Natural misunderstandings of adult stage theory

Adult developmental stage theory describes certain qualitative shifts in ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that occur in some adults. These enable unusual capabilities: the systematic and meta-systematic modes. Those have played essential roles in human progress historically, and seem likely to be critical for our future.

If that’s true, then accurate understanding of nature and causes of these shifts would be tremendously valuable, for individuals and societies.

The theory has recently gained significant interest, particularly in the technology industry. Competence in the systematic mode is an absolute prerequisite for many roles there, and meta-systematic capability is increasingly recognized as a superpower.

This essay aims to dispel some common, natural misunderstandings that hinder effective use of the theory by people who might benefit from it. Unfortunately, scientific research in adult stage theory is scant, and available explanations are confusing and unreliable. In fact, some misunderstandings may be due to defects in my own writing. I wrote about stage theory only in an off-hand way, as background for a discussion of Buddhist ethics. I covered only parts of the story, without sufficient critical analysis. Somehow that has become one of my most-read and most-influential essays. If I had expected that, I would have written it differently.

If you don’t know what adult stage theory is, you can’t have any misunderstandings of it, so this discussion is irrelevant for you. If, nevertheless, the overall concept sounds intriguing, you could read my off-hand summary; or Wikipedia’s summary of an influential book on the topic, Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self.

Stages are ways of being, not subject matters

Some sections in this page discuss specific misunderstandings of particular stages or stage transitions, and explain their consequences and antidotes. Others cover misunderstandings of the nature of the theory as a whole.

A common, natural, specific confusion is:

The supposed stage 3 means “cares about, and is good at, emotions and interpersonal relationships.” The supposed stage 4 means “cares about, and is good at, abstract ideas and the non-human material world, particularly the world of artificial constructions.”

The quote says “supposed” because if this misunderstanding was true, stage theory would be outright false. Some people are more interested in emotions; others do care more about machines. Neither interest is superior to the other, and there’s no set order to how much you care about which one! These interests are not sequential, so there would be no stages, and the whole story collapses.

But this is not what the theory is about, at all. There’s a broader misunderstanding here than just mistaking the meanings of stages 3 and 4 specifically. The more general mistake is confusing domains of meaning—such as the interpersonal and cognitive domains—with stages. Stages are qualitatively distinct ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and acting that apply in every domain.

Stage theory is about systematicity

Adult stage theory is about how we relate with systems. It’s just about that. That is its topic. This is not the way all theorists explain it, but it is the original version, and you can see it as the underlying logic even in versions of the theory that don’t particularly emphasize it.1

Stage 3 entails engaging with any domain (including ideas and material mechanisms) concretely, without the ability to recognize and apply systematic principles. Stage 4 means engaging with any domain (including emotions and relationships) in terms of systematic abstractions.

Engaging with the material world is always important, from birth and throughout life, including in stage 3.2 Emotions and relationships are always important to us, from birth and throughout life, including in stages 4 and 5. At different stages, we relate to each of these domains differently: concretely at stage 3, systematically at stage 4, and fluidly at stage 5.

You can’t skip stage 3

I have never cared about, nor been good at, emotions and relationships, so I never had a stage 3. I skipped that stuff! And I have a degree in physics, so I definitely meet the criteria for at stage 4 at minimum.

If you could skip stages, the theory would fall apart. Its central claim is that there is an invariant sequence that everyone goes through. The quote is, however, a specific manifestation of confusing stages with domains. It’s based on the idea that stage 3 is the period in life in which relationships are the main focus. For the majority it is, but not for everyone.

Historically, another main claim of stage theory was that a person progresses through the stages in sync across all domains. There’s abundant evidence now that this is false, as most researchers reluctantly admit. Different domains may seem more significant to you at different stages. Then you may put less effort into the less significant-seeming ones, and your development may lag in those.3

The typically greater significance of relationships at stage 3, and of the material and conceptual domains at stage 4, is not intrinsic to those stages. It’s due to current social, cultural, and economic conditions. Under other conditions, other domains may seem most significant at particular stages.

The importance of different domains is also a matter of personal proclivity. In our culture, someone who “skipped stage 3” was probably concentrating on developing cognitive and practical skills during the time their classmates were mainly developing relational ones. (Paul Graham’s “Why nerds are unpopular” explains this.)

