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How to Avoid Preemptive Constructs

A scientist, politician, and advertiser walk into a bar.

Key points

  • Some forms of interpretive bias appear to reflect what George Kelly referred to as preemptive personal constructs.
  • Scientists are people, too. they can be biased in subtle ways by the application of preemptive scientific construals.
  • It is useful to take note of the use of preemptive thinking, by ourselves and others, and to consider alternative interpretations.

The Person as Naive Scientist

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but ordinary people are like scientists. This was the basic assumption of a cognitive theory of personality proposed in the 1950s by George Kelly. Kelly was ahead of his time in emphasizing cognition, foreshadowing psychology’s cognitive revolution. He likened the layperson to scientists in actively seeking to understand the world by forming and testing hypotheses.

Chokniti Khongchum/Pexels
Source: Chokniti Khongchum/Pexels

Scientists Are People, Too

Back then, this could be taken as a compliment. Alternative accounts of psychological human nature prevalent at the time portrayed it as more passive and reactive. But, depending on whom you talk to now, the public image of science is it does not universally suggest a noble search for truth, nor do its practitioners necessarily command respect and admiration. Many view researchers and research findings as biased, at times deliberately deviating from the truth for self-serving reasons.

And not without good cause. Much has been written about the Replication Crisis in psychology and other disciplines. One major focus concerns “Questionable Research Practices” that can invalidate how scientific data are collected and analyzed. The discussion has also extended beyond specific aspects of research methodology to include the way scientists favor certain interpretations of research findings over others when the data may not support their preference.

Addressing the latter kind of problem, as well as others, T. X. Barber published a book in 1976 titled, “Pitfalls in Human Research: Ten Pivotal Points.” Among those points was the “Investigator Paradigm Effect” with subpoints including “Tenacity of Paradigms and Resistance to New Discoveries," and “Paradigms versus Pet Theories or Hypotheses.”

In doing so, Barber echoed calls for caution about strongly held beliefs that had been urged by serious thinkers throughout history. Among the earliest to do so in the scientific era was Francis Bacon. To offset this kind of bias, T. C. Chamberlin suggested that scientists investigate multiple working hypotheses rather than focus on a single hypothesis that may have been elevated prematurely to dominant or ruling status. This view has been restated and amplified by others, including J. R. Platt.

Preemptive Personal Constructs

This brings me back to George Kelly, who described a psychological mechanism that can create bias, in which a person insists on a particular, preferred explanation for an observation, and rejects all others. Kelly referred to this as the application of a preemptive personal construct.

A personal construct is a way of thinking about and explaining what we observe, and a preemptive personal construct favors one interpretation to the exclusion of others. There's more than one way a construct can be preemptive but, in essence, it occurs when certain observations are believed strongly by the person to have one, and only one, possible explanation. Examples:

  • My political opponents disagree with me because they are deluded; only being delusional can explain their beliefs, and being delusional by itself explains them.
  • Buy Brand X! There is nothing else like it for what you need!

I have deliberately used examples from political discourse and advertising, because preemptive constructs are their stock in trade, as they can be in science.

Asad Photo Maldives/Pexels
Source: Asad Photo Maldives/Pexels

But we all use them:

  • That car nearly hit mine because the driver intended to cut me off; there is no other possible reason.
  • My symptoms must mean I have [worst possible medical condition], nothing else can explain them.

Preemptive constructs are limiting for at least two reasons: They focus discussion on the preferred explanation, which can cause it to grow in prominence. And they channel discussion into an up-or-down vote on that explanation, as opposed to seeking alternatives that might draw some of the limelight instead. This sets the terms of debate: Either it is true or it is false. Other possible explanations need not apply. My way or the highway.

To be fair to the lay public, if scientists, who are trained to be disciplined thinkers in search of the truth, can’t always help themselves and refrain from using preemptive constructs, how can anyone else be expected to do so?

Mikael Blomkvist/Pexels
Source: Mikael Blomkvist/Pexels

Let’s face it. The use of preemptive thinking and other forms of narrative bias is ubiquitous and inevitable. It is up to us to learn how to deal with it, both in our own thinking and in that of others.

A Modest First Step

All of us–scientists, politicians, advertisers, and the rest–can take modest steps toward assessing our own propensity to think in ways that may not lead directly to the truth, and our awareness of the same propensity in others. I call this the Thinking Outside the Preemptive Construct technique.

Make a note of instances throughout the day in which either you, yourself, come to a quick, absolute judgment about something, or in which you observe or read about others making such judgments. An observation is made, a firm conclusion is drawn, and no other explanations are considered.

Later, set aside time to go through the list. Make notes on the observation, the judgment, who made the judgment, and whatever else comes immediately to mind. Then, can you go further by listing alternative conclusions that appear at least as plausible as the one in question?

If the results are useful or interesting, keep it up. You may find you have sensitized yourself to the use of preemptive personal constructs by yourself and others. With continued practice, I would not be surprised if you find yourself coming up with alternative conclusions in real time, rather than only later on retrospective reflection.

Because my Thinking Outside the Preemptive Construct technique works; nothing else will.

Copyright 2022 Richard J. Contrada


Bacon, F [Ed]; Robertson, J.M [Ed]; Ellis [Trans]; Spedding [Trans]. (1905). The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon. Florence, KY, US: Taylor & Frances/Routledge.

Barber, T. X. (1976). Pitfalls in Human Research: Ten Pivotal Points. New York: Pergamon Press.

Chamberlin, T. C. (1965). "The method of multiple working hypotheses" (PDF). Science. 148 (3671): 754–759. doi:10.1126/science.148.3671.754

John, L. K., Loewenstein G., Prelec D. (2012). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth-telling. Psychological Science, 23, 524–532. doi:10.1177/0956797611430953

Kelly, George A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. Vol. 1. A theory of personality. Vol. 2. Clinical diagnosis and psychotherapy. Oxford, England: W. W. Norton.

Pashler H., Harris C.R. (2012). "Is the Replicability Crisis Overblown? Three Arguments Examined". Perspectives on Psychological Science. 7 (6): 531–536. doi:10.1177/1745691612463401.

Platt J. R. (1964). Strong Inference: Certain systematic methods of scientific thinking may produce much more rapid progress than others. Science. 146(3642):347-53. doi: 10.1126/science.146.3642.347. PMID: 17739513.

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