Constructivism in Psychology: Definition, Theories & Approaches

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:35 Theory & Applications
  • 2:31 Example
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Firestone
Learn what constructivism is in the context of psychology. Find out about the different constructivism theories and applications. Read the lesson, then take a quiz to test your new knowledge.


Constructivism in psychology is a method of therapy that focuses on both the internal and external systems of meaning-making. Constructivism is an approach that also combines other forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, an action-oriented form of therapy that encourages clients to change maladaptive thinking patterns that lead to maladaptive behaviors and negative emotions, and psychoanalysis, a branch of psychotherapy based on theories about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds.

Constructivism Theory and Applications

Constructivism theory is based on the idea that everyone's sense of knowing is more than a passive expression of the world around us, but instead is a result of our constructions, or our beliefs and emotions about experiences in our lives. In this context, 'construction' simply refers to the ways we build our own understanding of the world around us and how we fit into it.

Jean Piaget is considered one of the first constructivism theorists. Constructivism theory is a broad concept that encompasses many disciplines, including sociology and education. It's generally based on Piaget's notion that we are active participants in the construction of our reality.

Clinical psychologist George Kelly was the first to develop a theory of psychotherapy along constructivist lines while working with farmers who were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl during the 1920s and '30s. Kelly designed a procedure where clients were coached to enact fictional identities they created themselves. Clients acted out the roles with a therapist, allowing the two to discuss the ways the client has built his or her understanding of the world and how that understanding can change. By acting as a different part of themselves, the client sees how they can live differently by acting differently. This procedure of Kelly's came to be known as fixed-role therapy.

In another application, a client might report life experiences and the therapist will pay close attention to how these experiences are being used to create meaning in the present. The therapist then might create an 'action-thought-reaction' scenario, to reveal the impacts of the reactions on the client's life that could continue to have an impact in the future.

Narrative therapy, based on the work of Michael White, is a newer application of constructivism, where clients tell stories about their lives and examine those stories for a clearer understanding of how they've assigned meaning to their experiences.


An example of how a client helps to construct his or her own reality can be seen in adolescents with major depression. Compared to their peers without depression, these young people are more likely to think pessimistic thoughts and believe people have very little control over their lives. A therapy approach using constructivism might include the therapist encouraging one of these depressed adolescents to make a list of some of their pessimistic views, examine them critically, and try to imagine and act as if these beliefs were not true.

Let's imagine a 17-year-old high school student, Sarah, is seeing a therapist, Ellen. Ellen takes a constructivist approach to therapy; she believes some of Sarah's depressive symptoms could be lessened if Sarah learned to view the world according to more positive beliefs. One day, Sarah tells Ellen, 'My friend Janelle said she would text me on Monday night, but I never got a text from her. I don't know why I actually expected her to do what she said. No one ever keeps their promises to me. They pretend to like me, but I'm not lovable, so I'm not surprised that Janelle doesn't really like me.'

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