Are Adult Developmental Stages Real?

Epistemic status: moderately confident

Robert Kegan’s developmental stages have become popular in my corner of the social graph, and I was asked by Abram Demski and Jacob Liechty to write a literature review (which they kindly funded, before I started my new job) of whether Kegan’s theory is justified. Since Kegan’s model is a composite that builds on many previous psychologists’ work, I had to do an overview of several theories of developmental stages.  I cover the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson, Piaget, Maslow, and Kegan.  All of these developmental stage theories posit that there are various levels of cognitive, moral, or psychological maturity and sophistication; children start at the low levels and progress to the higher ones; only a few of the very “wisest” adults reach the very top stages.

This makes intuitive sense and is a powerful story to tell. You can explain conflicts and seemingly strange behavior by understanding that some people are simply on more primitive levels and cannot comprehend more sophisticated ones. You can be motivated to reach towards self-improvement by a model of a ladder of development.

But for the moment I want to ask more from developmental theories than being interesting or good stories; I want to ask if they’re actually correct.

In order for a developmental theory to be correct, I think a few criteria must be met:

  • The developmental stages must be reliably detectable, e.g. by some questionnaire or observational test that has high internal consistency and/or inter-rater reliability
  • The developmental stages must improve with age, at least within a given cohort (most people progress to later stages as they grow older)
  • The developmental stages must be sequential and cumulative (people must learn earlier stages before later ones, and not skip stages)
  • In cases where the developmental stages are supposed to occur at particular ages, they must actually be observed being attained at those ages.

Most of the theories do not appear to meet these criteria.


Jean Piaget was one of the pioneers of child development psychology. Beginning in the 1930’s, his observations of children led him to a sequential theory of how children gain cognitive abilities over time.

Piaget’s stages of cognitive development are:

  • Sensorimotor, ages 0-2, hand-eye coordination and goal-directed motion
  • Pre-operational, ages 2-7, speech, pretend play and use of symbols
  • Concrete operational, age 7-11, inductive logic, perspective-taking
  • Formal operational, ages 11-adult, deductive logic, abstraction, metacognition, problem-solving

Piaget’s first study, The Origins of Intelligence in Children, published in 1952, was conducted on his own three children, from birth to age 2. He and his wife made daily observations of the children.

Reflexes, Piaget noticed, are present from birth: the sucking reflex, upon contact with the nipple, happens automatically. In the first month of life, he notes that the babies become more effective at finding the nipple.  From one to two months, babies self-stimulate even when there is no breast — they suck their thumbs or make sucking motions on their own. This, Piaget calls the “primary circular reaction”. A reflex has been transformed into a self-generated behavior.  At first, the baby can’t reliably find his thumb; he flails his arms until they happen to brush his face, and then engages the sucking reflex.  There are “circular reactions” to grasping, looking, and listening as well.  Later, babies learn to coordinate these circular reactions across senses, and to move their bodies in order to attain an objective (e.g. reaching for an object to take it).

Some of Piaget’s conclusions have been disputed by modern experiments.

In his studies of infants, he tested their ability to reason about objects by occluding the object from view, subjecting it to some further, hidden motion, and then having the child search for the object.

However, younger infants have less physical ability to search, so this task is less appropriate for assessing what young infants know.  In the 1980’s, Leslie and Ballargeon used looking time as a metric for how much infants were surprised by observations; since this doesn’t require physical coordination, it allows for accurate assessment of the cognitive abilities of younger infants.  Leslie’s experiments confirmed that babies understand causality, and Ballargeon’s confirmed that babies have object permanence — in both cases, looking times were longer for “impossible” transformations of objects that violated the laws of causality or caused objects to transform when behind a screen.  4-month-old infants are, contra Piaget, capable of object permanence; they understand that objects must move along continuous paths, and that solid objects cannot pass through each other.[2]

Kittens go through Piaget’s sensorimotor stages: first reflexes, then habits (pawing, oscillating head), then secondary circular formations (wrestling, biting, dribbling with objects), and finally means-end coordination (playing hide-and-seek.)[3]  This supports the ordering of sensorimotor skills in Piaget’s classification.

A 1976 study of 9-14-year-olds given a test and subjecting it to factor analysis found that there were three axes: formal operational systematic permutations; concrete operational addition of asymmetric relations; and formal operational logic of implications.[4]  This supports something like Piaget’s classifications of cognitive tasks.

Different studies conflict on which operational stages come before others: is class inclusion always required before multiplication of classes? Ordinal before cardinal? Logical and number abilities before number conservation? There’s no consistent picture.  “By 1970, it was evident in the important book, Measurement and Piaget, that the empirical literature functioned poorly as a data base on which the objective evaluation of Piagetian theory could be effectively attempted (Green, Ford, & Flamer, 1971)…For example, Beard (1963) found that 50% of her 5- to 6-year-old samples conserved quantity (solid). In contrast, Lovell and Ogilvie (1960) and Uzgiris (1964) reported that it is in the 8- to 9-year-old range that children conserve quantity. Elkind (1961) reported that 52% of 6-year-old children conserved weight, but Lovell and Ogilvie (1961) reported this percentage for 10-year-old children.”[5]

According to Piaget’s “structured whole” theory, when children enter a new stage, they should gain all the skills of that stage at once. For instance, they should learn conservation of volume of water at the same time as they learn that the length of a string is conserved. “ However, point synchrony across domains has never been found. To the contrary, children manifest high unevenness or decalage (Feldman 1980, Biggs & Collis 1982, Flavell 1982). Piaget acknowledged this unevenness but never explained it; late in his life he asserted that it could not be explained (Piaget 1971).”  However, it’s overwhelmingly true that success at cognitive tasks is age-dependent. On a host of tasks, age is the most potent predictor of performance.[6]

Piaget claimed that children develop cognitive skills in discrete stages, at particular ages, and in a fixed order. None of these claims appear to be replicated across the literature. The weaker claims that children learn more cognitive skills as they grow older, that some skills tend to be learned earlier than others, and that there is some clustering in which children who can perform one skill can also perform similar skills, have some evidentiary support.


