Robert Kegan's Awesome Theory of Social Maturity
"If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." - Isaac Newton.
Many years ago and quite by chance, I read a book that showed me a new and very powerful way of looking at a variety of human behavior we think of as social maturity. I recall being absolutely enthralled and blown away by the elegance and simplicity of the theory; the way that it explained things so nicely and made so many disparate facts about social maturity or the lack thereof seem to "click into place". I could not understand why this theory had never been taught to me in a psychology class! As time went on and practical responsibilities mounted, however, I let it go and did not think about it much for years. Last year, I found the book describing the theory on my bookshelf and picked it up again, remembering that I had liked it. I re-read the book, and experienced the same enthralling feeling all over again. My intention today with this essay is to communicate the basics of this theory of social maturity to you, my reader, so that you, too, will (hopefully) experience this same feeling of things suddenly "clicking into place" and making sense.
There are many different sorts of maturity we could talk about, but I will only be talking about social maturity. This sort of maturity has to do with how well people understand the nature of the social world they live within. Social maturity is what enables us to function as healthy adults. Without it, we end up having a difficult time ourselves, or causing a lot of difficult times for other people. A high degree of social maturity has something to do with a high degree of social skill, but these two things are not the same. A sociopath can evidence a lot of slick social skill, but that sociopath's ability to accurately represent the reality of the social word (e.g., to care about the fact that other people have feelings and lives) is likely to be severely delayed , and thus we would have to consider the sociopath to be fundamentally socially immature.
"Why is social maturity important?", you might ask. Think about it. Who are the people you want to be able to depend upon; to have as friends and family members? Not the fair-weather-friends you want to have a good time with, but the people you want to have as sources of comfort and advice when the going gets rough. You want to have socially and emotionally mature people around you in times of crises. Socially immature people are a blast at keg or cocktail parties, and make for exciting lovers, but due to their essential selfishness, they simply suck as spouses, and parents and grandparents, and as leaders of any variety.
Children are by definition, socially immature, and nobody wants them to stay that way as they grow into adults. In fact, a great deal of the difficulty involved in being a good parent can be expressed simply as the struggle to figure out what are the best methods to use, what are the proper decisions to make to help children find their way to become mature adults.
Social immaturity in adults is both a societal problem and also a personal problem for affected individuals, their families, and their employers. Social immaturity either plays an important role in maintaining multiple mental disorders or is in fact what defines those disorders. This is particularly true of the 'dramatic-erratic' personality disorders, including Narcissism, Borderline, Histrionic and probably also Antisocial Personality Disorders. Social immaturity is also quite frequently associated with long term alcoholism and/or drug abuse which began in youth, and is frequently encountered by therapists treating clients who have been abused as children. Therapists tend to think about these sorts of problems as being caused by developmental delays, but the question remains – delays of what? This essay will try to unpack that question of "what".
The term "immature" is sometimes used as an epitaph or derogatory term and I want to be clear here that I do not mean to use it in that sense. Some people might think I'm disrespecting personality disordered people to claim that they are socially immature, but that would be a wrong interpretation. What I am trying to suggest is that there really are states or stages in a developmental progression towards social maturity on which people's behavior can be categorized and that many personality disordered people act as though they are far less socially mature than their chronological age would suggest.
The Evolving Self
This theory of social maturity that I want to talk about is the work of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, and was first described in his brilliant 1982 book, The Evolving Self.
Brilliant though this book is, it is also difficult to read, even for smart, educated people. In the introduction to his follow-up 1994 book In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, Kegan makes light of the density of his prose by telling the following funny story:
"Some years ago, when I proudly told my father that (The Evolving Self) was being translated into German and Korean, he said, "That's great! Now when is it going to be translated into English?"
This essay is my attempt to translate "The Evolving Self" into English.
This is not to say that The Evolving Self is not worth reading – because it most definitely is. I just want to warn anyone who picks it up that you may have to struggle a little before you are able to appreciate the real treasure it contains.
