We know from chaos theory that even if you had a perfect model of the world, you’d need infinite precision in order to predict future events. With sociopolitical or economic phenomena, we don’t have anything like that. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Do you know why you think the way you do? Why do you act the way you do? What is it that explains your thoughts and actions and behaviour?
Answers to those questions won’t fit on a postcard – we’re talking about the entire field of psychology here – but there’s one bit that I want to focus on called Personal Construct Theory (PCT). George Kelly developed PCT as a way to help people analyse the way they saw the world. He called this “way they saw the world” a personal construct and suggested it explained quite a lot about the way we dealt with the world.
Let’s start with a construct – that could be anything. How are you feeling, for example?
If you say you feel happy – then that’s a construct, a way of seeing the world. But a construct by itself isn’t very helpful. What you often need is to put it in context so that you can make sense of it. So, when you say happy, what do you mean?
You could say that happy only makes sense when sad is also in the picture. If happy and sad are two extremes then you’re on one end or the other. Or you could be somewhere in between the two. This kind of duality – the idea that you can make sense of one thing only when you also have a sense of what its opposite happens to be is what Kelly called a “bipolar” construct. And because you need both elements to make sense you can crash them together in a sentence saying something like you feel “happy rather than sad”. And this bipolar construct is different from saying you feel happy rather than overjoyed.
This is an important distinction because if your choice is between happy and sad and happy and overjoyed you end up being in a different place when you choose happy. You’re happy that you won a game of pool is different from saying that you’re happy because you made it through the first mile of a marathon in good time. What your view is depends on what’s happening around you in addition to what you see through your own eyes.
Kelly’s argument goes a little further and I think it can be understood by looking at the argument itself and its context. Typically psychologists seem to have looked at people as either being behaviourally driven – sticks and carrots – or as dealing with things that happened to them in childhood. If you think Pavlov’s dogs and Freud we’re talking about that kind of thing. Kelly says that there’s an alternative – perhaps people try things out, see if they work for them and then go with the things that work. So, in a bipolar construct sense you have two extremes – behaviour or psychoanalysis and many people fall somewhere between these two in contrast to Kelly’s approach of an actively experimental approach.
Using bipolar constructs is not a natural way to speak – it requires you to constantly question whether what you’re saying actually makes sense. For example, if you’re anti capitalist you could say something like “greedy capitalists” – and that sounds good. Boo hiss – all these people that just make money and keep it. But what is it that you’re saying? Are you saying “greedy capitalists rather than generous socialists?” Or are you saying “greedy capitalists rather than generous capitalists?” There are lots of capitalists that are generous and lots of socialists that aren’t.
If this sounds like hard work – constantly checking for poles – I think it well might be. But it sounds a bit like Jacobi’s saying, “Invert, always invert”. If you want to work through a chain of reasoning then perhaps this is a good idea. For example, does the image below help make the argument clearer?
Now, this argument, captured in this way can be discussed and analysed. For example, I don’t agree that words should be used instead of pictures. I’d argue that you could use both to get a richer understanding. But the other points I’m ok with, mostly.
Now, when you use this approach to build up more complex strands of reasoning – that’s when it becomes useful or perhaps more confusing. Let’s look at applications of that in the next post.