“I skipped stage 3” means “I’m stuck back in stage 3 in the domains of emotions and relationships, although I’m at stage 4 or later in the domains of abstract thought and systems manipulation.” In other words, you didn’t skip 3: you are there right now, lagging. You neglected your development in some domains. In that case, it might be good to go back and pick up the emotional and relational skills you missed.

Stage 4 is about emotions and relationships too

Perhaps you did develop the emotional and relational domains within stage 3, but when you transitioned to stage 4 cognitively, you didn’t care enough about them to push them beyond 3. They’re lagging.

In that case, upgrading your emotional life and relationships into stage 4, to catch up with where you are in other domains, could be valuable. You may not care so much about them for their own sake, but in most white-collar work, stage 4 emotional and relational competence is a prerequisite for career advancement beyond a certain point. Even if only for selfish instrumental reasons, you might want to accomplish that.

Unfortunately, this competence—sometimes called professionalism—is not taught formally. It is usually acquired informally on the job, if at all.4

Stage progression is not the whole of adult development

Stage theory is sometimes presented by its advocates as “the theory of adult development.” It is not that, because there are many ways you can develop as an adult that do not involve stage transitions.

You can deepen your competence within a stage. For example, you can get better at relationships within stage 3 by developing more sophisticated listening and expression skills, deepening your capacity for empathy, and feeling your emotions more accurately. This is extremely valuable! Such development may have no upper bound. However, no amount of it will take you to stage 4—because that is a qualitatively different way of relating.

You can get better at relationships within stage 4 by inhabiting asymmetrical formal roles, by taking on authority and accepting the authority of others, and by carrying out interactions in accordance with a social system’s explicit rules and implicit structural logic. This is also extremely valuable, and may also have no upper bound. However, no amount of such development will take you to stage 5—because that is another, qualitatively different way of relating.

Stage transition is not like learning new skills

Development within a stage proceeds by incremental skill addition and by deepening the sorts of capabilities you already have. It feels like collecting new material into yourself.

Any learning entails frustration from difficulty with new material, as well as satisfaction when it is mastered. Tackling a new subject in school may feel scary or overwhelming. In most cases, however, the challenge is “more of the same”: perhaps it is more difficult than material you have encountered before, but success or failure will both leave your self unchanged in your essence.

Transitioning to a new stage feels like losing your self and having to build a new one. It unlocks a new way of being, with entirely different capabilities—not more and better of the same. You have to become a qualitatively different sort of thing in order to do qualitatively different sorts of things.

In the transition to stage 4, you become a system yourself. In the transition to stage 5, you become the space of dynamic potential.

You feel lost. You don’t know who or even what you are any more. You have to leave everything you valued behind. You must accept a new epistemology, in which all the things you thought you knew most certainly and intimately are wrong.

These becomings do enable new sorts of specific skills that were not previously accessible. Initially, though, you have zero capacity of the new sort. The challenge at that point is not yet to learn new skills, but to feel your way into what the new way of being is like.

Romantic postrationalism is not stage 5

Both pushes and pulls motivate stage transitions. When you have finally mastered a stage’s way of being and can relax into it, you start to notice its limitations and patterns of dysfunction. At some point you get fed up and then even revolted, and the revulsion pushes you out and forward into the rugged wilderness that lies between stages. That’s the push. You may then spy the gleaming towers of the next stage in the distance, and the inspiring sight pulls you forward toward them.

Lagging emotional and interpersonal development is common among the STEM-educated. STEM education teaches you systematic cognition, i.e. rationality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t teach you how to systematize your emotions and relationships. It’s common for the STEM-educated to explicitly denigrate and ignore those domains as inherently irrational. Those who say “I skipped stage 3,” meaning actually “I am emotionally and interpersonally underdeveloped,” are often smug or defiant about it. STEM education may produce a quasi-religious identification of the self with rationality: rationalism.

After mastering technical rationality, its limitations and dysfunctions gradually become apparent. That can push you forward beyond stage 4 in the cognitive domain. Then you may change your mind about other domains which you had neglected. Opening yourself to the wider, uncertain view of the territory ahead may make your emotional and relationship deficiencies obvious, whereas it was easy to overlook them when narrowly focused on technical accomplishment. Dis-identification with rationality as your sole source of meaning makes the charge of “irrationality” less convincing. You may become so disgusted with your own gullibility, which allowed you to get tricked into worshipping rationality, that you invert your values and explicitly denigrate it.

