DynaPsych Table of Contents



Parallels between

Kelly's Theory of Personal Construct

and Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity:

a Psychophysics Approach


S. Haque - Copilah

Dept. of Physics

University of the West Indies

St. Augustine, Trinidad, W.I.

E - mail: shirin@tstt.net.tt


S. Rollocks

Dept. of Behavioural Sciences

University of the West Indies

St. Augustine, Trinidad, W.I.

E - mail: Srollocks@fss.uwi.tt




This paper investigates the parallels between Kelly's Personal Construct Psychology and Einstein's theory of Special Relativity. The argument is made that there are many similar concepts that exist in both of these theories. It is further suggested that Kelly's BA degree in Physics and Mathematics prior to his specialization in Psychology may have influenced his thinking in the articulation of some of the corollaries in his theory of Personal Construct Psychology. A psychophysics approach is also seen as being useful to the formulation of new psychological theories.



1.       Introduction


All psychological theories fall short in one way or another in their attempts to account for the full range of human behaviour. For example, Freud has been criticized for his unscientific and male-oriented theory. Jung’s analytic theory is seen as presenting problems of verifiability and falsifiability. Skinner’s behavioral theory has its shortcomings in its ability to control and predict behaviour, and the list goes on. It could also be argued, that some of the short comings observed in these theories maybe directly related to the life events or academic exposure of the particular theorist.

On the website www.Allpsych.com the comment is made that:


"Every Theorist, Psychologist, Physician, and Professional has his or her own unique history. When reading about them it often becomes clear from where their theories and interests derived. Freud for example was his mother's favorite, Jung spoke of voices speaking to him, and Adler felt a strong need to overcome inferiority due to a life threatening illness." 


Similarly, Maslow's (1979) remarks regarding his mother, seem to have influenced him in developing his humanistic approach to personality:


"What I had reacted against and totally hated and rejected was not only her physical appearance, but also her values and world view, her stinginess, her total selfishness, her lack of love for anyone else in the world, even her own husband and children…her assumption that anyone was wrong who disagreed with her, her lack of concern for her grandchildren, her lack of friends, her sloppiness and dirtiness, he lack of family feeling for her own parent s and siblings…I’ve always wondered where my Utopianism, ethical stress, humanism, stress on kindness, love, friendship and all the rest came from.  I knew certainly of the direct consequences of having no mother love. But the whole thrust of my life philosophy and all my research and theorizing also has its roots in a hatred for revulsion against everything she stood for” (Maslow, 1979 p. 958.)”


As regards Skinner, Feist & Feist (1998) remark:

 "Skinner too had a characteristic way of looking at the world that was reflected in both his work and his subjective view of himself. It has been noted that Skinner's autobiography reveals a lengthy struggle to break away from the control of authority figures including his father and eventually gain freedom." (Pg. 265)


The influence of academia appears to have greatly assisted Catell in the articulation of his Trait theory. It must be remembered that Catell’s first degree was in Physics and Chemistry  (1924), and it is evident that his ideas, formulations and methodology of factor analysis in his personality theory have been influenced by his exposure to these disciplines. Likewise, George Kelly who is famous for his theory of personal constructs appears to have been influenced by his academic pursuits. He obtained his first degree in Mathematics and Physics in 1926.  That was followed by a B.Ed. at Edinburgh University and a Ph.D. in Psychology at Iowa. Kelly, although expressing a negative view about his own theory, appears to offer the best hope for the formulation of new psychological theories. But why is this so? Simply, because the basic postulates of Kelly’s theory can be readily translated into Physics correlates. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the publication of Kelly’s theory was some 50 years ago and the discipline of Physics has not remained stagnant. New discoveries have been made. Thus, it seems reasonable to suggest that a cross fertilization between modern day Physics and psychology offers a fertile spawning ground for new psychological theories that seek to capture the richness of human behaviour. It is therefore the purpose of this paper, to use Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology to illustrate the relationship between Physics and psychology.


