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15. Personal Construct Theory in the Measurement of Environmental Images

DescriptionThis study assumes that an understanding of the mental images of the environment which people form is a necessary prerequisite for any development of theories relating human behaviour and the environment. Personal Construct Theory and the associated 'Repertory Grid Test' are suggested as useful in the measurement and understanding of these mental images.

This paper assesses the usefulness of the repertory grid in measuring the environmental images held by two different groups of urban residents.

The study is set in Bath using a sample of twenty married, middle class women living within the city. The participants were interviewed. In the course of the interviews people were asked to name 15-20 places important to them in their everyday life in Bath. These responses were then sorted into constructs derived from pilot interviews; literature on environmental perception; and form ideas about the neighbourhood (e.g. feel at home/feel strange). A substantial amount of time was then spent with respondents trying to refine construct definitions to fit the bipolar format of the repertory grid. This information was then used to scale the categories of response. The interviews also included a semi-formal life history to abstract age, education level and other socio-economic information.


The grid test did produce information on the elements of the image to which respondents attached significance and the way in which respondents evaluated these elements using personal constructs.

The study concluded that:

  • repertory grids produced more sophisticated image maps than had been achieved with previous research methods;
  • the structure of the images vary with the personal and locational characteristics of respondents.
PublishedEnvironment and Behavior, 7 (1): 3-59
AuthorsHarrison, J. and Sarre, P
PublisherSage Publications, Inc.
Pricesubscription c. £183 p.a. (6)
Keywords personal construct theory, mental images, cognitive maps; mental maps; environmental preference;

 This has become a seminal study and is used to validate the use of the repertory grid system and Personal Construct Theory (PCT) as a basis for understanding and measuring mental images.

PCT, developed in the work of Kelly (1963), assumes that idiosyncratic ideas are used by individuals to discriminate between environmental elements. Personal Constructs are the ideas used in this discrimination of environmental stimuli and are used to create the repertory grid. The repertory grid is a binary matrix showing the similarity of environmental stimuli, and is defined by dimensions which represent personal constructs. (ref. Pomeroy, et al. 1983, p266) Ward and Russell (1981) have also used repertory grids and multidimensional scaling successfully in their work on cognition and the environment. The use of the repertory grid, although standard in Personal Construct Psychology (PCP), is now seen as too rigid by theoreticians. The sophisticated statistical analysis may not be revealing anything more than the initial constructs imply.

The Harrison and Sarre (1975) research has been based on a very small, carefully selected group of people because of the considerable time and commitment required from the participants to complete the interviews. Interview techniques would have to be refined if they were to be used on larger, randomly selected groups of participants.

More recent work in this field includes the use of measurement techniques which integrate Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with Personal Construct Theory, (Harvey 1995).


 Harvey, R. (1995) Eliciting and mapping the attributes of landscape perception: An integration of Personal Construct Theory (PCT) with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Unpublished PhD Thesis, School of Landscape Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art, Heriot-Watt University.

Kelly, G.H. (1963) A Theory of Personality. New York: W.W. Norton.

Pomeroy, J.W., Green, M.B. and Fitzgibbon, J.E. (1983) Evaluation of Urban Riverscape Aesthetics in the Canadian Prairies. Journal of Environmental Management 17: 263-276.

Ward, L.M. and Russell, J.A., (1981) Cognitive set and perception of place. Environment and Behavior, 13: 610-632.