Tuesday 5 July 2016

George Kelly on Loosening and Tightening of Personal Constructs


"Following the client's elaboration of his complaint and of parts of his construction system, the axis of loosening vs. tightening is likely to be the first important line along which the therapist will urge him to move. Loosening is defined as characteristic of those constructs leading to varying predictions, while a tight construct holds its elements firmly in their prescribed contexts. Under loose construction an element classified at one pole of a construct on one occasion is envisioned at the contrast pole on another. Thus a loose construct tends to be elastic, relating itself to its elements only tenuously; yet it retains its identity as a personal construct in the client's system.
How does it feel to think loosely? One thinks loosely in dreams. There the shadowy figures loom large without losing their diminutive proportions; they are black yet they are white; they are alternately ominous and comforting, until the dreamer despairs of telling his tight-thinking therapist anything about them at all." (Kelly: Psychology of Personal Constructs, Vol 2, p1029)

"We can summarize the functions of construct-tightening procedures in psychotherapy as follows: First of all, the broad purpose of tightening, as well as that of any other psychotherapeutic procedure, is to help the client expand the possibilities of making his world more predictable. This does not necessarily mean he is to be consigned to simple routines, although there may be instances in which this is advisable. Broadly, it means that opportunities will be opened up for him to make predictable more and more of the world. This is the direction of movement, rather than that he shall withdraw more and more into a predictable world. [...]
We say that the tight thinking person has a chance of getting a clear-cut yes or no answer. He is not assured of such an answer and, if he gets it, it may not, in some cases, be a very intelligent one. Yet the loose-thinking person can only face the outcome of his ventures with vagueness and perplexity.[...]
The second function of tightening is to stabilize the client's psychological processes. We are all familiar with the loose-thinking child whose imaginative productions are misleading and therefore sometimes mischievous. His confabulation may include lying, dishonesty, or even cheating. In an older person this characteristic may be viewed as a 'lack of integrity'. In a sense this is correct, for there is often a lack of 'wholeness' in the person whose constructions are quite loose.
The Third function of tightening is to facilitate the organization of the ordinal relationships in the client's construction system. It is difficult to develop superordinate constructs if the lower-order constructs which they subsume continue to be vague and unstable.
A fourth function of tightening is to reduce certain constructs to a state of impermeability.
The fifth function of tightening is to [...] facilitate experimentation. We have used the model of scientific methodology in conceptualizing the psychotherapeutic process and the client's reconstruction of life. We believe that the way the scientist learns can be used as a way for the client to learn." (ibid, pp1063-1067)
My commentary

I would say, what is this loosening and tightening but degrees of constraint in the intersubjective relations between client and therapist, or teacher and learner? Kelly's theory is powerful, but I suspect it contains a positive causal model of how personal constructs relate to predictive modelling. But it doesn't take much to invert it. Constructs are generators of possibility as Kelly says. But learning and change occurs when we discover how the possibilities of our constructs are constrained by nature and by each other.

Also there is something to say about the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist can move into the client's world and become part of their world. This is a change to their environment and the possibilities for action together transcend what is individually possible (basically, this is Vygotsky). This is a kind of loosening - in more technical terms, it increases the maximum number of possibilities and introduces uncertainty which can be used as a foundation for introducing new concepts and a kind of re-aligned tightening. This tightening is enhancement of the organisation of the ordinal relationships in the construction system. Tightening makes the world more predictable by attenuating perception to those aspects of the world relatively unaffected by natural constraint, and so it ought to facilitate the gradual withdrawal of the therapist (or teacher). In this way, the scaffolding works. But deeper learning requires the skills of loosening and tightening to be mastered by the client/learner as much as the therapist/teacher.


Sebastian Fiedler said...

Hi Mark,

You Write "but I suspect it contains a positive causal model of how personal constructs relate to predictive modelling"
could you elaborate on this?



Mark Johnson said...

Hi Seb,

Kelly puts emphasis on personal constructs being able to predict events. Psychological disorders are seen as not being able to predict events. Fundamentally, the constructs are seen as being isomorphic to reality: there is a correlation between mental constructs and real events - this is a very Kantian idea, which assumes that there are regular causal patterns in nature to which the mind can fit itself (Kant disagreed with Hume on this).

I think regularities are our own construction which we continually learn are flawed (or constrained) by our environment. Kelly seems to associate knowledge with our constructs (for example, as they might be represented in a repertory grid). I would identify knowledge with the continual identification of exceptions to constructs: much of our knowledge is gained through a process of increasing awareness of how our constructs are wrong, and in communicating this with others - so it's the things at the boundaries of the repertory grid which are important.

Are you in Calgary?