You may proclaim the superiority of irrationality; or at least come out in favor of unrestrained emotions, communal bonding, spiritual experiences, and aesthetic appreciation as the opposite of technical work. This is the pattern of the Romantic movement of the early 1800s, which reacted against the rationalism of the 1700s European Enlightenment. It’s a natural move, and has been recapitulated by many movements since, notably the New Age.

Romanticism is genuine progress if it motivates you to develop in your lagging domains. However, it can fool you into thinking you’re making more progress than you actually are. Whereas it motivates stage 3 work you previously neglected, it actively impedes transitioning those domains to stage 4. Having discovered the dysfunctions of systematicity, you know what it would cost you to systematize your emotions and relationships, and you reject that. Unfortunately, that leaves you stuck at stage 3 in those domains. You can develop them highly within stage 3, but you cannot progress beyond that. You will remain an emotionally sensitive teenager, perhaps for the rest of your life.

If you encounter stage theory while in the Romantic position, you will accurately assess yourself at having moved beyond stage 4. You may then do considerable deliberate development work. With that, you may mistake your position for stage 5. You may fail to recognize you’ve passed 4 only in certain domains, and are lagging back in 3 in others.

Integrating stages 3 and 4 is not stage 5

After you master rationality (stage 4), the next developmental task is to integrate that with emotions (stage 3). That’s what stage 5 means.

This takes you a step further than Romanticism, but it is a similar misunderstanding. Stage 5 is not the integration of stages 3 and 4, it’s a completely different thing.

Integrating rationality with emotions is stage 4. To be fully at stage 4 means having systematized all the things. A system brooks no contradictions, so it must include and integrate every domain into a tidy well-functioning machine.

In the glory days of modernity, social systems supported elite adolescents in moving from stage 3 to stage 4 in all domains simultaneously. Here in postmodernity, no one gets that support, at least not as a coherent package. You have to grope your way into systematic adulthood by assembling bits of insight, and bits of experience, from many dissimilar only-semi-functional sources.

If you are cognitively at stage 4 but emotionally and relationally at stage 3, it is true that your next developmental task is to systematize the lagging domains and integrate them into a rational system.

Systematizing your emotions and relationships means taking responsibility for them, which is growing up into adulthood. It means cleaning up the messes your emotional incontinence creates, and resolving firmly to act in accordance with rational principles of relationship in future. This is no fun at all, and takes a lot of bullet-biting.

On the other hand, once accomplished, you find that your relationships actually work, and you are no longer at the mercy of chaotic emotional drama.

You can’t skip stage 4

I skipped stage 4. I have a holistic, contextual stage 5 world view, but I’ve never cared much about systematic rationality.

“Holistic” and “contextual” are characteristic of the stage 5 way of being. They are also characteristic of some stage 3 ways of being: those based in the stance of monism, which is the denial of boundaries, differences, and specifics, with overemphasis on connections, unity, and equality.

Those who imagine they skipped stage 4 are more likely lagging in the domains of analytical thinking and manipulating material mechanisms. They are cognitively at stage 3, although they may be highly developed emotionally, relationally, spiritually, and aesthetically—probably also within that stage. As I wrote elsewhere, monism is a major obstacle to developing into stage 4, because 4 is pervasively dualist. Stage 4 overemphasizes boundaries, differences, and specifics, and tends to deny connections, sharing, and commonalities. That dualism is actually wrong, and it’s natural for people with a monist stance to want to skip it. It’s a natural mistake to imagine they have, because stage 5 does avoid dualistic errors.

Stage 5 resolves the conflict between big-picture monism and detail-oriented dualism, in a synthesis that acknowledges and incorporates what’s accurate in both. It’s not possible to do that without having mastered the ability to manipulate complex, hard-edged specifics, which is only possible by progressing through stage 4.

Without that, your developmental arc may have achieved Cosmic Consciousness, which is sort of nice, but you are probably quite ineffective. Instead of doing anything useful, you waste your time hanging out with other ineffective people, getting high and complaining about “the system.”

I and others have used the term “fluidity” to describe stage 5. That may be misleading. Stage 5 is not about grooving with situational vibes; that’s stage 3.

Unfortunately, there is as yet no bridge to stage 5. As you leave stage 4 behind, it is rare to catch even a glimpse in the far distance, and no one can tell you the way.