Lawrence Kohlberg, working in the 1960’s and 70’s, sought to extend Piaget’s developmental-stage theories to moral as well as cognitive development.

Kohlberg’s stages of moral development are:

  • Obedience and punishment (“how can I avoid punishment?”)
  • Instrumentalist Relativist (“what’s in it for me?”)
  • Interpersonal Concordance (“be a good boy/girl”, conformity, harmony, being liked)
  • “Law and Order” (maintenance of the social order)
  • Social contract (democratic government, greatest good for the greatest number)
  • Universal ethical principles (eg Kant)

The evidence for Kohlberg’s theory comes from studies of how people respond to questions about hypothetical moral dilemmas, such as “Heinz steals the drug”, a story about a man who steals an expensive drug to save his dying wife.

Kohlberg did longitudinal studies of adolescents and adults over a period of six years, in the US, Taiwan, Mexico, and isolated villages in Turkey and the Yucatan.  In all three developed-country examples, the prevalence of stages 1 and 2 declined with age, while the prevalence of 5 and 6 increased with age.  In the isolated villages, stage 1 declined with age, while stage 3 and 4 increased with age, and stages 5 and 6 were always rare. Among 16-year-olds, Stage 5 was the most common in the US, while stages 3 and 4 were the most common in Taiwan and Mexico; in the isolated villages, Stage 1 was still the most common by age 16.

In adults there was likewise some change in moral development over time — Stage 4 (law and order) increased with age from 16 to 24, in both lower- and middle-class men, and the highest rates of stage 4 were found in the men’s fathers.  Most men stabilize at Stage 4, while most women stabilize at stage 3.

Kohlberg’s experiments show that there is change with age in how people explain moral reasoning, which is similar in direction but different in magnitude across cultures.[7]

In subsequent studies from around the world, 85% (out of 20 cross-sectional studies) showed an increase in moral stage with age, and none of them found “stage skipping” (all stages between the lowest and the highest were present.)  Contra Kohlberg, most subsequent studies do not show significant sex differences in moral reasoning. There are some cultural differences: stage 1 does not show up in children in Iran or Hutterite children; most folk tribal societies do not have stages 4, 5, or 6 at all.[8]

Subsequent studies have shown that children do in fact go through Kohlberg’s stages sequentially, usually without stage skipping or regression.[9]

Juvenile delinquents have lower scores on Kohlberg’s moral development test than nondelinquents; moreover, the most psychopathic delinquents had the lowest scores.[11]

Jonathan Haidt has critiqued Kohlberg’s theory, on the grounds that people’s verbal reasoning process for justifying moral hypotheticals does not drive their conclusions.  In hypothetical scenarios about taboos —  like a pair of siblings who have sex, using birth control and feeling no subsequent ill effects — people quickly assert that incest is wrong, but can’t find rational explanations to justify it. People’s affective associations with taboo scenarios (such as claiming that it would upset them to watch) were better predictors of their judgments than their assessments of the harm of the scenarios.[10]

If the social intuitionists like Haidt are correct, then research in Kohlberg’s paradigm may tell us something about people’s verbal narratives about morality, but not about their decision-making process.

There is also the possibility that interviews about hypotheticals are not good proxies for moral decision-making in practice; people may give the explanations that are socially desirable rather than the real reasons for their judgments, and their judgments about hypotheticals may not correspond to their actions in practice.

Still, Kohlberg’s stages are an empirical phenomenon: there is high inter-rater reliability, people  advance steadily in stage with age (before stabilizing), and industrialized societies have higher rates of the higher stages.


Erik Erikson was a psychoanalyst who came to his own theory of stages of psychosocial development in the 1950’s, in which different stages of life force the individual to confront different challenges and develop different “virtues.”

Erikson’s developmental stages are:

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust (infancy, relationship with mother, feeding and abandonment)
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame (toddlerhood, toilet training)
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt (kindergarten, exploring and making things)
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority (grade school, sports)
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (adolescence, social relationships)
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation (romantic love)
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle age, career and parenthood)
  8. Ego integrity vs. Despair (aging, death)

This theory had its origins in subjective clinical impressions. There has been some attempt to correlate a measure of identity achievement with other positive attributes, but, for instance, it has no association with self-esteem or locus of control, which would seem counterintuitive if the “identity achievement” score really corresponded to the development of an independent self.

