In psychology, a “construct” is the term and definition attributed to a phenomenon that, despite having no empirical reality, constitutes an object of study. Constructs serve to communicate, know and manipulate phenomena that are difficult to define, precisely because they are not concrete objects. They form a large part of psychology and as such have determined a large part of our individual perception of everything around us.

Next we present a definition of the construct in psychology and we will review the applications it has had in clinical psychology, specifically from the Theory of Personal Constructors.

What is a construct?

As in the scientific disciplines, psychology has generated a series of knowledge that is very important for understanding our relationship with the world. It is often a question of abstract knowledge about objects that, in spite of not having an empirical reality, constitute a large part of psychological knowledge, both on a specialised and colloquial level.

Thus, in order to legitimize itself as a practice that seeks both to generate knowledge and to administer that on which it generates knowledge (as a science), psychology has had to create a series of concepts that make intelligible the reality it studies.

In other words, since many of the objects of study in psychology are not empirical elements (concrete, material, visible elements; for example, intelligence, consciousness, personality), the discipline itself has had to generate a series of concepts that can represent what it studies.

These concepts are known as constructs, and they are precisely entities whose existence is neither uniform nor precise, but which are nevertheless studied to satisfy needs related to a specific society.

Some background and examples in psychology

In the 1970s, within the social sciences, the origins and effects of scientific knowledge began to be discussed. Among other things, it was concluded that any science is the product of a particular time and place.

As Berger and Luckmann (1979) would say, belief systems are the product of a social construction . This questioning together with these proposals also generated a debate on the constructs that psychology has generated in the framework of scientific development.

In fact, much of the research in psychology has focused on the validation of psychological constructs. This means that a series of studies are carried out and seeks to follow parameters and criteria that generate reliable concepts to talk about phenomena that are difficult to observe. For example, when different responses are measured in relation to different reaction times, which results in the construct of intelligence or IQ.

George Kelly’s Personal Construction Theory

The American psychologist George A. Kelly (1905-1966) developed a theory that was called the Theory of Personal Constructs. Through this theory, Kelly proposed that constructs can have therapeutic effects , thus, suggesting a way to apply them in clinical psychology.

According to Kelly, the terms we use to refer to things, or ourselves, reflect how we perceive those things. From there, what Kelly was saying was that the words by which we interpret a phenomenon do not necessarily describe that phenomenon, but rather reflect our perceptions of it.

So, for example, if a teacher speaks of a child as “lazy”, that is mainly a reflection of the teacher’s personal perceptions, but it also has consequences for the child himself. This is because he is put in a certain place (that of inactivity, because of laziness), so the teacher’s expectations and demands are adapted to this perception, and the child’s behaviour as well.

Kelly believed that it was possible to reconstruct, that is, to use new constructs to refer to the same phenomena, and in this way, generate and share new possibilities of action . In the case of the lazy child, for example, I would recommend replacing the “lazy” construct with one that allows the child more freedom.

The psychologist recommended thinking of us as if we were scientists, that is, as constructors of concepts that allow us to relate in one way or another to the world and to each other . As if we could permanently formulate different theories and put them to the test.

I apply the latter in the clinical field as a way to facilitate that the people I was attending relate in different ways (through different constructs) to what they perceived as a problem.

Kelly’s critique of traditional science

This is how Kelly challenged scientific objectivism and the idea of “objective reality”, proposing that more than objective realities, there is a set of beliefs and fictions, which, if necessary, can generate new beliefs and new fictions.

Such a modification is important because it implies a qualitative change in the system of relations where the person is registered. Thus, what Kelly recovers are the personal meanings and, far from seeking to homogenize them, he works on them and opens up the possibility of transformation.

In order to do this, Kelly differentiated between different types and functions of constructs , as well as the different variables involved in order for a construct to be considered valid, or not, or to form different systems. Likewise, in his theory he discusses the permeability of constructs, that is, how much they can be applied or modified and under what circumstances.

Bibliographic references:

  • Berger and Luckmann (1979). The social construction of reality. Amorrortu: Buenos Aires.
  • Botella, L. and Feixas, G. (1998). Theory of personal constructs. Applications to psychological practice. Electronic Version]. Retrieved 4 June 2018. Available at