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Constructivist cognitive theory and the approach to personal constructs

Constructivist cognitive theory and the approach to personal constructs

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Within the framework of cognitive therapies, a trend has developed constructivist which is opposed to the purely rational conceptions of the human being since it severely questions the possibility of accessing the objective knowledge of reality. The human being takes a central role in the construction of reality through the experiences lived since birth, and influenced by cultural, social, psychological and gender patterns, without neglecting the sensory limitations caused by the structures of the central nervous system.


  • 1 The cognitive-constructionist theory
  • 2 The approach to personal constructs
  • 3 The posttractionist approach
  • 4 The idea of ​​mental health

The cognitive-constructionist theory

In cognitive-constructivist theory, the human being is considered proactive in terms of knowledge (and not reactive to his environment), as one who gives meaning to his experiences with a particular sense and in accordance with a pattern consistent with his sense of self. This allows him to recognize himself over time, despite the many changes he experiences throughout life.

From this perspective, thoughts, emotions and behaviors are psychological phenomena that occur in the process of giving meaning to the experience. This process is also accompanied by tacit structures, difficult to explain, but which are usually central to the person's sense of identity.

The recognition of the role of the emotions in the activation of tacit structures it is important, since through these emotions you can access the knowledge of the central structures. However, the challenging emotions for these identity structures are often lived with strangeness. These emotions, symptoms and resistance to change are part of the person's way of giving meaning to experiences. Therefore, they make sense and are understandable from the sense of identity of the individual.

There are several psychological theories that are partially or totally influenced by this epistemological position. It is the case of the theories of Piaget Y Vygotsky, the conception of Barlett's memory, Gergen's social constructionism, narrative and hermeneutical perspectives, Guidano's post-translational therapy, Mahoney's theory of change processes, and Kelly's theory of personal constructs.

The approach to personal constructs

Kelly (1955, 2001) developed the theory of personal constructs, in which he posits that each individual accesses reality (organizes knowledge) in a hierarchically ordered structure called the system of personal constructs. If you imagine a large tree, with large roots, trunk and branches, you can distinguish some branches that are central, that support it, and many more smaller branches that derive from the central ones and that have different thickness, age, importance, strength, etc. . In this same way, personal constructs are structured; therefore, you will find nuclear constructs and peripheral constructs, all related to each other. Nuclear constructs are closely related to what each one is: they define the identity of the person or self and they are difficult to modify. Peripheral constructs derive from nuclear but are more flexible. Both allow to explain, give meaning and meaning to the experiences lived by each person.

The constructs are organized dichotomously, for example "pretty-ugly", "tidy-messy", etc., and serve for the flow of experience. In this way we isolate some events from others based on similarities and differences.

To enjoy an optimal level of functioning, equivalent to having good mental health, it would be necessary for the person to develop his constructs, his personal theory, and to make it increasingly explanatory and internally coherent.

To explain how human experience is understood, and the relationship between constructs and experience, Kelly described the cycle of experience as a permanently active process that begins with the activation of some construct. Constructs are theories about the world that serve each one to anticipate events, and that implies the elaboration of a hypothesis about the way in which an event will be developed.

This hypothesis is generated influenced by the previous experiences of the subject; It is, therefore, the involvement of the person in the construct (depending on whether the construct is central in the structure of the personal meanings of the individual). Then comes the encounter with the event, which represents testing the hypothesis, and then the implicated construct will be confirmed or unconfirmed. This phase is accompanied by emotional manifestations, and it is here that the needs of change arise and the various possible reactions to a situation that requires "rethinking some things." Given this, you can resist and stiffen, develop change quickly and sharply, "run away" and look for other escape routes, fall into chaos or review and see possible solutions, implications, morals, etc. Therefore, it is important to attend the review of the constructs once they have been invalidated in the experience. This review closes the cycle of experience and gives way to new cycles that are activated moment by moment in the future of personal life.

This review must be constructive, since many times the same constructions that have already been invalidated are used again, and it is here that psychopathology and suffering occur, so that the new cycle of experience will be invalidated again (precisely because no it has been rebuilt, or because a more viable alternative construction has not been found).

We show you a diagram of the experience cycle:

In the cycle of experience, the cognitive aspect of construction (anticipation) is integrated, which is followed by behavioral contrast and, after validation or invalidation, of the corresponding emotions. This describes the process that leads to the (continuous) reconstruction of meaning, understood as a process that different elements are part of.

The post-translational approach

In the post-translational constructivist therapy developed by Vittorio Guidano (1991, 2001) you can find an explanatory model of human experience that refers to four organizations of personal significance (OSP).