A self-report questionnaire, in which people rated themselves on Trust, Autonomy, Initiative, Industry, Identity, and Intimacy, was found to have moderately high Kronbach alpha scores (0.57-0.75).  Males scored higher on autonomy and initiative, while females scored higher on intimacy, as you’d expect from sex stereotypes.[12]

Two studies, one of 394 inner-city men, and one of 94 college sophomore men, classified them as stage 4 if they never managed to live independently or made lasting friendships, stage 5 if they managed to live apart from their family of origin and become financially independent, stage 6 if they lived with a wife or partner, and stage 7 if they had children, managed others at work, or otherwise “cared for others”. They added a stage 6.5 for career consolidation.   Adult life stages in this sense were independent of chronological age, and men who didn’t master earlier stages usually never mastered later ones.[13]

Erikson’s Stage 5, identity development, has some observational evidence behind it; children’s spontaneous story-telling exhibits less concern with identity than adolescents’.  One researcher “found the white adolescents to show a pattern of “progressive identity formation” characterized by frequent changes in self-concept during the early high school years followed by increasing consistency and stability as the person approached high school graduation. In contrast, the black adolescents showed a general stability in their identity elements over the entire study period, a pattern Hauser termed “identity foreclosure.” He interpreted this lack of change as reflecting a problem in development in that important developmental issues had been dodged rather than resolved.”  Of course, it may also mean that “identity development” is culturally contingent rather than universal.[14]

A study that gave 244 undergraduates a questionnaire measuring the Eriksonian ego strengths found that “purpose in life, internal locus of control, and self-esteem bore strong positive relations with all of the ego strengths, with the exception of care.”  But there were no significant correlations between the ego strengths and age, nor any indication that they are achieved in a succession.[15]

A study giving 1073 college students an Erikson developmental stage questionnaire found that it did not fit the “simplex” hypothesis (where people’s achievement of stage n would depend directly on how well they’d achieved step n-1, and less on other stages.)[16]

A 22-year longitudinal study showed that people continued to develop higher scores on Erikson developmental-stage questionnaires between the ages of 20 and 42, even “younger” stages; there was a significant increase over time in stages 1, 5, and 6, for several cohorts.[17]

While people do seem to in some cases gain more of  Erikson’s  ego strengths over time, this finding is not reliable in all studies. People do not climb Erikson’s stages in sequence, or at fixed ages.


Psychologist Abraham Maslow, inspired by the horrors of war to learn about what propels people to “self-actualized”, developed the concept of a “hierarchy of needs” in which the lower ones must be fulfilled before people can pursue the higher ones.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are:

  • Physiological (food, air, water)
  • Safety (security from violence, disease, or poverty)
  • Love and belonging
  • Esteem (self-respect, respect from others)
  • Self-actualization (realizing one’s potential)

The theory is that lower needs, when unsatisfied, “dominate” higher needs — that one cannot focus on esteem without first satisfying the need for safety, for instance.  Once one need is satisfied, the next higher need will “activate” and start driving the person’s actions.

Three researchers (Alderfer, Huizinga, and Beer) developed questionnaires designed to measure Maslow’s needs, but all had weaknesses, “particularly a low convergence among items designed to measure the same constants.”  None of the studies showed Maslow’s five needs as independent factors.  Both adjacent and nonadjacent needs overlap, contradicting Maslow’s theory that needs are cumulative.  People also do not rank the importance of those needs according to Maslow’s order.  Also the “deprivation/domination” paradigm (that, the more deprived you are of a need, the higher its importance to you) is contradicted by studies that show that this is not true for safety, belonging, and esteem needs.  The “gratification/activation” theory, that when need n is satisfied, need n becomes less important and need n + 1 becomes more important, was also not borne out by studies.

The author of the review concludes, “Maslow’s Need Hierarchy Theory is almost a nontestable theory…Maslow (1970) criticized what he called the newer methods of research in psychology. He called for a “humane” science.  Accordingly, he did not attempt to provide rigor in his writing or standard definitions of concepts. Further, he did not discuss any guides for empirical verification of his theory. In fact, his defense of his theory consisted of logical as well as clinical insight rather than well-developed research findings.”[18]

However, a more recent study of 386 Chinese subjects found Cronbach alpha scores in the 80-90% range, positive correlations between the satisfaction of all needs, and higher correlations between the satisfaction of adjacent needs than nonadjacent needs.  This seems to suggest a stagelike progression, although the satisfaction of all needs still overlap.  Also, satisfaction of the physiological needs was a predictor of the satisfaction of every one of the four higher-level needs.[19]

A global study across 123 countries found that subjective wellbeing, positive feelings, and negative feelings were all correlated in the expected ways with certain universal needs: basic needs for food and shelter, safety and security, social support and love, feeling respected and pride in activities, mastery, and self-direction and autonomy.  The largest proportion of variance explained globally in life evaluation was from basic needs, followed by social, mastery, autonomy, respect, and safety.  The largest proportion of variance explained in positive emotions was from social and respect. The largest proportion of variance explained in negative emotions was from basic needs, respect, and autonomy.  There are “crossovers”, people who have fulfillment of higher needs but not lower ones: “For example, respect is frequently fulfilled even when safety needs are not met.”[20]

It is unclear whether Maslow’s needs are distinct natural categories, and it is clear that they do not have to be satisfied in sequence, that the most important needs to people are not necessarily the lowest ones or the ones they lack most, and that people do not develop stronger drives towards higher needs when their lower needs are fulfilled. The only part of Maslow’s theory that is borne out by evidence is that people around the world do, indeed, value and receive happiness from all Maslow’s basic categories of needs.


