Development as a Life-Long Journey

In Over Our Heads

Robert Kegan and Ken Wilber
January 20th, 2013
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Dr. Robert Kegan is a pioneer of human development, having spent his life carefully studying and testing his theories of adult development and psychological maturation. Dr. Kegan is perhaps best known for his work on Orders of Consciousness and Subject-Object Theory, and he is the author of several critically acclaimed books that explore the contours and content of human development. Here Dr. Kegan talks with Ken Wilber about his landmark book In Over Our Heads, exploring the many ways our cultural lack of developmental perspectives is actively inhibiting development itself, leaving the majority of us ill-equipped to meet the demands of our 21st century lives.

Total running time: 1 hour 33 minutes

What You'll Learn:

Orders of ConsciousnessThe Most Important Idea In the World (That No One Knows About):
Have you ever found yourself watching the news, the latest political debates, The Daily Show or Bill Maher or some other current-events programming, and upon seeing the inevitable 50-car pileup of conflicting perspectives and values, you say to yourself, "Gee, a simple understanding of development would really clean this discussion up and help move it along..."?

Human development has been rigorously studied and tested by some of the world's brightest minds, and we now have a tremendous amount of cross-cultural evidence that development is real—that various capacities of human beings grow through several distinct stages of psychological maturity. And yet, despite this enormous body of evidence, our culture seems to know almost nothing about human development, at least as it pertains to adults. As Dr. Kegan says, "We have not really fully metabolized the notion that adulthood itself is a period of development." In other words, human development isn't just for kids and moody teenagers—rather, it's a life-long journey. This is the missing piece of the puzzle, the all-important Rosetta Stone we need in order to make sense of our 21st-century world, to find solutions for our most pressing global problems, and to communicate those solutions in a way that more people can actually understand and support.

Human development, particularly adult development, is an idea that could change the world. So why has it been so difficult getting these ideas out there? Listen as Ken and Dr. Kegan offer their own opinions....

Subject Becomes Object: One of the most pioneering principles described by Dr. Kegan's work is known as "Subject-Object Theory", which offers remarkable insight into the actual mechanics of transformation, both psychologically and spiritually. The idea is simple, but the implications are profound—essentially, the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next stage.

Interestingly, this process of "subject becoming object" does not just describe the process of "vertical growth" through psychological stages of consciousness, but also "horizontal growth" through states of spiritual awareness and awakening. Meditation, for example, is a practice of making subject into object: of simply witnessing our own subjective minds with non-attached equanimity, experiencing our subjective thoughts, emotions, sensations, and impulses as objects in our awareness, like clouds floating through the empty expanse of the sky. With enough training and practice, the spiritual path ultimately leads us to the point of "Absolute Subjectivity"—that point where we are completely "emptied out" and there is no more subject left to be made into object, and all that remains is the effortless and seamless embrace of nondual awareness.

The Demands of Modern Life: Dr. Kegan describes two sets of studies, each conducted with several hundred subjects, and each measuring two different developmental schemas: Dr. Kegan's Subject-Object interview, and Jane Loevinger's stages of development. The results were fascinating, and just a little bit alarming. When asking the question, "What percentage of the American population are not developmentally equipped to meet the demands of the modern world?" we get the exact same result in both studies: a staggering 58%. Which means that the majority of Americans are quite literally "in over their heads"—they are Order 1, Order 2, or Order 3 people living in an Order 4 world. Needless to say, this is a huge problem—as much of a global crisis as any other, if not more so—and is one of the main reasons our media, politics, economics, and culture remain as gridlocked as they are.

Two Kinds of Postmodern: Dr. Kegan and Ken go on to discuss the Fifth Order of psychological development, which loosely correlates to the postmodern stage of development. But within this Fifth Order of consciousness, Dr. Kegan identifies two different kinds of postmodernism—one that is largely deconstructive, nihilistic, and rabidly non-hierarchical, and one that is reconstructive, integrative, and holarchical. The former is constitutionally opposed to the very notion of big pictures, and is largely responsible for the overall lack of developmental perspectives in our culture. (Ironically, one of the main reasons that so many people are ill-equipped to meet the demands of the Fourth-Order world comes from the rampant deconstruction that often comes from Fifth-Order consciousness. Without a cultural appreciation for human development, we lack the tools we need to solve this issue—as Ken says, it's like trying to solve the obesity epidemic by removing the scales from every bathroom in the country.) The latter, on the other hand, tries to create better and better meta-theories—theories about theory-making itself—and is doing everything it possibly can to establish human development as the cornerstone of our psychological, cultural, and social wellbeing. Who will win this Fifth-Order battle? After several decades of deconstruction, do we finally have a reason to be optimistic? We think so....