In "The Evolving Self", Kegan described a theory of how people become progressively more socially mature across their lifespan. Though a wholly original and creative contribution, Kegan's theory borrows heavily from earlier developmental theorists, most notably from Jean Piaget, the genius swiss psychologist who practically invented modern developmental psychology. In order to understand Kegan's theory of social maturity, we first have to understand Piaget's earlier theory of cognitive (e.g., having to do with the ability to think) maturity, as the core ideas from Kegan's work are essentially Piaget's ideas which have been reworked, broadened and abstracted, and applied to the social realm. Before diving into Kegan, then, let's first rehash Piaget.
Piaget In A Nutshell
Piaget's theory described how children's ability to think develops from birth through early adulthood. You are perhaps familiar with Piaget's stages of cognitive development. He theorized that children pass through predictable developmental stages in which their minds develop in complexity and appreciation (ability to accurately understand) of reality. Piaget proposed four basic stages through which the development of thinking abilities must pass. He labeled these stages: "Sensorimotor", "Pre-Operational", "Concrete-Operations" and "Formal-Operations". These stages always occur in this particular order, and are for the most part linked to particular ages of life. The sensorimotor stage covers between 0 and 2 years, pre-operations covers between 2 and 5 years, concrete-operations between 6 and 10 years, and formal operations covering age 11 and beyond. That is, at least until senility sets in - haha.
The first Sensorimotor (or Sensory-Motor) stage is so-named because babies who are in this stage are basically preoccupied with the task of learning how to operate their bodies and interpret their senses. Though there are some instinctual abilities, babies are not, for the most part, born knowing how to do these things! During the Sensorimotor period, babies' thinking ability is, thus, basically all about learning how to comprehend sensory input (vision, hearing, touch, etc.), and how to understand how to move about (crawl, walk, manipulate things with your hands, how to focus your eyes).
At around age two, children have become (mostly) masters of their bodies – they can walk and see what is in front of them and pick things up. Though sensory and motor sophistication continue to develop past this point, this is around the time when babies' minds first become really capable of understanding that other people and objects exist that are separate from themselves. Before this time, babies are thinking that everything is them. Babies at this stage have made a major advance – they have figured out that they are separate than those things around them, but they still don't really get how all these different things interrelate. A lot of mistaken, fantastic and unrealistic sorts of relationships among objects in the world seem plausible to such children. For example, they may know that they are a boy and that girls are different than boys, but they may think that they can grow up to become a girl (yes, I know this can happen surgically in adulthood, but children of this stage think that it could happen just as a matter of course).
Piaget uses the term "Operations" in the manner we would use the phrase "Mental Techniques". An operation basically consists of representing something in your mind and then asking "what if", mentally transforming that thing to answer the question and visualizing the result in your mind. One type of operation is addition, to offer a mathematical example. I can imagine two things and then perform the operation of addition to them in my mind by asking myself, "what if I had two more things?", imagining those two more things, and then visualizing the result in my mind. I could then report to you that there would now be four things present. All this without actually touching anything!
Asking "what if" questions like this requires a major advance in the way that a baby thinks about things – the child has to be able to make a representation of an actual thing in the word in her mind (an imaginary object representing an actual object), imagine that something happens to that imaginary object (e.g., an operation) that has not happened to the actual object, and predict or visualize the result of that mental operation. Young children (ages 2-5) have a lot of trouble doing this sort of thing according to Piaget, and that is why he calls this stage between 2-5 years "Pre-Operational" (e..g, because kids can't operate on representations in any systematic way at those ages). Young children can be taught to count and to do simple adding and subtracting sorts of operations, but the vast majority of those kids are simply memorizing these operations – they don't "get" or understand how those operations actually work.
Older children can understand how addition and subtraction and other more complicated operations work. Between ages 6-10 or so (where school age starts), kids enter the Concrete Operations stage. As used here, the word "concrete" doesn't mean a man-made rock, but instead to something that is tangible, and obvious; the opposite of abstract. Simple addition and subtraction are concrete operations, because it is easy to imagine some number of things, and then to take away a few of those things (or add a few more things) and see the result visually in one's mind. You learn how to do these things mentally, by first actually doing them physically (e.g., in a concrete manner).