Stage 5 is not about systems

Some researchers use the term “meta-systematicity” for stage 5, and I have adopted it, for lack of a better one. It’s potentially quite misleading, though. I said earlier that stage theory is “about systematicity.” That’s true, but only inasmuch as stage 3 lacks capability for the systematic way of being, and stage 5 transcends it.

“Meta-systematicity” suggests a system of systems. I’ve always been careful to explain that this is not what stage 5 is about; it is non-systematic. The term also suggests that systems are in some other way central to what stage 5 is about. I’ve done a less good job of denying that. Stage 5 does give you new ways of working with systems, but that’s not its main thing.

Stage 5 means becoming the space of dynamic potential within which all phenomena dance—including systems, but also everything else.

That needs more explanation than belongs in this essay.

Stage progression doesn’t make you a superior person

It’s possible to use stage theory to feel superior, or to put other people down. That’s a mistake. The point is not that this isn’t nice (that would be a stage 3 judgement!), it’s that it may lock you into your own currently limited understanding.

It’s usually best to avoid categorizing people in stage terms—most of all yourself. You may overlook lags in domains you have neglected; you may think you’ve accomplished transformations that remain incomplete; you may overlook, and fail to learn from, the virtues and capabilities of others. Those may exceed yours in particular areas, even if it’s true that they have developed only to an earlier stage than you.

There is an ethical dimension in stage progression. Current understanding is influenced by Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral development theory and others’ subsequent revisions to it. That is a theory of ethical reasoning, however, not of moral behavior. There is no guarantee that, just because you can reason out an ethically correct course of action, you will actually do that. You can be a malignant psychopath at any developmental stage.

Stage progression is not morally required

No stage is intrinsically better than any other.

Systematicity is unnatural and can be extremely unpleasant. If it were feasible for everyone to remain at stage 3, the world might be better. Systematicity is not superior to the communal mode in any cosmic, absolute sense; nor is meta-systematicity inherently superior to systematicity.

However, systematic organization is necessary for the form of life we have developed over the past couple centuries. Without enormously intricate rational systems, we couldn’t produce enough food for eight billion people. Meta-systematicity may also now be necessary, because modernity—the systematic mode of social organization—reached its limit around 1970, and social systems are breaking down due to its unavoidable flaws.

Systematicity is not necessary for any particular individual. There’s no general moral obligation to progress from stage 3 to stage 4, or to 5. Most people simply don’t want to become systematic, and there is no reason they should. Choosing to do so, and to pay the emotional cost of having done so, is nonetheless a supererogatory virtue, because someone has to keep the machinery of civilization running. You should be congratulated and rewarded for taking that step.

You should not feel smug or superior. Others may have chosen to develop in other directions, within stage 3, and that should be accorded equal dignity and moral value, and should also be congratulated and rewarded. Both do also have intrinsic rewards; growth of any sort can be remarkably satisfying.

There is a moral obligation to behave systematically if you take on a role that demands it. That is doubly true if your role requires taking systematic responsibility for others, such as in management. Such roles morally require subordinating your emotions and conducting your relationships according to principled rules and procedures.

Meta-systematicity is also unnatural and can also be extremely unpleasant. It requires accepting permanent groundless agoraphobia, loss of coherence, and the termination of your self as a distinct and defined entity. If you are comfortable in systematicity, there is no moral obligation to step off the cliff into that metaphorical suicide.

Nevertheless, doing so is a supererogatory virtue, because someone has to envision, enable, and ensure a better future. And, some senior roles in innovation and in institutional leadership do morally require you to encourage systems to melt into air, and to re-form into always-renewed, dynamically shifting configurations.

Upcoming, maybe

I have accumulated a mass of notes on stage theory, which I’ve recently split into what I hope will form the basis for additional essays:

  1. 1.All current adult stage theories have been heavily influenced by Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory. His final stage, stage 4, is the capacity for systematic rationality, which he took to mean applying logical abstractions to the material world. That may be accomplished in the teen years. Subsequent theorists have added one or more additional stages, accomplished only during adulthood; and have extended the theory to domains other than the material.
  2. 2.We also engage with increasingly-abstract concepts starting from—at the latest—the initial acquisition of language. That is stage 2 in Piaget’s scheme, or stage 1 in Kegan’s.
  3. 3.The technical term is “décalage,” French for “lag.” I plan a separate essay about this important phenomenon. What are the substantive claims of the theory if you aren’t necessarily ever “at” any particular stage?
  4. 4.This is a major topic in Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.