There exists several key concepts in the Special Theory of Relativity (STR) in Physics that appear to be parallels to several concepts in Personal Construct Psychology (PCP), and as a result, Kelly may have been strongly influenced by his background in these disciplines in the formulation of his psychology.  The special theory of Relativity (1905) was taught at the undergraduate level, and the general theory of relativity, which was published 12 years later in 1917 was taught at graduate level and Kelly only pursued physics and mathematics to the undergraduate level.  He would therefore have been exposed to Einstein's theory of relativity in those times in one way or another since the special theory of relativity was first published in 1905 and created quite a stir in academic circles.


In order to assist the reader to readily grasp the physics correlates to Kelly’s postulates, we begin by introducing as simply as possible the theory of relativity and its basic tenets in section 2. In section 3, we examine the parallels and similarities between STR and PCP and end with a conclusion in section 4.


2. The Special theory of Relativity


Albert Einstein formulated the special theory of relativity in 1905. The theory arose out of "gedanken" or thought experiments as Einstein referred to them of puzzling over concepts like   " What would it be like to travel on a beam of light?”  The theory is essentially based on two postulates:


Postulate 1: known as the principle of relativity - the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames systems. There is no way to detect absolute motion, and no preferred inertial system exists.


Postulate 2: known also as the constancy of the speed of light - observers in all systems measure the same value for the speed of light in a vacuum. The speed of light is an absolute constant and independent of the motion of the source or observer.


Based on these premises several interesting results arise. We will explain the basic results qualitatively after explaining some concepts and terms in relativity. Relativity arose out of the inquiry of whether there was an absolute frame of reference with respect to which everything is moving.  On further thought it is recognized that at any given time, one could only speak of one relative velocity to something else. For example, you may be in car travelling at 80 km/s, you are at rest with respect to the car itself, however, with respect to the road you are moving at 80 km/s.  You are on planet earth which is moving around the sun and therefore you can speak of your velocity with respect to the sun, but then the sun is in motion within our galaxy and our galaxy too is hurtling in space and so on and so on. So is there any frame that we can measure absolute motion with respect to? Having difficulty with coming to terms with finding an absolute frame of reference, it was hypothesized that a 'lumineferous ether' existed, with respect to which all motion could be measured against. An experimental search was made for this ether (the Michelson - Morley experiment (1887) which employed an optical method to search for it. Due to the nature of this paper, we will not go into the details of this experiment which can be found in any text on Modern Physics. The important point is that no ether was ever found and the concept was thereafter discarded and it was accepted that all motion was relative.


This brought about the concept of inertial frames - these are frames that are moving at constant velocity, and are not accelerating.  So now, one spoke of observers in inertial frames that could observe events in other inertial frames.   These developments led to recognizing that space and time were inextricably linked, and therefore one spoke of events in the universe and an event in a given system must be specified by stating both its space and time coordinates.


The curious results that emerged from the theory of relativity was that no measurements were absolute, that time intervals depended on the frame of reference as well as measurements of lengths and distances. Inertial frames with different relative speeds would observe the same events and arrive at different values for time interval and measurements of lengths. The concept of even simultaneity is lost. Two events that are simultaneous in one reference frame are not necessarily simultaneous in another reference frame moving with respect to the first frame. Even the measurement of masses depends on the frame the measurement is made from. These are the basic tenets of special relativity all backed by mathematics and observations. However, there is one invariant quantity for all observers, known as the  'spacetime interval' that connects two events that can be calculated and found to be the same for any observer for any two events.  In contrast, the speed of light is a universal constant.


3. Similarities in concepts between PCP and STR


Even as Albert Einstein wondered what it would be like to travel on a beam of  light, in a similar fashion Kelly bemuses in Confusion and the Clock, (http://www.oikos.org/kelen.htm)


 "It has often occurred to me, as I am sure it has to you too, that it would be amusing to have a peek through the curtain of night at what tomorrow has in store. Suppose I could observe what I would be doing at this time tomorrow night. It might be interesting to watch the goings on from this present vantage point of the evening before, yet not to participate in them, nor to be concerned with whether I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, nor even to be in any danger of being recognized as an intruder. Such a thing would have to be done surreptitiously, however, for I am sure if I were to be caught at my eavesdropping, my tomorrow’s I (How do you say that?) would become self-conscious about the arrangement and start acting in an unnatural manner. He might not even do things the way he was destined to do them, and the whole affair might fall apart in a shambles of irreality"


In a nutshell, Kelly is talking of making observations in other frames without interfering in them. It is well known in Physics in Quantum Mechanics that the very act of making observations in a system interferes with it and thus can no longer make the measurement accurately any longer and this introduces an uncertainty in it. Although this is not related to the STR, it shows the influence of ideas in Physics.   It is interesting to note that PCP is one of the few mainstream theories that are stated with fundamental postulates just as STR.