Learning proceeds from what can be visualized easily (because it is concrete and obvious) and only later becomes abstracted – or understood as a sort of "rule" that can be lifted out of its origins and applied to new categories of things that have never been experienced before. You might learn how to add and subtract by playing with marbles for example, but by the time you are a certain age (Piaget suggest starting around age 11) you become capable of adding and subtracting new types of things that you have never seen and which maybe don't even exist. Piaget calls this last stage of learning how to think about things "formal operations" because he is thinking that the "form" of addition or subtraction has been abstracted from the actual physical act of adding or subtracting marbles from a pile, and that form or rule can now be applied to elephants, suns, salaries and other fairly abstract categories of stuff.
At this point I have to put in a disclaimer. I have not picked up any books about Piaget and his stages in the writing of this essay – this is all from my head, and therefore the facts and the details are probably wrong in my above description. What is worse, Piaget himself was wrong about a lot of the details! Subsequent researchers have demonstrated that various operations happen earlier than Piaget thought, for instance. It is not really important, for my purpose right now, that you have all the facts and details straight. What is important is that we go over Piaget's description of the pattern of how knowledge grows and develops in a human mind over time. The pattern looks like this:
You cannot appreciate the diversity of things in the world (such as marbles, people, and elephants to name but a few sorts of things) until until you have first mastered how to work your body and interpret your senses.
Note that these are successive layers of appreciation. Each successive layer of knowledge uses the previous layer as a foundation. Knowledge is cumulative. More advanced, abstract understandings are not possible for people to have without their first having less advanced, more concrete experiences.
Also, note that later layers are always super-sets of the prior layers. This is to say, earlier layers are included in and assumed in later layers, and later layers expand upon what has been gained from the earlier layers. If we were representing these layers as a diagram or picture (e.g., a concrete representation to help you leap "up" into a more formal abstracted understanding), it would look kind of like a bullseye; a set of concentric circles where the earliest layers are the small circles in the center, and the outer (later) layers including those earlier circles inside themselves, but also covering more territory.
Read these two last ideas again a few times before proceeding, because they are critical for understanding what comes next.
How Social Maturity Develops
Okay – now, let us apply Piaget's insights about how knowledge develops in successive layers not to thinking maturity, but rather to social maturity, a topic rather dear to the hearts of most people visiting this website, I expect. The questions to ask now are:
These first two questions are addressed in "The Evolving Self", while the third question is addressed in Kegan's follow-up book, "In Over Our Heads".
What Kegan has to say in "The Evolving Self" can be summarized (I think) in this manner:
Social maturity does evolve or develop in successive layers just as does cognitive maturity, progressing from the most simple understanding to more and more complex understandings of the social world.
More simple appreciations of the social world, and of human emotions are fundamentally inaccurate, and not a good fit for the actual complexity of the social world, but they nevertheless represent the best people can do at any given moment.
More complex appreciations of the social world evolve into existence as a person becomes able to appreciate stuff abstractly that they used to appreciate only in concrete (obvious, tangible) forms. This is to say (using Kegan's terms) that people are initially embedded in their own subjective perspective. They see things only from their own particular point of view and fundamentally cannot understand what it might be like to see themselves from another perspective other than their own. Being unable to understand what you look like to someone else is the essence and definition of what it means to be subjective about yourself, for example. Being able to appreciate things from many different perspectives is the essence of what it means to be relatively objective.
New layers of social/emotional development occurs as people become able to finally see themselves in increasingly larger and wider social perspective. For example, the moment I am able to understand for the first time what another person is thinking or feeling, I have made a sort of leap forwards out of subjectivity (me being trapped in my own perspective) and into a view of the world that is a little more objective. If I can understand what someone else is thinking and feeling, I can also imagine myself as I must look through their eyes and my self-understanding becomes that much more objective. This sort of expanded awareness represents an emergence from embeddedness in my own subjective perspective and the growth of my ability to see things from multiple perspectives at once.
This process of becoming progressively less subjective as you mature, and thus more able to appreciate the complexity of the social world, repeats itself multiple times in a given lifespan (assuming people do continue to mature as they age and don't simply get stuck!). Each new layer of awareness; each expansion of perspective that a person grows is simultaneously both more objective; offering a better, wider perspective on the social world than did the prior understanding), and also less objective then the understanding that logically follows next.