Robert Kegan is not an experimental psychologist, but a practicing therapist, and his books are works of interpretation rather than experiment. He integrates several developmental-psychology frameworks in The Evolving Self, such as Piaget, Kohlberg, and Maslow.

Kegan’s stage 0 is “Incorporative” — babies, corresponding to Piaget’s sensorimotor stage, no real social orientation.

Stage 1 is “impulsive”, corresponding to Piaget’s concrete operational stage, Kohlberg’s punishment/obedience orientation, and Maslow’s physiological satisfaction orientation: the subject is impulses, the objects are reflexes, sensing and moving. This is roughly toddlers.

Stage 2 is “imperial”, corresponding to Piaget’s concrete operational stage, Kohlberg’s “instrumental” orientation, and Maslow’s safety orientation; this is roughly grade-school-aged children. The subject is needs and wishes, the objects are impulses.

Stage 3 is “interpersonal”, corresponding to Piaget’s early formal operational, Kohlberg’s interpersonal concordance orientation, and Maslow’s belongingness orientation. The subject is mutuality and interpersonal relations, the objects are needs and wishes.  These are young teenagers.

Stage 4 is “institutional”, corresponding to Piaget’s formal operational, Kohlberg’s social contract orientation, and Maslow’s self-esteem orientation.  The subject is personal autonomy, the objects are mutuality and interpersonal relations.  This is usually young adulthood and career socialization.

Stage 5 is “interindividual”, corresponding to Maslow’s self-actualization orientation and Kohlberg’s principled orientation.  This is usually mature romantic relationship.

The Subject Object Interview is Kegan’s scale for measuring progression along the stages.

In a study of West Point students, average inter-rater agreement on the Subject-Object Interview was 63%, and students developed from stage 2 to stage 3 and from stage 3 to stage 4 over their years in school. Kegan stage in senior year had a correlation of 0.41 with MD (military development) grade.[21]

A study of 67 executives found that Kegan stage was correlated with leader performance at a p < 0.05 level; Kegan stage was also positively correlated with age.[22]

I was not able to find any studies that indicated whether people skip Kegan stages, regress in stage, or exhibit characteristics of other stages, or other psychometric instruments that decompose into Kegan stages with factor analysis.  Kegan’s stages do appear to be relatively observable and higher stage seems to correspond fairly well with external evaluations of leadership skill.


Piaget’s stages are not distinct (they overlap) or sequential (they can be skipped or attained in different orders.  Later stages do correlate with greater age, but the stages do not arise at consistent ages.

Kohlberg’s stages are sequential; they are defined as distinct by the measurement instrument; and they increase with age (as well as with social class and socioeconomic development of the community.)  Stages don’t arise at fixed ages.

Erikson’s stages do not appear to be distinct, sequential, or even consistently increasing with age.

Maslow’s needs do not appear to be sequentially satisfied.

Kegan’s stages are defined to be distinct by the measurement instrument, and they increased with age in two studies.  I could not find evidence that they are attained sequentially.

Overall, the experimental evidence that distinct, cumulative stages of human development exist is rather weak. The strongest evidence is for Kohlberg’s stages, and these (like all the other stages considered) are limited by the fact that they are measures of how people talk about moral decision-making, rather than what they decide in practice.

Higher stages correlate with positive results in many cases: people at higher Kohlberg stages are less likely to be criminals or delinquents, positive psychological strengths like self-esteem correlate with the Eriksonian ego strengths, and leadership development measures correlate with Kegan stage.  This is evidence that developmental stages do often correspond to real psychological strengths or skills with external validity.  We just don’t generally have strong reason to believe that they progress in a developmental fashion.


[1] Piaget, Jean. The origins of intelligence in children. Vol. 8. No. 5. New York: International Universities Press, 1952.

[2]Spelke, Elizabeth S. “Physical knowledge in infancy: Reflections on Piaget’s theory.” The epigenesis of mind: Essays on biology and cognition (1991): 133-169.

[3]Dumas, Claude, and François Y. Doré. “Cognitive development in kittens (Felis catus): An observational study of object permanence and sensorimotor intelligence.” Journal of Comparative Psychology 105.4 (1991): 357.

[4]Gray, William M. “The Factor Structure of Concrete and Formal Operations: A Confirmation of Piaget.” (1976).

[5]Shayer, Michael, Andreas Demetriou, and Muhammad Pervez. “The structure and scaling of concrete operational thought: Three studies in four countries.” Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 114.3 (1988): 307-375.

[6]Fischer, Kurt W., and Louise Silvern. “Stages and individual differences in cognitive development.” Annual Review of Psychology 36.1 (1985): 613-648.

[7]Kohlberg, Lawrence. “Stages of moral development.” Moral education 29 (1971).

[8]Snarey, John R. “Cross-cultural universality of social-moral development: a critical review of Kohlbergian research.” Psychological bulletin 97.2 (1985): 202.

[9]Walker, Lawrence J. “The sequentiality of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.” Child Development (1982): 1330-1336.

[10]Haidt, Jonathan. “The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological review 108.4 (2001): 814.

[11]Chandler, Michael, and Thomas Moran. “Psychopathy and moral development: A comparative study of delinquent and nondelinquent youth.” Development and Psychopathology 2.03 (1990): 227-246.

[12]Rosenthal, Doreen A., Ross M. Gurney, and Susan M. Moore. “From trust on intimacy: A new inventory for examining Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 10.6 (1981): 525-537.

