Cognitive Differentiation Grid

The assessment and investigation of vocational processes represents some of the most active and sustained contributions that have derived from George Kelly’s 1955 personal construct theory. Kelly’s theory is often interpreted as an early forerunner of contemporary cognitive theories, although his emphasis on personal agency, meaning, choice, and growth have variously aligned him with humanistic, existential, and postmodern positions.

The Cognitive Differentiation Grid is an early adaptation of Kelly’s Role Construct Repertory Test, a measure designed to elicit a representative sample of an individual’s personal construct system and to assess the organizational properties of these construct dimensions. In its original form, the Cognitive Differentiation Grid provided individuals with a fixed set of 12 different careers (e.g., lawyer, teacher, artist, carpenter) together with a fixed set of 12 vocational constructs (e.g., high vs. low salary; blue-collar vs. white-collar; high vs. low education) and asked them to rate each of the 12 occupations along each of the 12 vocational constructs, yielding a matrix of 144 ratings. These ratings were then subject to a wide variety of analyses designed to explore the organizational properties of the vocational construct system.

Cognitive Differentiation GridThe vocational construct system is understood as the set of idiosyncratic dimensions, or constructs, that an individual brings to bear in viewing the world of work. As bipolar dimensions of personal meaning (e.g. stimulating vs. boring; secure vs. insecure employment; creative vs. technical skills), systems of constructs collectively form networks of meaning that enable the individual to understand, evaluate, and negotiate career alternatives, choices, and development. Importantly, while broader social and cultural forces ensure some commonality among individuals’ vocational construct systems (Kelly’s Commonality Corollary), no two systems are presumed to be exactly alike (Kelly’s Individuality Corollary).

Individual construct systems can differ not only in the content of their dimensions but also in the organization and complexity of those dimensions (Kelly’s Organization Corollary). Two people may share a set of three common constructs, for example, but those constructs may occupy different positions in the overall vocational construct system and may be related differently to one another as well. For example, two individuals may evaluate careers in relation to, for example, salary (high vs. low salary), security (high job security vs. low security), and creativity (creative vs. boring). For one individual, salary may be the most important dimension, whereas for the other individual, creativity may be the most critical feature. Moreover, one of them may view salary and creativity as positively related to one another (i.e., he or she anticipates that more highly paid jobs will enable greater creativity), whereas the other may view them as inversely related (i.e., he or she anticipates that higher paid jobs tend to be more boring and permit less creativity). In each instance, Kelly’s personal construct theory places emphasis on individual differences, underscoring the idiosyncratic ways in which an individual perceives the world and orders, structures, or organizes his or her perceptions. In this regard, the theory is closely allied with postmodern developments in psychology, because a greater emphasis is placed on personal perception than on reality or the correspondence of that perception to a reality independent from the knower. It follows from Kelly’s Individuality Corollary that no two people are likely to rate all 12 occupations exactly alike in relation to all 12 constructs, and individual differences in this regard are the subject of particular interest.

Cognitive Differentiation

The concept of cognitive differentiation refers to the number of different dimensions of meaning, or personal constructs, that a person has available within his or her system of meaning. Vocational construct systems that are composed of multiple, relatively independent dimensions of meaning would situate the individual to understand the world of work in relatively complex ways, whereas a system marked by only one or two dimensions of meaning would restrict the perspectives that could be brought to bear in making career decisions or evaluating career options.

The Cognitive Differentiation Grid specifically assesses this property, the number of relatively independent vocational constructs available to the individual, and hence it provides a measure of an individual’s vocational complexity. Although the specific forms of calculating this complexity may vary, they share a common conceptual rationale. That rationale relies on the notion that two vocational constructs are different to the extent that they are used differently in perceiving and ordering different occupational alternatives. In other words, if the 12 different occupations are rated identically along two different constructs, those constructs are regarded as functionally identical. Despite the fact that they may have different labels (high vs. low salary, and high vs. low status), if they are used identically (e.g., a perfect correlation between the ratings of salary and status), they are functioning in the same way in perceiving or organizing the world of work, and hence they are counted as the same construct. In the limiting cases, all constructs could be used the same way in rating all 12 of the occupations (i.e., low complexity), or each of the 12 constructs could be used in functionally different ways in ordering or rating the set of 12 occupations (i.e., high complexity). In practice, individuals ordinarily fall somewhere between these two extremes and therefore reflect relatively high or low levels of vocational differentiation.

The Effects of Differentiation

From its inception, the assumption has been that more highly differentiated vocational construct systems should be linked to more effective career decision making and more appropriate career choices. This assumption and its implications have been the subject of ongoing research since the introduction of this instrument. Research has provided a range of evidence in this regard and noted the sensitivity of the instrument to the wide variety of adaptations it has received. Contemporary applications of the measure tend to emphasize the idiographic nature of the construct dimensions themselves, rather than their organization or differentiation alone. Returning to Kelly’s original Role Construct Repertory Test instructions, individuals are often given sets of three different occupations at a time and asked to indicate “any way in which any two of these are alike in some way” (e.g., high status) “and different from the third” (e.g., low status). This vocational construct (e.g., high versus low status) is then entered on the Cognitive Differentiation Grid and used to rate the full set of 12 occupations. The procedure is repeated 11 more times, until all 12 occupations have been rated along all 12 personally elicited construct dimensions and the idiographic nature of the constructs themselves, as well as their organization and differentiation, is available for analysis and discussion with the individual.

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  1. Bodden, J. L. 1970. “Cognitive Complexity as a Factor in Appropriate Vocational Choice.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 17:364-368.
  2. Leso, J. F. and Neimeyer, G. J. 1991. “Role of Gender and Construct Type in Vocational Complexity and Choice of Academic Major.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 38:182-189.
  3. Neimeyer, G. J. 1992. “Personal Constructs and Vocational Structure: A Critique of Poor Reason.” Pp. 91-120 in Advances in Personal Construct Psychology, edited by R. A. Neimeyer and G. J. Neimeyer. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  4. Neimeyer, G. J., Neville, D. D., Probert, B. and Fukuyama, M. 1985. “Cognitive Structures in Vocational Development.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 27:191-201.