive everything that stimulates our senses. How do we 'filter out" the unimportant (less meaningful) stuff? We don't: We just don’t select it! We select things by means of anticipation. We hear the conversation that we are busily involved in, the one we are anticipating moment to moment. The rest is just noise. Likewise with the other senses: We see what we are looking for, we don’t see what we are not looking for.

There are, of course, a few exceptions: certain built-in attention-getters, e.g. loud noises, flashes of light, painful stimuli, sudden movements. These involve inborn responses!

Adaptation is also more difficult to explain.  Sometimes, we don't anticipate well.  For example, you think you see a friend coming at you and you prepare to give a hearty "hi!" but just as you raise your arm to wave and begin to open your mouth, you realize it's not your friend at all but a complete stranger.  (If possible, you convert the raised arm into a back-scratch, and the open mouth into a yawn.  If it's too late and you've already said hi, just pretend you know them.  This will drive them crazy.)

Whenever you make mistakes, you need to figure out what went wrong, what to do about it, how to make sense of it.  As you do, you are improving your understanding of the world and your relation to it; you are improving your "model."  This is adaptation.  In our example, you may now have a model of the world that includes look-alikes, embarrassing mistakes, and a tendency to hold-off a little in the future before being so exuberant with your hello's.  Adaptation is learning.

This additional layer to interaction of anticipation and adaptation is crucial:  It means that our behaviors and experiences are not just a function of some common reality.  We, ourselves, our understandings of reality, are inevitably and intrinsically a part of our behaviors and experiences.  Without "self," reality would be meaningless.

Kelly organized his theory into a fundamental postulate and 11 corollaries. His fundamental postulate says this: "A person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events." (This and all subsequent quotations are from Kelly's 1955 The Psychology of Personal Constructs. ) This is the central movement in the scientific process: from hypothesis to experiment or observation, i.e. from anticipation to experience and behavior.

By processes, Kelly means your experiences, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and whatever might be left over. All these things are determined, not just by the reality out there, but by your efforts to anticipate the world, other people, and yourself, from moment to moment as well as day-to-day and year-to-year.

So, when I look out of my window to find the source of some high-pitched noises, I don't just see exactly and completely what is out there. I see that which is in keeping with my expectations. I am ready for birds, perhaps, or children laughing and playing. I am not prepared for a bulldozer that operates with a squeal rather than the usual rumbling, or for a flying saucer landing in my yard. If a UFO were in fact the source of the high-pitched noises, I would not truly perceive it at first. I'd perceive something. I'd be confused and frightened. I'd try to figure out what I'm looking at. I'd engage in all sorts of behaviors to help me figure it out, or to get me away from the source of my anxiety! Only after a bit would I be able to find the right anticipation, the right hypothesis: "Oh my God, it's a UFO!"

If, of course, UFO's were a common place occurrence in my world, upon hearing high-pitched noises I would anticipate birds, kids, or a UFO, an anticipation that could then be quickly refined with a glance out of the window.

The construction corollary:  "A person anticipates events by construing their replications."

That is, we construct our anticipations using our past experience. We are fundamentally conservative creatures; we expect things to happen as they've happened before. We look for the patterns, the consistencies, in our experiences. If I set my alarm clock, I expect it to ring at the right time, as it has done since time immemorial. If I behave nicely to someone, I expect them to behave nicely back.

This is the step from theory to hypothesis, i.e. from construction system (knowledge, understanding) to anticipation.

The experience corollary:  "A person's construction system varies as he successively construes the replication of events."

When things don't happen the way they have in the past, we have to adapt, to reconstruct. This new experience alters our future anticipations. We learn.

This is the step from experiment and observation to validation or reconstruction: Based on the results of our experiment -- the behaviors we engage in -- or our observation -- the experiences we have -- we either continue our faith in our theory of reality, or we change the theory.