[13]Vaillant, George E., and Eva Milofsky. “Natural history of male psychological health: IX. Empirical evidence for Erikson’s model of the life cycle.” The American Journal of Psychiatry (1980).

[14]Waterman, Alan S. “Identity development from adolescence to adulthood: An extension of theory and a review of research.” Developmental psychology 18.3 (1982): 341.

[15]Markstrom, Carol A., et al. “The psychosocial inventory of ego strengths: Development and validation of a new Eriksonian measure.” Journal of youth and adolescence 26.6 (1997): 705-732.

[16]Thornburg, Kathy R., et al. “Testing the simplex assumption underlying the Erikson Psychosocial Stage Inventory.” Educational and psychological measurement 52.2 (1992): 431-436.

[17]Whitbourne, Susan K., et al. “Psychosocial development in adulthood: A 22-year sequential study.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63.2 (1992): 260.

[18]Wahba, Mahmoud A., and Lawrence G. Bridwell. “Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory.” Organizational behavior and human performance 15.2 (1976): 212-240.

[19]Taormina, Robert J., and Jennifer H. Gao. “Maslow and the motivation hierarchy: Measuring satisfaction of the needs.” The American journal of psychology 126.2 (2013): 155-177.

[20]Tay, Louis, and Ed Diener. “Needs and subjective well-being around the world.” Journal of personality and social psychology 101.2 (2011): 354.

[21]Lewis, Philip, et al. “Identity development during the college years: Findings from the West Point longitudinal study.” Journal of College Student Development 46.4 (2005): 357-373.

[22]Strang, Sarah E., and Karl W. Kuhnert. “Personality and leadership developmental levels as predictors of leader performance.” The Leadership Quarterly 20.3 (2009): 421-433.


33 thoughts on “Are Adult Developmental Stages Real?

  1. This is a helpful review; glad you did it!

    When I first wrote about Kegan, I knew almost nothing about the empirical studies behind his theory. Since then, I’ve done some research. I’ve found a few papers you haven’t mentioned; I may post links to them here when I get more time. (I think I may have mentioned some in the comment thread on my post.)

    Overall, I’d say that the evidence I’ve found is lousy. It’s not worthless, but it is seriously not confidence-inspiring. A minor correction: Kegan did lead experimental studies; he is not only a therapist. His team reported statistical measures, and the results look reasonably good on paper. However there’s a general air of sloppiness that makes me want to shake them and yell LEARN SOME STEM STUFF!!

    I first encountered evolutionary psychology when it was very new. The evidence was lousy to non-existent. I took the attitude of “I don’t care—this conceptual framework makes so much sense of what I see people doing that it’s useful regardless.” Obviously, this is epistemologically highly risky (but I am something of a risk-taker!). Fortunately, lots of other people felt the same way, including a bunch of good psychologists, who did good studies. They generally confirmed that the framework is actually true, and not just heuristically useful.

    I feel the same way about Kegan’s framework now—it *seems* to explain so much that I use it despite the empirical basis being weak. If I considered it just as science, in an area I’m not particularly interested in, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were entirely disconfirmed. This is the same sort of risk as I took with evopsych, and this time I might not be so lucky!

    Something I majorly don’t understand is that there’s been zero follow-up on Kegan’s work from within academic psychology. Kegan himself effectively abandoned it, as far as I can tell. It’s been applied in education theory and in management consulting, and people from both those fields (including academics) have done empirical studies—but psychologists, no. Although currently it seems that all academic psychology is false, I probably have even less confidence in studies run by ed theorists and management consults, so.

    It doesn’t help that many proponents of Keganism have allied with Ken Wilber, and are spouting monist woo.

    So… there’s a phenomenon to be explained: many seemingly smart people read Kegan and find it a revelation, which seems to explain so much; yet no one competent has either tested or developed it further. Plausibly, we enthusiasts are deluded by an attractive but obviously-false story. Since it’s obviously false to the non-deluded, competent academic psychologists have not pursued it.

    Alternatively, fashions in academia, and funding sources, have made it impossible for anyone to work on it.

    In which case, an independently-funded test would be an interesting project—if a funder steps forward, and competent experimentalists are wiling to do the work!

    In the mean time, I expect to proceed on the belief, supported primarily by anecdata and first-principles reasoning, that it is basically correct.

    • I’m fine with things like evo-psych and taking risks on speculative theories. Hierarchical theories of development generally *don’t* ring super true to me — my IRL experience seems to point towards people very commonly learning things “out of order”. But you may have observed different things.

      • Well, Kegan’s theory isn’t about learning things—*at all*. (Unlike Piaget’s, for instance.) So any amount of learning things in different orders doesn’t count as disconfirmation for his framework.

        The core of his theory concerns, exclusively, different ways of structuring the relationship between subject and object. Complete disconfirmations would be demonstrating that these different structures don’t exist; or that they aren’t stable (over periods of a few years, as claimed); or that people don’t progress through them in any particular order.

        The Subject-Object Interview works by getting people to talk about how they think about the subject-object relationship, and looking at logic of their explanations. When they say “this, so that,” the scorer looks at what sorts of things the thises and thats are. E.g. if they include ethical principles and formal roles, you say the person is at least at stage 4. Whereas, if those are absent and there’s a lot of talk of emotions and relationships *without* principles, you say they are stage 3. (Each stage includes the capabilities of the previous one, so naturally someone at stage 4 may talk about emotions and relationships too.)