About Dr. Kegan's Orders of Consciousness:

In Dr. Kegan's work, he outlines Five Orders of Consciousness:

First Order: Impulsive—Perceives and responds by emotion.
Second Order: Imperial—Motivated solely by one's desires.
Third Order: Interpersonal—Defined by the group.
Fourth Order: Institutional—Self directed, self authoring.
Fifth Order: Inter-individual—Interpenetration of self systems.

At each step, the subject of the preceding stage becomes the object of the following stage. For example: the subjects of the impulsive stage (Order 1) are the individual's impulses and perceptions, and its objects are the reflexes. The subject of the imperial stage (Order 2) are the individual's needs, interests, and desires, and its objects are the individual's impulses and perceptions. The subject of the interpersonal stage (Order 3) are interpersonal relationships and mutuality, and its objects are the individual's needs, interests, and desires. The subject of the institutional stage (Order 4) are the individual's authorship, identity, and ideology, and its objects are interpersonal relationships and mutuality. The subject of the inter-individual stage (Order 5) is "the interpenetrability of self-systems", and its objects are the individual's authorship, identity, and ideology.

Loosely, one can think of the first and second orders as egocentric (me), the third order as ethnocentric (us), and the fourth and fifth orders as worldcentric (all of us). If one grows from egocentric to ethnocentric, one doesn't stop caring about oneself, but that care and concern is now extended to one's family, community, nation, and so on. Likewise with the growth from ethnocentric to worldcentric, that care is now extended to all people regardless of race, class, creed, gender, etc.

A person at the top of this interior hierarchy, i.e. worldcentric, would categorically never use any power given to them by a social hierarchy for less than worldcentric reasons. Needless to say, Hitler was not a worldcentric individual.

As Dr. Kegan points out, one of the most complete ways to illustrate how levels of developmental complexity exist in the subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective aspects of reality is the diagram to the left.

The Five Orders of Consciousness exist in the intentional (I) quadrant, but their influence permeates the behavioral (it), cultural (we), and social (its) quadrants. Likewise, those domains can influence the speed at which one does or does not evolve through the Five Orders.

The higher the level of development, the greater the challenge of navigating the increasingly complex territory. For example, certain ways of navigating worldcentric consciousness are more effective than others, so in certain ways some forms of worldcentric consciousness are more mature than others.

(Click images to enlarge)


Written by Corey W. deVos
Images by De Es Schwertberger (view gallery 1 | view gallery 2)

Your rating: None Average: 4.9 (21 votes)

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love listening to Ken chuckle with his guest. what a gold mine this is!

This was a great discussion but what year was this from? Towards the end I thought I heard Kegan say we were 3 years into Obama's was this talk recorded in 2011?

I am grandly grateful for an introduction to this material. While enduring the trauma of this past season's election (and all prior years in American politics), I couldn't help but wonder why someone hadn't written a book about the inadequacies of the argument from a developmental perspective. It all would have seem so clear if we had mapped political ideas onto the developmental psychology & Integral framework.

Eternally grateful. Please let's not stop here.

Holly Woods, Ph.D.

ICC Integral Coach candidate

Edwards, CO

I have been waiting for the Robert Keegan follow up for years.  One of my favorites from the integral naked archives.

Beautiful dialogue.

Thank you

One of the reasons why people in the modern world may be reluctant or slow to pick up on the findings of developmental psychologists (which I also deem important to understand social processes today) is that stating that there are more or less inclusive differences in how we do develop contradicts the adage "we are all created equal" in which modern democracies are built. in other words, DP feels "politically incorrect" and unpopular by most academics and people in general who -by deriving their ethical cues from academic and religious institutions- may not want anything to do with a concepts that seems to contradict the previous abusive hierarchical stages they are lhistorically eaving behind.  Actually, to understand developmental psychology without feeling a contradiction with the "we are all created equal" phrase one has to understand that in ESSENCE and potentially we are equal.

