Construing economic behaviour

Theodoulou, Stella (1996) Construing economic behaviour. Doctoral thesis, London Guildhall University.


Economic behaviour does not take place in a vacuum or separate from other aspects of human behaviour. For too long, the expression ceteris paribus has been the catchall of economic modelling, and when pressed for examples of "other things being equal", invariably many of these are psychological factors. The research problem was to identify some of these psychological factors, and using Kelly's (1955) Psychology of Personal Constructs, to determine how lay people and economics 'experts' construe issues in economic life (All references to 'expert' subjects in the following studies should only be taken to mean - those individuals who work or are trained in the fields of economics, business, finance etc. 'Non-expert' subjects do not have this background).

A number of experimental methods were developed and carried out in order to explore these issues. A pilot study found that the traditional Kellian Repertory Grid technique was suitable for eliciting economic elements, and this technique was later used in two further experiments in order to examine two topics which, from previous literature in the area of economic psychology, appear to be of particular interest to both economists and psychologists; namely, savings/investment, and the relation between microeconomics and macroeconomics.

In addition to the traditional methodology, a novel aspect of the research was the development of a measure of Kelly's notions of transition and control. Statements made by economists, politicians and other writers on economic theory and policy were collected over a four and a half year period between 1991 and 1996 and were analysed for psychological content, in the form of expressed constructs. These were then classified according to a number of Kelly's theoretical definitions. The results highlighted the important place such constructs have for construing within the economic realm.

Statements devised from the findings of this particular study and which were then structured in accordance with Kelly's definitions of preemptive, constellatory and propositional constructs were presented in a multiple choice format to a number of expert subjects of pre-determined political affiliation. The results of this experiment found that there were significant differences between Labour and Conservative Party supporters in their preference for propositional and aggressive construing (Labour) and preemptive and hostile construing (Conservative). Liberal Democrat Party supporters' preference for different kinds of construing showed similarities with those of supporters of both of the other Parties.

The results of the savings/investment experiment, which utilised the more traditional Kellian methodology, identified a number of differences in the way individuals categorised as experts and non-experts construed such economic elements; for example, the expert subjects used significantly more economic and political constructs. The results of the macro/microeconomic elements Grids study also revealed a number of differences in the construing of these experienced and non-experienced subjects. (For example, the latter did not appear to appreciate the important link between rates of saving and rates of unemployment. Further results will be discussed.)

Future research to extend both the theoretical and methodological aspects of Kelly's (1955) Personal Construct Theory in the context of the findings of this project is discussed. Other methodological instruments and techniques, such as implication grids (which do not contain elements, but pair each construct with every other construct to see if one implies the other) and laddering (a procedure in which the individual can indicate the hierarchical integration of his/her system) could be developed and utilised in order to achieve an increased understanding of the nature of individual construing in the field of economic behaviour.

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