What is constructivist psychology?
One tenet of constructivist thought is that the narratives that people tell serve two functions. One, they are organizational, allowing people to account for the plot structure of their past. Two, they are anticipatory, orienting people toward a meaningful future. Our stories are who we are.
Another tenet of constructivist thought is that the nuances of people’s construction of the world are what is important, not whether this construction is right or wrong. A constructivist emphasizes developing a viable, workable construction of people, things, and events, rather than an accurate representation of absolute reality. People can construct multiple meanings for the events in their lives, each meaning may help them to understand and respond creatively to their experience. The Journal of Constructivist Psychology, formerly the International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology, contains empirical research, conceptual analyses, critical reviews, and occasionally case studies that further explore aspects of constructivist psychology.
There is no single founder of constructivist psychology, but it has roots in philosophy. Some early contributors are the German philosopher Immanuel Kant , British psychologist Frederic C. Bartlett, and Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget .
Kant believed that experience and sensation were not passively written into a person, but rather that the mind is an active, form-giving structure that transforms and coordinates data into integrated thought. For example, a man may believe that all women are inferior to all men. At committee meetings, this man ignores women, devalues their contributions, and forgets that women made helpful suggestions or recommendations. This man has inadvertently constructed a world that fits his preconceived ideas.
Bartlett applied constructivist concepts in his investigations of human memory. In classical research on remembering, Bartlett maintained that memories were reconstructed out of bits and pieces of recollected information. For example, when people witness a crime, they do not store intact, unchangeable photographs of it. Rather, their impressions are ongoing and can be shaped by subsequent questioning, comments, and other information, such as what they read in the newspaper.
Piaget chronicled how children’s cognitive schemas change as a function of maturation. Piaget documented how children do more than simply learn facts; they actually change the way they think as they mature. For example, a four-year-old will look at one set of ten pennies in a widely spaced row and believe that they are more pennies than a second set of fifteen closely spaced pennies, even though this child can count accurately. At age seven, in contrast, this same child will grasp that the pennies are unchanged by how closely they are packed together and will know that the second set contains more pennies.
Seen through a constructivist lens, psychotherapy involves a quest for relatedness, connection, and mutuality of meaning in spite of uniqueness. The psychotherapist must join with the client to develop a refined map of the individual’s often inarticulate constructions by focusing on personal meanings, the constructions of roles, and the relationship between client and therapist.
Constructivists distrust highly standardized procedures for modifying human behavior. Likewise, constructivists oppose applying universal categories of disorders that fail to capture the richness and subtlety of any given individual. For example, a constructivist would resist using a diagnosis of major depression because this dry category fails to convey any information about how the patient makes meaning out of life. Treatment or diagnostic manuals cannot accommodate the individual person or the specific relationship.
Further, constructivists resist viewing the therapist as an expert who makes the client more functional or adaptive. Rather, constructivists grant that therapist and client are both experts, and no one knows the client’s world or experience better than the client. The constructivist recognizes that because the client’s constructions are working fictions rather than established facts, they are amenable to alternative interpretations.
Because emotional adjustment is not simply a straightforward matter of making one’s thoughts realistic and in line with the observable world, constructivist therapists draw the client’s attention to troubling discrepancies between working models of self and world and of moment-to-moment experiencing. For example, the client views herself as calm and rational, yet she speaks in a pressured way, grips the chair strongly, and has a frown on her face, all of which suggest anger or another strong emotion. One goal is not to dispute negative emotions, but to intensively explore the emotions and extend her self-awareness in the direction of greater complexity and integration. Another goal is to develop new meanings. For example, the therapist might ask her to speak aloud in the critical voice of her conscience. As she angrily delineates shortcomings, she might realize the resemblance to her mother’s criticisms. Therapy might help her synthesize her self-contempt and her need for comfort into a new self-acceptance.
Constructivist therapists who treat the entire family view therapy as a conversation whose goal is to alter the whole system. The therapist functions not as an expert who gives answers, but more as a conversation manager who promotes exchanges between family members that dissolve old problems by helping people talk about them in new ways and reach new perspectives.
In a constructivist view, human knowing is more than simply developing realistic mental maps of an external world. Rather, a person actively creates a narrative by binding past experiences and ongoing life events into meaningful units across time, themes, and persons.
Gaines, Brian R. "Humans as Scientists: Scientists as Humans." Jour. of Constructivist Psychology 26.3 (2013): 210–17. Print.
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