A graphic version:

Images and ideas

If I close my eyes, I expect that when I open them you will still be there, the room will still be there, I will still be there, and so on. If all you of you were to disappear on me I would be seriously surprised.  We also anticipate on a more long term basis: We have expectations about what college will and won't do for us, about love being forever, and the sun rising, and so on.

If I keep my eyes closed and focus on the expectation, rather than on you and the world "out there," I can imagine you. We can understand images and thoughts as anticipations temporarily detached from the stream of events!  The father of cognitive psychology, Ulric Neisser, said that  "Images are not pictures in the head, but plans for obtaining information from potential environments....  When you have an image of a unicorn at your elbow - while quite certain that unicorns are purely mythical animals - you are making ready to pick up the visual information that the unicorn would provide, despite being fully aware that your preparations are in vain." (Neisser pp. 131-132)

A mental image is a blend of anticipation and a kind of scanning for the information that makes images more a matter of "drawing" the image than passively receiving it.  Researchers are even talking about us having a "visuo-spatial sketchpad", probably in the frontal lobe! The same thing with imagining a song:  I feel the muscles in my throat loosening and tightening as if I were singing or humming the tune.  I am not suggesting that the image is reducible to motor movements.  Rather, the presence of motor movements suggests that images are anticipatory.

It follows that images are more a matter of unrealized looking than internalized seeing. When we imagine the unicorn, we "draw" the horse's head with a goat’s beard and single horn with our anticipations. In the same way, we listen for the song, rather than hear it "in our heads", or explore with restrained movement an imaginary surface rather than experience faint sensations of touch. 

However, people also experience some rather striking mental images.  Some things do seem to pop into my awareness with amazing clarity.  And, at the opposite extreme, we quite often anticipate in a more "generic" fashion, as when we anticipate a human being - any human being - and not some specific one.  That is to say, sometimes we anticipate with an idea more than with an image.  The sudden complete image and the generic idea require a somewhat richer conception of anticipation.

Imagine that the signals coming from our sensory neurons are met by neurons that have been "primed" by our anticipation of those sensations.  That is, based on the events of the prior moments of interaction between the neural structures that are the result of our lifetime of learning, neurons or neural nets are activated, and when the sensory circumstances that they predict are confirmed by incoming sensory signals, these neurons or neural nets pass that information deeper into (let us assume) association cortex, where they lead to the next set of anticipations.  If the anticipations are not confirmed by incoming sensory information (say within a certain time span), signals indicating that non-confirmation are sent on to trigger new anticipations that attempt to correct the mistaken anticipations (along with actions and emotional experiences as well, one presumes). This latter effect could be considered the basis of learning.

Now imagine a situation where we detach ourselves from incoming sensory information:  We are asleep and dreaming, perhaps, or have closed our eyes or are staring at a blank page.  We can nevertheless generate anticipations, and set neurons or neural nets into that anticipatory mode.  But, instead of having them send signals only when confirmed by sensory information, our new state allows these anticipatory neurons to pass on their signals deeper into association cortex without confirmation.  They may even have further repercussions by triggering new anticipations, actions, emotions, and even learning.

In the usual perceptual interaction with the world, all the neurons that a primed to receive incoming information from the senses at a particular time could be considered our total anticipation for that moment.  In the restricted mode, retracted from interaction with the senses, all the primed neurons would be an image or an idea.

Now consider the difference between images and ideas:  Images may be understood as the activity of anticipatory neurons nearer the sensory end of our mental structure.  A strong image is the anticipation of a highly specific set of sensations.

Given a "white" sensory field (white light or white noise, for examples), strong image anticipation will select from that field the expected qualities, giving us a visual or auditory experience that, in circumstances of minimal or unusual information, could be mistaken for an actual event.  Perhaps you have had the experience of thinking that someone called your name while you were in the shower.  The "white noise' of the water provides a blank slate for you to project your expectations.  The complete or near-complete absence of sensory input of sleep also gives a kind of empty surface to "project" image anticipations onto.  In the absence of actual sensory information to compare it to, the image will be perceived as more-or-less vivid.