        As with Haidt’s objection to Kohlberg, it may be that people “at stage 4” have just learned a fancier way of talking, and this doesn’t reflect any significant psychological change. There’s quite a lot of not-great evidence that this is not the case: the ability to talk in rational, systematic terms (i.e. stage 4) correlates with the ability to perform effectively in formal roles, and to work effectively with formal systems (e.g. STEM stuff, or business administration).

        I guess I feel like it ought to be pretty obvious to anyone in the rationality community that the 3/4 distinction is real and important. Being rational isn’t a matter of learning Bayes’ formula and other content-level stuff. It’s a fundamental attitude that informs every aspect of your way of being. (Right? Maybe I’m misunderstanding the community?)

      • I didn’t mean learning only in the sense of content knowledge, but maybe it’s a distinction I should have drawn.

        What I mean is, an awful lot of behavior of people who are clearly not children or criminals sounds like Kegan’s stage *two* — people making negotiations or trades to get what they want. If stage 4 is simply ordinary STEM-style rationality or the ability to hold down a job, then lots of people who are quite adept at 4 seem to not be able to do 3-style things like coming to a consensus with people based on shared feelings, and *really* can’t do 2-style things like figuring out what they want and how to get it outside of a role or rules. I always feel like I’m missing something when I read theories of moral/social development.

      • Since the framework is exclusively about the *structure* of the self-other relationship, it’s not about how good you are at different life-skills. Each stage makes a new class of skills *logically possible*. Moving on to the next does not imply mastery of the previous ones. It does imply that they remain conceptually feasible.

        So, it’s consistent with the theory that much of what people do at stages 3 and above is transactional negotiations to get what we want. At each later stage, you do retain whatever capabilities you developed in stage 2.

        It’s also consistent with the theory that some people at stages 4 and 5 are lousy at dealing with emotions and relationships. So are many people at stage 3! People at stage 3 take emotions and relationships as subject, but that doesn’t mean they are competent with them. We all know histrionic, neurotic people who are dominated by their emotions, and find meaning only in relationships, and make horrible messes of both. On the other hand, being at stage 4 just means you take emotions and relationships as objects, not aspects of the subject. It doesn’t imply that you successfully acquired outstanding relationship skills before moving on beyond stage 3.

        Stage 3 doesn’t mean “extroverted and emotionally expressive”; many introverts are never that. It means that you make sense of your self and your social surrounds primarily in terms of emotions and relationships. Stage 4 doesn’t mean “cold and distant like Spock”; many extroverts are never that (but succeed in formal roles that require systematic rationality nonetheless). Stage 4 means that you make sense of your self and your social surrounds primarily in terms of principles and formal roles, which usually take priority over emotions and relationships.

        Different people are naturally good at different things. People who are naturally good at emotions and relationships find stage 3 easy; people who are naturally good at formal systems find stage 4 easy. The rationalist community may include many people who are not good at emotions and relationships, but are good at formal stuff.

        It would disconfirm the theory if significant numbers of people who are good at working in formal systems (and therefore should be in stage 4 or later) take emotions and relationships as the subject, rather than as objects. I don’t think that’s the case—but it’s an empirical question.

        It would also disconfirm the theory if many people who are good at working in formal systems had never previously passed through a period in which they understood themselves and their social surrounds primarily in terms of emotions and relationships. In other words, if they reached stage 4 without going through stage 3.

        Any psychological theory is bound to have only statistical validity, so *some* exceptions seem admissible. Some commenters on my blog say they recognize stage 4, but don’t think they ever had a stage 3. That may be possible for small numbers of unusual people without disconfirming the theory overall. I have to say that I suspect they may have just mercifully forgotten some unpleasant aspects of their adolescent years, though.

      • Hi Sarah, I’m wondering about the absence of ‘any’ information on Dr. Jane Loevinger’s WUSCT (Washington University Sentence Completion Test) further researched and elaborated by Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter in her proven dissertation at Harvard? This is an empirical study that proves the theory about stages, and is the most widely used test in hundreds of research studies. The subject-object interview does not have any comparable research history and is subject to interviewer bias. I have been using the Cook-Greuter assessment for 14 years now, and we have a very high face-validity based on over 13000 assessments done. Thanks in advance for your response! Beena

    • FWIW this review makes me think your heuristics are better than I thought and worth taking more seriously – I didn’t expect Kohlberg to seem as strong as it does, this suggests that there’s something real in the Kohlberg/Kegan space.

      I eagerly await replications, especially of Kegan.

    • Ah, I think I misunderstood about the stages then. So Stage 2 would be a person who can’t ever do things “because relationship” and Stage 3 would be a person who can’t ever do things “because principle” or “because commitment”?

      • Yes, that’s my understanding, fwiw!

        There’s a second-order caveat, which is that people often can produce some of the vocabulary, and simple deductions, from the stage after the one they are in. Those may be a sign that they are beginning to move to the next stage. However, they may also just have learned these by rote, as “things you’re supposed to say to the boss,” for example. They are verbiage that seems to work, but there isn’t any understanding.