Where does this progression end? Theoretically, it ends in some kind of Buddha-like state of enlightenment, where everything that can be understood objectively is understood objectively and there is no more subjectivity to be embedded in anymore. More practically, it ends when we reach the level of social maturity that most of our peers achieve. Few people ever become more socially mature than the majority of their peers.
Let's take a moment to digest this stuff for a bit. It's still kinda dense, I know, even despite my efforts at simplification.
Stages of Social Maturity
What we've just gone over is a sort of abstracted version of Kegan's social maturity theory without any real detail shown. Of course, it will help to have that detail along with some some concrete examples of what he is talking about to make this all comprehensible, so that is what I will now try to supply.
Kegan is suggesting that as babies grow into adults, they develop progressively more objective and accurate appreciations of the social world they inhabit. They do this by progressing through five or more states or periods of development which he labeled as follows:
In their beginnings, babies are all subjective and have really no appreciation of anything objective at all, and therefore no real self-awareness. This is to say, at first, babies have little idea how to interpret anything, and the only perspective they have with which to interpret things is their own scarcely developed perspective. They can recognize parent's faces and the like, but this sort of recognition should not be confused with babies being able to appreciate that parents are separate creatures with their own needs. This key recognition doesn't occur for years.
Kegan describes this earliest period as Incorporative. The sense of self is not developed at this point in time. There is no self to speak of because there is no distinction occurring yet between self and other. To the baby, there is not any reason to ask the question, "who am I" because the baby's mind is nothing more and nothing less than the experience of its senses as it moves about. In an important sense, the baby is embedded in its sensory experience and has no other awareness.
Babies practice using their senses and reflexes a lot and thus develop mental representations of those reflexes. At some point it occurs to the baby that it has reflexes that it can use and senses that it can experience. Reflex and sensation are thus the first mental objects; the first things that are understood to be distinct components of the self. The sense of self emerges from the knowledge that there are things in the world that aren't self (like reflexes and senses); things that I am not. To quote Kegan,
"Rather than literally being my reflexes, I now have them, and "I" am something other. "I" am that which coordinates or mediates the reflexes..."
Kegan correspondingly refers to this second period of social appreciation development as Impulsive, to suggest that the child is now embedded in impulses – which are those things that coordinate reflexes. The sense of self at this stage of life would be comfortable saying something like, "hungry", or "sleepy", being fully identified with these hungers. Though babies are now aware that they can take action to fulfill a need, they still are not clear that other people exist yet as independent creatures. From the perspective of the Impulsive mind, a parent is merely another reflex that can be brought to bear to satisfy impulses.
The objectification of what was previously subjective experience continues as development continues. Kegan's next developmental leap is known as the Imperial self. The child as "little dictator" is born. In the prior impulsive self, the self literally is nothing more and nothing less than a set of needs. There isn't anyone "there" having those needs yet. The needs alone are all that exists. As awareness continues to rise, the child now starts to become aware that "it" is the very thing that has the needs. Because the child is now aware that it has needs (rather than is needs), it also starts to become aware that it can consciously manipulate things to get its needs satisfied. The impulsive child was also manipulative, perhaps, but in a more unaware animal manner. The imperial child is not yet aware that other people have needs too. It only knows at this stage that it has needs, and it doesn't hesitate to express them.
The Interpersonal period that follows next starts with the first moment when the child comes to understand that there are actually other people out there in the world whose needs need to be taken into account along side their own. The appreciation of the otherness of other people comes about, as always by a process of expanding perspectives. The child's perspective in this case expands from its own only to later include both its own and those of other important people around it. It is the child's increasingly sophisticated understanding of the idea that people have needs itself which cause the leap to occur. To quote Kegan again,
"I" no longer am my needs (no longer the imperial I); rather I have them. In having them I can now coordinate, or integrate, one need system with another, and in so doing, I bring into being that need-mediating reality which we refer to when we speak of mutuality."
In English then, the interpersonal child becomes aware that "not only do I have needs, other people do too!" This moment in time is where conscience is born and the potential for guilt and shame arises, as well as the potential for empathy. Prior to this moment, these important aspects of adult mental life don't exist except as potentials.