Ideas, on the other hand, reflect the activity of anticipatory neurons deeper in the mind's structure which are the main ingredients of imageless thought.  The idea of "horse" may manifest itself at any moment in the image of some particular horse, but need not.  Ideas should not, therefore, be confused with "fuzzy" perceptions.  Ideas are the "purer" meanings of our anticipations, experienced at a greater distance from sensation.


Thinking, says Ulric Neisser, is also a matter of imagery: "The ability to divide, detach, and manipulate our own anticipations is immensely important. It is, I believe, the fundamental operation in all so-called higher mental processes." (Neisser, p. 133) He goes even further by suggesting that perception, imagery, learning, memory, behavior... are all of a piece, which he refers to as cognition: "Cognition is the activity of knowing; the acquisition, organization, and use of knowledge." (Neisser, p. 1)

Many teachers make an attempt at teaching their students to think, but eventually conclude that only a small portion of them have any potential for it.  After looking carefully - phenomenologically - at the act of thinking, I have come to believe that their despair is rooted in a misconception:  They  see thinking as something that happens only in our heads.  It is this limitation that in turn limits their view of their students' potentials.

But let's start with that traditional, internal kind of thinking.  Take a look at your own thought processes:  What do you find?  Muffled words in your own voice, perhaps accompanied by throat and tongue movements?  Pale images, cartoon-like, seen only a portion at a time and then fleetingly?  Unexpressed actions and unfulfilled perceptions?  It doesn't seem like much to work with, does it?

The words and images are "pale" because we are not looking at the sights and sounds themselves but at our readiness for them.  When we are ready for a sight or sound or act, that readiness becomes the background that reveals the absent figure.  We are set, prepared physically and mentally, for a certain word or image and, though it doesn't arrive, it feels as if it did.

The most robust aspect of thought, oddly, is affect.  Feelings mark our presence, our involvement, in our own experiences.  They are there in our thoughts as well.  It is these feelings that we usually refer to as the meaning of an experience:  If we imagine a blue sky, we don't so much see a blue sky in our minds as "see" the feelings we have on a crisp autumn day or at a midsummer picnic - what a blue sky means to us.

Some might object and mention that their images are quite intense and detailed, and I would have to acknowledge that readiness and feelings can be extraordinary.  But only when we cannot or will not compare our thoughts with fuller experiences do we mistake them for fuller experiences.  Otherwise, thinking -- at least the kind that goes on in our heads - seems a rather introverted, inhibited, incomplete thing.

Incomplete though it may be, thinking is something most of us teachers are quite good at.  As kids, we could "do things" in our heads, silently, remaining seated and disturbing no one.  This quality endeared us to our teachers.  They valued it, so we valued it.  Now that we are teachers ourselves, we value it in our students.  When we don't find it, we are disappointed and complain about motivation or intelligence or prior teachers.

But thinking doesn't have to be silent and still.  Readiness and feelings are part of all our experiences.  So, in a sense, thought is a part of all our experiences.  It's a little harder to see it when it's blended into perceptions and behaviors, but I suggest it is much more powerful this way.

For example, most people, even ones who aren't good at silent thinking, can and do talk.  In fact - isn't it amazing? - when I talk, I don't usually put the words together carefully, grammatically, beforehand in my mind.  They come out of my mouth already so arranged!  Speech is not preceded by thought; speech is thinking outloud.

And others can hear me when I talk.  Instead of having to take both sides of an argument myself, I can engage someone else to take a side.  We can have a dialog, a conversation.  Conversations are much more entertaining - and have much more creative potential - than any solitary cogitation.

The same thing with images:  We can draw, diagram, graph, paint, sculpt, and otherwise turn our "readinesses" into realities.  They are clearer then; they hold still longer and can be pondered; we can interact with them.  We can show them to others.

We can also turn our images into actions.  As human beings, it's no surprise that most of our images are human ones.  And, as human beings, we are equipped to demonstrate these images with our own bodies.  In elementary and secondary school, we're always trying to keep children from "acting out" their problems; perhaps we should encourage it.  Perhaps they're just thinking!