        The basic job of the interviewer in the Subject-Object interview is to push on the interviewee’s explanations of why they do things, to find out what kind of logic they are capable of. If someone talks about their relationships, but isn’t capable of explaining how enduring feelings of empathy for someone else would constrain their own actions, they’re at stage 2, not stage 3. If someone talks about their role as a software development team manager, but their management decisions are actually all based on people’s feelings, and the relationships in the team, and they can’t explain decisions in business terms, they’re at stage 3, not stage 4.

    • The folks at the nonprofit (Lectica, Inc.) that owns me have been doing rigorous longitudinal developmental research in the neo-Piagetian tradition for 22 years. They are carefully documenting how children and adults build knowledge and skills over time and using what they learn to build valid and reliable learning tools, including a number of adult assessments. The author of this article was able to identify many of the more contentious issues in the developmental literature, and I don’t completely disagree with some of his conclusions, but this is a vast literature. It can’t be accurately summarized following a cursory examination of this kind.

  2. It seems to be that Keegan rings ‘anti-true’. That is, he seems to describe real things but attribute to them the reverse of the correct order.

  3. It seems to be that Keegan rings ‘anti-true’. That is, he seems to describe real things but attribute to them the reverse of the correct order.

    • You may have encountered the idea that when you reach the top of Maslow’s hierarchy it inverts. Similarly here. On the way up you build, on the way back down you deconstruct. When you reach the bottom you unmake yourself.

  4. I never really understood why people feel the “proper stage theory” criteria are so important, that stages should happen in order with no skips. Especially for adult development, what would we lose if we let this go? IMO, too much energy goes to the sequencing thing. What’s more important is understanding people live in these places for long chunks of time, but can move. My feel is that a bigger failure of the theory would be if people didn’t stably fall in a category, perhaps it would be context dependent. Yet even then, the theory has value, you could say “Joe is stage 4 at work and stage 3 at home.”

    • What’s more important is understanding people live in these places for long chunks of time, but can move.

      Interesting point! I think you are right. The main pragmatic value of the framework should be in suggesting where someone’s growth opportunities lie, and what activities would accelerate that development. For that to work, it has to be at least possible to get from “how you are now” to “this other way of being that has some advantages.” A sequential stage theory is the simplest version of that. More generally, there could be a digraph of possible ways of being with transition arrows between them. (To be a bit geeky!)

      The potential for this use of the framework has not been systematically developed, as far as I can tell. A mostly-missed opportunity, so far.

      I’m toying with the idea of creating an online self-assessment tool. (“Inspired by” adult developmental theory, with caveats that I have no qualifications, so it’s “for entertainment purposes only.”) And based on the answers you give, it would recommend specific resources, along the lines of “to get from here to there, try doing X, which may work because Y; you can read about it in Z, or take course W.”

      a bigger failure of the theory would be if people didn’t stably fall in a category

      The evidence on this “not terrible” I’d say. With the caveat that psychology is having a general replication crisis!

      • There seems to be significant overlap with stages in vajrayana and models from it like the knower-knowing-known. Curious how much prior art you think is in this area.

  5. This is interesting! I got hold of the two Kegan books recently and am reading them on and off, so it’s nice to see some of the wider context.

    My own experience has been that the basic idea (as I first understood it from the Meaningness blog post, not the books) had an incredibly compelling, ‘that makes sense of *so many things!* feel to it. When I get that from an idea, I’m generally happy to just kind of sit with it for several months and see what thoughts come up without interrogating it very critically. I’m now at the point where I may want to start poking around in the guts a bit more.

    As far as I understand it currently there seem to be a couple of levels on which it could hold up. There’s a more superficial level which says something like ‘people at this level think mostly this way; people at the next level can also think in terms of these other things; people hardly ever go backwards, and they hardly ever skip levels’. This looks pretty amenable to testing empirically and is interesting in its own right; this on its own is what gave me the ‘that makes sense of *so many things!*’ feeling.

    But then there’s also this very specific, elegant causal model sitting below it, where the subject of each developmental stage becomes the object of the next one. This is more deeply embedded in the Piaget/Kohlberg stuff (which I haven’t read) and is way *too* elegant for my tastes; nothing holds up like that in social science! But I honestly find it pretty hard to even keep the model in my head, so I need to think about it some more first.

    • I agree that the structure of successive objectifications is too elegant to be right. Brains and minds are messy.

      I definitely don’t believe it’s causal… but I don’t think he was trying to make a causal explanation, and I don’t think he presents it as such. It’s a description of “what” not “how.”

      But, it seems heuristically useful. Maybe at the “how” level the successive objectifications are approximate emergents from lower-level processes.

      Maybe we could think of the stages as “bulk properties” of cognition, like the solid/liquid/gas/plasma phases. There’s a vast number of tiny reasoning methods that interact with each other, and a “stage” is characterization of the overall dynamics of the system. Kegan describes them as “stable balances.” The stage transitions are like phase changes. They occur when there’s enough “energy” in the system that the ways the tiny mind-bits were interacting with each other start to break up. There’s a period of chaos during which the system in bulk is a mix of bits sorta in one phase and sorta in the other, and then eventually it settles into the new stable phase.

      (Obviously this metaphor should not be taken too literally!)

      • ‘I definitely don’t believe it’s causal… but I don’t think he was trying to make a causal explanation, and I don’t think he presents it as such. It’s a description of “what” not “how.”’

        I think I’m being a little slow here, and probably need to read more of the source. I definitely read the successive objectifications idea as making some quite specific claims about ‘how this is actually happening in our heads’, and can’t see right now how to reinterpret the explanation as a ‘what, not how’ theory. But as I said before, I have difficulty getting the thing into my head anyway.