Imagine that our life is like a movie that has started when we were born. We are the main actors and, at the same time, the narrators of this story. That is, this movie would have two levels: one that is experiential, in which emotions and sensations are experienced (experience, mine), and another that is more rational (the explanation, the self), in which the narrator This story is us and we tell ourselves what has happened. Just as Kelly talks about the cycle of experience, Guidano talks about the levels of experience, and calls them the tacit level and the explicit level. In each and every one of the situations of our life, moment by moment, it is on both levels of experience. On the other hand, the narrator tells the story so that when he sees or remembers it, we know that the protagonist has always been the same person, despite the changes that have occurred throughout life. This is known as the sense of self, which we can understand as the feeling that gives us to know that we are ourselves and not another person over time: it is our identity.

Since we are children, a series of cognitive schemes are formed, from which they derive characteristic emotional and behavioral patterns. In addition, we experience a wide range of emotions that oscillate, characteristics of each way of organizing the experience. In the way we get to organize our adult experiences there is a great influence of early attachment relationships and in the way that the adolescent stage is overcome. From the clinical experience, Vittorio Guidano has made a description and classification of personal functioning styles as to how to build the world itself, which he called OSP. Its name is related to certain dysfunctions that are characteristic of each way of organizing the experience: Phobic OSP, OSP eating disorders, depressive OSP and obsessive OSP.

Below we present a very brief description of the central characteristics of each OSP. In any case, we suggest that you deepen attending the complementary readings for this topic.

Phobic OSP

The emotional domain of a person with this structure is based on a dynamic balance between two opposite poles: on the one hand, the need for protection before a world seen as potentially dangerous and, on the other, the need for freedom and independence. In addition, there is a marked tendency to respond with anxiety and fear, which sometimes leads to a decrease in autonomous behavior.

OSP eating disorders

People with a tendency to develop dysfunctional eating patterns maintain the unity of processes of personal significance based on a diffuse and ambiguous perception of their sense of self. It gets organized in the oscillation between the absolute need for the approval of the important people in your life and the fear of being unconfirmed or invaded by significant others. Particular of this OSP is the tendency to modify the personal aspect by developing food disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, obesity, etc. The need for these changes is usually activated when there is an imbalance in interpersonal relationships, taking into account that they are usually very sharp and sensitive people. The way to have a stable perception of themselves is through the establishment of very close or involved relationships, always being careful not to expose yourself too much.

OSP depressive

It is characterized mainly because they organize their experience and respond to difficult life situations in terms of helplessness and hopelessness, since they build these events in terms of disappointments and losses. His emotional responses range from anger to sadness and hopelessness.. A phrase that could describe how to face the world that a person with a depressive tendency has would be Groucho Marx's famous phrase: "I would never belong to a club that would accept me as one of its members."

OSP obsessive

The sense of self-unity of a person with this OSP is characterized in that it is ambivalent (for example, good, bad) and dichotomous. It develops in a process of growth that is determined by criteria of choice of the type "all or nothing". Therefore permanently seek the absolute certainty of their ideas and feelings. If an imbalance arises, it immediately experiences as a total lack of control. In turn, the lack of control is lived in accordance with a series of intrusive thoughts that are experienced as strangers and disturbing. The obsessive seeks the certainty of his ideas through systematic doubt, which is resolved thanks to the absolute choice of one aspect or another of the subject in question.

The idea of ​​mental health

The idea of ​​mental health, according to Guidano, implies flexibility, complexity and abstraction by the individual, so that he can respond to a progressively wider range of new situations in a different way without his sense of self becoming unstructured. From this we can deduce that when the person fails to integrate certain experiences into the continuity of the self, various symptomatic manifestations appear that are lived with strangeness. That is, the person experiences sensations that do not agree with the idea of ​​the type of person he thinks he is, and many times these challenging feelings are kept at bay by the person to protect the stability and coherence of his system. We must not forget that this process occurs in an "unconscious" or very deep degree. It appears in key moments of life when thoughts and emotions are connected that usually cause, at least, surprise. They are usually the point at which certain symptoms appear that have to do with each OSP. This situation is lived as if the mind did not agree with the heart.

Despite the existence of these classifications, we must always look at the individual as an active entity in the way of giving meaning and meaning to their experience, and therefore it is of fundamental importance to attend and understand how they organize. Psychopathological disorders are seen in a continuum that goes from the neurotic to the psychotic, in which there are no clearly differentiated limits between the range of symptoms or "pictures" that we could find in intermediate positions.


Bottle, L., i Feixas, G. (1998). The theory of personal constructs: Applications to psychological practice. Barcelona: Laertes.

Feixas, G., i Villegas, M. (2000). Constructivism and psychotherapy (3rd ed.). Bilbao: Descée de Brouwer.

Guidano, V. F. (1991). The self in process: Towards a post-translational cognitive therapy. Barcelona: Paidós, 1994.

Guidano, V. (2001). The post-translational cognitive model (comp. I notes d'A. Quiñones). Bilbao: Descée de Brouwer.

Kelly, G. (2001). The psychology of personal constructs: Selected texts. Barcelona: Paidós.

Neimeyer, R., i Mahoney, M. (comp.) (1995). Constructivism in psychotherapy. Barcelona: Paidós, 1998.

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