And we can let go of some of those unexpressed actions mentioned earlier.  There's a great advantage to doing that:  The world responds to our actions as it will, not as we want it to.  In other words, the world, too, can be engaged in a dialog, with all the potential for creativity inherent in any conversation.

The feelings, of course, will still be there, at least if these perceptions and behaviors and dialogs have any meaning.  Beware:  If there are no feelings - positive or negative - there is very little thinking of any sort!

When my parents taught us kids how to play a card game, we always played the first few hands with our cards face up on the table.  We do this when we teach people how to think, too.  But with thinking, it doesn't really matter if you ever learn to keep your cards to yourself.  Real thinking can and does occur in our interaction with the world and others.  So let's drop this notion of thinking as something inside our heads.  Perhaps there really isn't that much going on in there.

Person perception

Philosophers sometimes talk about the "problem of the other:" How is it that we know that another person is in fact another person, like us, conscious, capable of thought and feeling? Do we notice that there are similarities to how we ourselves behave, and somehow reason our way to that conclusion? Or is it that we just see their person-hood? I believe the latter.

Franz From had people look at a variety of movies and describe what they saw. He discovered that "When we have to describe a behavior sequence, we generally do so by indicating a perception of some psychological state in the behaving person." (From, p. 7)  "...(W)hen we perceive human behavior as action...implicit in the percieved material sequence there is a certain sens. By this, I mean that we are perceiving the behavior as being governed by a mental factor." (From, p. 69)  This mental factor is also called intention, purpose, or meaning.

We can see sens in the behavior of animals, even insects: I can't tell you how impressed I've been with praying mantises and garden spiders. They really look at you, follow your movements, respond with great care... even though their brains are as small as a grain of rice!

This even applies to things that aren't really alive at all - i.e. we can be quite mistaken about sens!  Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel did an experiment involving a film of triangles moving about in "purposeful" ways: People saw the triangles as having intentions! Rubin refered to other people, animals, and even apparently purposeful triangle as psychoid entities.

When we observe people, the absence of meaning is actually the special case! From tells this story:

One afternoon when Professor Rubin and I had already put on our overcoats, ready to go home from the laboratory, Rubin said: 'See here, From.' At the same moment he sat down at is desk and looked straight ahead while he made short abrupt horizontal movements right and left in the air in front of him with his right hand, keeping the index finger and the thumb closely together. I just managed to think something like 'What on earth has happened to Rubin,' when he got hold of a pencil and a piece of paper, drew a system of small arrows and pushed the paper across to me, saying: 'Here is the code to the safety lock on my bicycle. Would you mind riding the bike home for me?' The earlier perception of something completely incomprehensible was immediately replaced, and the purpose of his behavior, i.e., to note down the code which he 'had in his fingers,' became quite apparent.... (From, p. 13)

Often we treat people exactly as we treat other events:  abusing them, ignoring them, taking them for granted....  You've all felt it, I'm sure:  being treated like a thing instead of a person.  But more often, I like to believe, we treat people as something more:  We treat them as meaning-giving creatures like ourselves, as people.  This is the basis of social interaction.

An odd addendum:  Since we give the world meaning, we can give it social meaning when it suits us.  This means we wind up engaging in social interaction in the absence of other people!  We obey traffic signals (some of us) on empty streets in the middle of the night; we laugh or cry with characters in books or figures on a screen; we respond to the works of artists hundreds, even thousands of years dead....  In other words, social interaction includes behavior and experience in the implied or symbolic presence of others, as well as in their actual presence.

Social interaction

George Kelly uses four of his corollaries to elaborate:

First, there's the individuality corollary:  "Persons differ from each other in their construction of events."  Since everyone has different experiences, everyone's construction of reality is different.  One reality, many perspectives.  If you have read any of the preceding chapters, you are way ahead.  But if we are all so very unique, how can we relate to others?