Many cultural leaders, including scientists and other academicians that need to be supported by a formal institution would have to receive clear cues from those institutions that allow them to think, discuss, work with or incorporate in their activities the findings of developmental psychologists. This is because they are really dependent on these institutions and cannot contradict them and most of them may cognitively be in 4th or 5th orders of consciousness but in other personality aspects not measured by his procedures actually be in 2nd and 3rd orders of consciousness. In other words, as a general idea valid for certain parameters I think Kegan is quite correct (including the fact that most people are not ready to live harmoniously in 5th order social systems).  However, there may be surprises for instance with some more adaptable, street-wise persons that have not been indoctrinated within formal institutions under exclusivist ideologies. They may show some capacity to deal with realities and concepts that are hard to accept within academia and conservative religious centers. If their flexibility includes an capacity to evolve their ethical standards they may be able to understand some aspects normally given at 5th and above orders of consciousness.  

Salut Giorgio!

Yes &  yes.

Hopefully it is widely-known that avant-garde consciousness (which drives human progress in all domains) is far more likely to occur at the edges of academia than within it.  This is even widely recognized within it!  Many university-level art teachers, to take a trite example, are quite forthright in admitting that people capable of great art are probably not taking their courses.  Even in physics and the 'hard sciences" we find a common discussion about the fact that great breakthroughs and important new forms of organization usually come from outliers.  Outliers have a unique possibility to combine an independent interpretation of known theories with a spontaneous creative freedom permitted by their lack of institutional-economic constraints.

Once one becomes supported and embedded within the 'official mind-harvesting system' there is not much opportunity to oppose the dominant moods.  One simply does one's work.  There is, of course, a slow build up of studies, summaries and shifting cultural impressions.  We can hope that more data will make the system's self-administration habits more amenable to developmental psychology.  But (as we know from climate science) more data often only confuses the issue.  So we must be prepared to accept that institutional change may depend upon indvidual accelerations of personal psychological development.  

One must tacitly experience enough "inclusive depth" to become clear that such a factor helps explain the data.  Only when we can accept levels of vertical intensity with a good conscience and a powerful ethic can we personally tolerate the encroachment of these ideas into our basic socio-intellectual institutions.  Just as it is very difficult to accept "subtle energy" into our reality models if our bodies are too dense, too armoured to permit these stimulations in ourselves.  

Fortunately there is, in principle, no conflict between democratic values (like equality) and the insights of developmental psychology.  It is even highly peculiar when people use the former as an excuse to reject the latter.  We are tasked to look past their claims and suspect other factors in this resistance.  

It is akin to the problem of post-modern values.  They often do not fulfill themselves in a grand integration theory because they have not yet taken themselves seriously.  They are espoused but have not been deeply assimilated.  Their own position remains mysteriously outside of their ideas and causes those ideas to appear falsely opposed to extensions of themselves.  Just so -- the moral and psychological depth which is intrinstic to democratic consciousness must become robustly self-consciousness before it can resume its progress of deepening into newer, higher & vaster comprehension.  

The "equality" principle was always explicitly stated as the precondition for a Society of Merit & robust happiness.  Developmental depth in human psychology is the first and most universal form of merit -- as well as the prescription for general well-being.  In fact all people already make use of developmental levels in many casual and practical ways.  Yet it remains immature in part because it goes unacknowledged.    This resistance to acknowledgement precludes further development.  Yet we cannot quite believe them when they say that their existing values are the reasons why they do not want to deepen their existing values.  That is very suspicious.   Personalities have psycho-biological and ideological reasons for resisting their own health, essence, pleasure, depth, and evolutionary efforts.  This problem will have to be addressed regularly and for a long time.  But in the meantime it can be minimized by three factors:

1. Encouraging the mass-proliferation of "spiritual" and "self-developmental" techniques.

2. Phrasing the insights of Developmental Psychology as if they were the natural fulfillment of democratic & post-modern values.

3. Contributing to the build up of new facts and moods in our institutions.

And what else?

Just because of the reason that You can get under articles comments by Susanne Cook-Greuter this site is the coolest place in the internet. Thank You !

Great Lectures Series for anyone who wants to get a great overview of adult development from a most eloquent proponent. 

While they pale in view of the whole contribution, my concerns are these: The  imagery is less helpful despite the superficial charm. I wonder why the arrows only go in and not out , and, in the last image, not also across the pictured brain sheaths as inner and outer, inner and inner aspects of being a human being get increasingly connected with growing awareness. 

Why would growth be only changing one's mind when we are whole human beings and integration requires far more than just changing the way we think? Granted most developmentalists agree that cognition generally "leads" development and yet -- though it's necessary is not sufficient. l believe Kohlberg introduced this notion to psychology. 


PS. I continue to enjoy Corey de Vos's introductions and summaries. He is an unsung hero in my view. And what a gift as a wordsmith!