The interpersonal child is aware that other people have needs which it needs to be taken into account if it is to best satisfy its own needs. There is no guiding principle that helps the interpersonal child to determine which set of needs is most important – its own, or those of the other people. Some children will conclude that their own needs are most important to satisfy, while others will conclude that other's needs should be prioritized, and some children will move back and forth between the two positions like a crazy monkey.
As the child's sense of self continues to develop, at some point it becomes aware that a guiding principle can be established which helps determine which set of needs should take precedence under particular circumstances. This is the first moment that the child can be said to have values, or commitments to ideas and beliefs and principles which are larger and more permanent than its own passing whims and fears. Kegan refers to this new realization of and commitment to values as the Institutional period, noting that in this period, the child's idea of self becomes something which can be, for the first time, described in terms of institutionalized values, such as being honest. "I'm an honest person. I try to be fair. I strive to be brave." are the sorts of things an institutional mind might say. Values, such as the Golden Rule (e.g., "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), start to guide the child's appreciation of how to be a member of the family and of society. The moral, ethical and legal foundations of society follow from this basic achievement of an Institutional self. Further, children (or adults) who achieve this level of social maturity understand the need for laws and for ethical codes that work to govern everyone's behavior. Less socially mature individuals won't grasp why these things are important and cannot and should not simply be disregarded when they are inconvenient.
For many people, social maturity seems to stop here at the Institutional stage. Kegan himself writes that this stage is the stage of conventional adult maturity; one that many (but not all) adults reach, and beyond which most do not progress. However, the potential for continued development continues onwards and upwards.
The next evolution of self understanding occurs when the child (by now probably an adult) starts to realize that there is more than one way of being "fair" or "honest" or "brave" in the world. Whereas before, in the interpersonal mindset, there is only one possible right way to interpret a social event (e.g., in accordance with one's own value system), a newly developed InterIndivdiual mindset starts to recognize a diversity of ways that someone might act and still be acting in accordance with a coherent value system (though not necessarily one's own value system).
For example, let's consider how someone with an Institutional mindset and someone with an InterIndividual mindset might judge someone who has become a "draft dodger" so as to avoid military duty. There are precisely two ways that an Institutionally minded person might look at such an action. If he or she is of the mainstream institutional mindset, draft dodging is a non-religious sort of heresy and a crime which should be punishable. If, on the other hand, he or she is of a counter-cultural institutional mindset, then judgements are reversed and draft dodging is seen as a brave action which demonstrates individual courage in the face of massive peer pressure to conform. An institutionally minded person can hold one or the other of these perspectives but not both, because he or she is literally embedded in one or the other of those perspectives and cannot appreciate the other except as something alien and evil.
A person who has achieved InterIndividual social maturity is able to hold both mainstream and counter-cultural value systems in mind at the same time, and to see the problem of draft dodging from both perspectives. This sort of dual-vision will appear to be the worst kind of wishy-washiness and flip-floppery to someone stuck in a conventional Institutional mindset and maturity level. However, if you are following the progression of social maturity states, and how one states' embedded subjective view becomes something which is seem objectively alongside other points of view as social maturity progresses, you will see that such dual-vision is indeed the logical next step; what a more socially mature sort of human being might look like.
Kegan thinks of the achievement of InterIndividual social maturity, what might be considered "post-maturity", as a dubious thing. In a wonderful interview published by "What is Enlightenment Magazine " and available online here (no longer available) , Kegan comments on the danger that this state poses:
"... you have to think about what it means to actually be more complex than what your culture is currently demanding. You have to have a name for that, too. It's almost something beyond maturity, and it's usually a very risky state to be in. I mean, we loved Jesus, Socrates, and Gandhi—after we murdered them. While they were alive, they were a tremendous pain in the ass. Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr.—these people died relatively young. You don't often live a long life being too far out ahead of your culture."
I'm not going to comment on whether or not Kegan's social maturity theory is accurate. Whether or not it is accurate, it is still a very useful and interesting way of thinking about how social maturity develops. If we can agree to accept this theory as basically correct, for a moment, a whole lot of mental problems and disorders that are otherwise difficult to talk about suddenly start to make some sense; start to "click into place". This is already a rather long essay and I don't want to belabor it, but I need to give at least one example, and to my mind there is no better example for my purpose than Narcissistic Personality Disorder .