That where the commonality corollary comes in:  "To the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his psychological processes are similar to the other person."  Just because we are all different doesn't mean we can't be similar. If our construction system - our understanding of reality - is similar, so will be our experiences, our behaviors, and our feelings. For example, if we share the same culture, we'll see things in a similar way, and the closer we are, the more similar we'll be.

In fact, Kelly says that we spend a great deal of our time seeking validation from other people. A man sitting himself down at the local bar and sighing "women!" does so with the expectation that his neighbor at the bar will respond with the support of his world view he is at that moment desperately in need of: "Yeah, women! You can't live with 'em and you can't live without 'em." The same scenario, with minor modifications, can be found among women. And similar scenarios apply as well to kindergarten children, adolescent gangs, the klan, political parties, scientific conferences, and so on. We look for support from those who are similar to ourselves. Only they can know how we truly feel!

Then the fragmentation corollary  says "A person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other."  It says that we can be inconsistent within ourselves. It is, in fact, a rare person who "has it all together" and functions, at all times in all places, as a unified personality. Nearly all of us, for example, have different roles that we play in life: I am a man, a husband, a father, a son, a professor; I am someone with certain ethnic, religious, political, and philosophical identifications; sometimes I'm a patient, or a guest, or a host, or a customer. And I am not quite the same in these various roles.

Often the roles are separated by circumstances. A man might be a cop at night, and act tough, authoritarian, efficient. But in the daytime, he might be a father, and act gentle, tender, affectionate. Since the circumstances are kept apart, the roles don't come into conflict. But heaven forbid the man finds himself in the situation of having to arrest his own child! Or a parent may be seen treating a child like an adult one minute, scolding her the next, and hugging her like a baby the following minute. An observer might frown at the inconsistency. Yet, for most people, these inconsistencies are integrated at higher levels: The parent may be in each case expressing his or her love and concern for the child's well-being.

Some of Kelly's followers have reintroduced an old idea to the study of personality, that each of us is a community of selves, rather than just one simple self. This may be true. However, other theorists would suggest that a more unified personality might be healthier, and a "community of selves" is a little too close to multiple personalities for comfort!

Finally, how do we interact with people with whom we have very little in common?  This is addressed by the sociality corollary:  "To the extent that one person construes the construction processes of another, he may play a role in a social process involving the other person."  Even if you are not really similar to another person, you can still relate to them. You can, in fact, construe how another construes -  "get inside his head," and "know what she means." In other words, I can set aside a portion of myself (made possible through the fragmentation corollary) to "be" someone else.

Think about what this means:  I have to operate not only in my own "meaning system," but in yours as well, and you have to operate in mine.  In order to deal with you, I have to know a little about your mind as well as my own, and you have to know a little about mine.  We recognize this every time we talk about "psyching each other out" or when we say "I see where you're coming from!"

The phenomenal field

George Kelly based much of his thinking on the work of two American psychologists named Donald Snygg and Arthur Combs, who said that "all behavior, without exception, is completely determined by and pertinent to the phenomenal field of the behaving organism."  The phenomenal field is our subjective reality, the world we are aware of, including physical objects and people, and our behaviors, thoughts, images, fantasies, feelings, and ideas like justice, freedom, equality, and so on.  It is, if you like, the inside of that big arrow between World and Self in the diagram at the start of this chapter.  Snygg and Combs emphasize, above all else, that it is this phenomenal field that is the true subject-matter for psychology.

And so, if we wish to understand and predict people's behavior, we need to get at their phenomenal field.  Since we can't observe it directly, we need to infer it from the things we can observe.  We can record behavior, give various tests, talk to the person, and so on - Snygg and Combs are open to a variety of methods.  If we have a variety of observers as well, we will eventually come to understand the person's phenomenal field.

And then you are set to understand and predict the person's behavior, since, as the quote above says, all their behavior will follow as a reasonable, meaningful, purposeful response to the person's phenomenal field.