The idea of mental constructs and templates and each person being their own scientist, is similar to each person existing in their own inertial frames, and making their own measurements which may or not coincide with those of the others.  The main point of PCP deals with the person's perception of the world, which depends on his frame of reference. Alternative constructivism, means a person is capable of applying alternative constructs to any events in the past, present or future. This is analogous to the different measurements persons in different frames of reference will make. There are always some alternative constructions available to choose among in dealing with the world - even, as measurements will vary depending on which inertial frame it is taken from. It is almost as good as saying that any person's interpretation of any event in psychology is relative and that there are no absolute, correct frames or preferential frames.  It is precisely what the theory of relativity speaks of with regard to the physical world.


Some of the corollaries that have some similarity to concepts in relativity are as follows:


1.      Construction Corollary - We anticipate future events according to our interpretations of recurrent themes.

2.      Individuality corollary - People have different experiences and therefore construe events in different ways. ("persons differ from each other in their construction of events.")

3.      Range corollary - Constructs are limited to a particular range of convenience, that is, they are not relevant to all situations.

4.      Commonality Corollary - To the extent that we have had experiences similar to others, our personal constructs tend to be similar to the construction systems of those people.

5.      Sociality Corollary - We are able to communicate with others because we can construe their constructions.


The corollaries listed in 1 -3 have similarities with the concepts in relativity that measurements are dependent on frames of reference and such measurements will not coincide with different frames of reference, nor with one's own measurement in their own rest frame (i.e. the observer's actual frame of reference) like the construction corollary.

Corollaries listed as 4 and 5 above have similarities to the concept of the only invariant in relativity for different observers, which is the spacetime interval. The spacetime interval allows for commonality and communication between observers.


We believe it is possible that Kelly was influenced by his exposure to Special Relativity, in developing his theory Personal Construct Theory. This of course does not imply that everything, is analogous but simply there are threads of parallel ideas running in the two theories.


Around this time also in the early 1920's, the notion of the evolutionary universe was developed, a prediction from the general theory of relativity. Prior to this, there had been thoughts that the Universe was static, but the theory of general theory of relativity that showed mathematically that we lived in an expanding universe - a concept difficult to come to terms with even for Einstein - it seemed more natural to believe that the Universe that we live in was static. However, soon enough, the prediction of the expanding Universe was backed by observations in Astronomy of receding galaxies (Hubble, 1926). The idea of evolutionary development is also critical to Kelly's theory and change is a key concept. He himself acknowledged that his theory would be overthrown and replaced by a better one and is actually a built in feature of his theory.



4.  Conclusion


It is interesting to note that the ideas 'the individual creates his or her own ways of seeing the world in which he lives; the world does not create them for him;” (http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/psy/person4.html) belongs to the discipline of psychology.  The same events can often be viewed in the light of two or more systems, yet the events do not belong to any system  is a feature of the special theory of relativity in physics. The statement "the equations themselves are invariant in different inertial frames; only the interpretations as electric and magnetic fields are relative" is taken from a physics text (Thornton & Rex, 2000, p.73 ). This statement clearly highlights the basic similarities in these theories.


The dominating concept in both PCP and STR is that the inertial frame of reference in physics or a person's construct of an event is not necessarily the same as others, nor is any point of view wrong nor will their measurements agree. We therefore conclude that   (a) Kelly's formulation of PCP was possibly influenced by the special theory of relativity, to which he would have been exposed to in his obtaining his first degree in Physics and (b) That it might be useful for theorists to explore a psychophysics approach in furthering our understanding of human behaviour.



·        Cattell, R.B (1974) An autobiography. In G. Lindzay (Ed.) A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 6, pp.61-100).  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

·        Einstein, A. (1905) Annalen der Physik, 17, no. 4

·        Feist, J & Feist, G. J.    (1998) Theories of Personality. 4th Edition. Mc Graw-Hill