Narcissists are (typically) arrogant, self-important and even grandiose people who consider themselves special and "above the law", lacking in empathy and compassion, willing to exploit innocents, and who are consumed by visions of dramatic personal success and power to which they quite passionately believe they are entitled for no apparent reason. Narcissists use other people if it suits their purpose to use them, and discard or attack them if they are in the way.
Everyone knows a few people who fit the narcissist mold to one degree or another. It is generally not at all clear what the heck is wrong with narcissists that causes them to act in this obnoxious fashion, so most people tend to think of them in more simple terms, as "jerks" or "a**holes".
Now, think for a moment what an adult might look like who never left the Imperial self stage of social maturity development. Keep in mind that there are many different types of maturity and that we are only suggesting an adult whose growth has been stunted in this particular social-emotional manner. Other aspects of maturity (e.g., cognitive and intellectual maturity, knowledge, and of course age) are unaffected. That particular hypothetical adult is pretty much going to look like a narcissist, huh? A "little dictator" writ into adult form.
For example, the adult narcissist lacks empathy for the same reason that the normal imperial child lacks empathy; as an Imperially minded individual, he cannot conceive of any perspective that has any meaning other than his own. He or she is literally embedded in an inadequate and inaccurate representation of social reality; one in which only his own needs and impulses are important and no one else is important. The existence of other human beings with separate needs may be partially understood by such a fellow, but there is no recognition that those other people's needs have equivalent weight and reality to the Imperial-minded narcissists' own.
A similar argument can be made to explain how to account for sociopaths; antisocial personality disorders (who similarly lacks in empathy, guilt and remorse for criminal actions which harm other people), and also for the childish, immature and often reckless behavior that is frequently displayed by otherwise normal people who have been abusing drugs and/or alcohol since they were small and have only recently become sober. Such people's behavior can be made more comprehensible if you think of them as developmentally delayed in this dimension of social-emotional maturity.
Just because we can use Kegan's theory to explain why people act like jerks, doesn't for a second excuse jerky behavior. Or criminal behavior, for that matter. Adult narcissists and antisocials may be akin to little children in terms of their social maturity development, but they are not typically retarded in other aspects of maturity. They often have the full compliment of adult intellectual capabilities and may even have very good social skills. They often know right from wrong in some abstract manner even if they can't conceive it like a more socially mature person might. They are accountable for their actions even if they possess real handicaps that lead them to act in unacceptable ways.
Ask any therapist and he or she will tell you - it is quite difficult to do effective therapy with people who have social immaturity problems. If Kegan is right in his thinking, the reason for this would not be that these people are fundamentally resistant to the therapy process (which is how many therapists see the problem), but rather in large part because they cannot comprehend the therapy process, which is after all, very much a social process that requires a certain level of social maturity on the part of patients before they can benefit. It isn't enough to simply teach a set of skills to such people, because all such people will be capable of doing is aping those skills. They won't be able to fully appreciate the meaning of those skills and thus generalize from them to a more abstract (and mature) way of being with other people. Teaching social skills might actually work for some such people. Some people might actually learn the skills and that will be enough to trigger their growth. However, there ought to be a better, more direct way to make this sort of social maturity growth occur.
Actually, the question of how to help adult people become more socially mature when they aren't is a huge unanswered question that this theory leaves us with. Is there a way to help the Narcissists and the Antisocials and the Pedophiles out there? What about the rest of the people out there who are not quite at the level of social maturity that society demands of them? Kegan explores these questions in his follow-on book, In Over Our Heads" which is also very good and worth reading. If there is interest in this essay (we'll see), I'll find a way to go over his conclusions from that book in a future essay.
Hopefully, those of you who have stuck this out will have comprehended what I've been trying to say and it will have been a worthwhile expenditure of your time. If not, all I can say in my defense is that I tried my best (grin!). My aim is to educate, and this stuff is worth knowing about, even if it isn't something Oprah or Dr. Phil would do a show about. As per usual, I'm happy to answer questions and post non-trollish comments. Be well.
Editors' Note: A continuation of this essay concerning Dr. Kegan's second psychological book "In Over Our Heads" is available here .