        Making some dodgy physics analogies could be fun! On the simpler side, there was a commenter on your post who said something like ‘progress is unintuitive at certain points, so people pile up in areas where they’re moving against the flow, and that’s what makes it look like there are discrete stages.’ That actually makes a lot of sense!

  6. Great to read this overview thank you!

    Enjoying threads in the comments.

    Similar to others: theory is revelatory and useful and the biggest problem is the consecutive element, which was fashionable at the time and much less so now. Davids distinction between “cognitively available” and competence seems to sort that out, but ditching it entirely does not really hurt the usefulness.

    Other enjoyable insights from the Evolving Self for me:
    – making sense (of the world) as primary human activity
    – developing meaning/making sense/trying to understand as continuous process, not discrete stages
    – the people and culture surrounding a person provide the “holding environment” for meaning-making and crucial as support for trying a new way to make meaning and rejecting an old way until the old way is reincorporated
    – that the ability to “recruit” people to be your holding environment is essential for development (intersects nicely with “pretty privilege”)
    – that we should allow ourselves to be “recruited” to provide a holding environment for others
    – that therapy / counselling is a substitute for if someone’s holding environment became fractured or disappeared at an important time (e.g. Death of a parent when a teenager is temporarily rejecting them)
    – that peers are needed for the higher levels / less common stages and that ones culture does not support these higher stages / kills people for attempting them
    – applying this theory to groups of humans/society is likely correct due to “holding environment”.

    In my experience people wholeheartedly agree with the stage theory until you describe the one beyond the one they are at, at which point they violently disagree.

    Much human experience does not fit / is not relevant to this theory and that’s ok.

  7. >> In my experience people wholeheartedly agree with the stage theory until you describe the one beyond the one they are at, at which point they violently disagree.
    Of course they do, you’re saying there’s an objective hierarchy in which they’re lower than you. I rarely see people who think that these stages exist, who don’t also believe that the later stages are better and the earlier stages worse.

    • There is that. Once you open the door to the idea that people differ in ways that matter, then you start to wonder what sort of situations people with different characteristics do better or worse in. If perhaps for characteristic X, the answer is “much of the modern world”, then is X “objectively better”? Casting this as a developmental progression of course makes the implication clearer, since we usually suppose more mature behavior is “better”. But are Piaget’s stages ableist? I’m not sure how solid this is, but it’s a common claim that about 1/3 of adults never reach formal operational thinking in western societies.
      I also think that even if you discard the idea of time progression, if you think there is anything to Kegan’s stages, then you pretty much have to agree that the later, more “meta” stages are more complex, and shall we say, sophisticated. But going beyond stage 3 is a lot of work (years of school, at least), it seems big chunk of people don’t do it, and you could question the desirability of the later stages in various ways. For one thing, there seems to strong correlation between mental distress and going beyond stage 4. This is the stage 4.5 nihilism/depression that people talk about. Post-modernism is sort of a stage 4.5 phenomena. Yes, the stage 4 systems that we used to construct the modern world are arbitrary in many ways, and most definitely socially constructed. Now what?
      I’m not convinced of the simple story that going beyond stage 4 causes depression/despair. Speaking at least for the aspie/depressive faction that I’m in, there is at least some reverse causation, since we tend to seek out formal meaning systems and then to question them when they fail to deliver hope. Also, being somewhat unstuck from standard social meaning constructions, we tend to question things that almost everyone else accepts as “the way it is”.
      However socially problematic it may be categorizing people in these ways, there is a real problem here that the intellectual world is struggling with. A big part of the problem is that most people don’t “get it” about how the world works anymore. I think it’s fine to have esoteric schools of understanding that require years of study to engage with. This is not entirely different from historic priestly, monastic, and shamanistic traditions. It requires both a certain disposition and a lot of work to go there, and yet the people who don’t go can still benefit by engaging with the adepts in lectures (sermons), discussions, exercises, etc.

      • Yes, Kegan explicitly states that it’s probably unfit to try to progress to a paradigm that is unusual and unsupported by your society and peers. He comments that such people are often discredited, reviled and even killed.

    • Absolutely. While I sometimes point out the negatives of the fifth stage I’ve also been discussing with people how to better describe this framework such that this heirarchy of value is less oppressive/unpalatable. One idea is the analogy of a new paradigm in science. The new paradigm cannot exist without the old, is often tabled by younger prodigies who are not too entrenched in the old, is resisted for a long time (rightly) but if adopted, it is normally slicing reality olongapo different lines, allowing more scope for new questions and answers without necessarily rejecting the usefulness and power of what went before.

      Also I’ve simply stopped talking about it so much.

  8. Thanks for doing this review!
    Potential Typo: “I cover the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson, Piaget, Maslow, and Kegan.” -> Either this is a clever joke I don’t understand (it happens occasionally), or you mention Piaget twice unintentionally.

  9. Just read this text. Who is the author? It seems that they trusted people who did some ‘research’, but it also seems that they never read original texts from some references. For example, it seems that they (authors) cannot really discuss Erikson’s books since they did not read them. If so , they would understand that stages are sequencial (bilogical epigenetic principle) and also that in every next stage the person can reorganize their previou’s maladptations. So, just for that I cannot not truly rely on this text.

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