ArticlePDF Available

Ego Development: A Full-Spectrum Theory Of Vertical Growth And Meaning Making

  • Vertical Development Academy

Abstract and Figures

A longer, (122 p). version of the freely and widely shared white paper on the web called "9 levels of increasing embrace." Interesting that there is no category for white papers and material that is part of any adult development course across the world. The paper has also been translated into Japanese and Russian. Isn't that a kind of peer review as well?
Content may be subject to copyright.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 1
Ego Development: A Full-Spectrum Theory
Of Vertical Growth And Meaning Making
Copyright Susanne R. Cook-Greuter, Ed. D.
Added to Research Gate on 11/18/2021.
Independent scholar, coach and consultant
34 Campbell Rd.
Wayland, MA 01778
Prepublication version. Adapted and greatly expanded from S. Cook-Greuter (1985). A detailed
description of the successive stages of ego-development: 9 levels of increasing embrace..
The stage names in this paper stem from pre-2016 versions of the theory or from the generally
wide-spread names for them in the business world.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 2
Ego Development: A Full-Spectrum Theory
Of Vertical Growth And Meaning Making
© 2014 Susanne Cook-Greuter
After many years of promising to write a book on Ego Development Theory (EDT for short) and the
Leadership Maturity Framework (LMF), I decided to begin the process by revising the 9 levels-paper. Of
all my papers, it is the most cited and the most often required reading in college courses in psychology
and human development. It’s high time to revisit the original 9 levels paper in regards to argument,
content and style. Thus updating it seems like a useful first step towards a final, more comprehensive
writing project. As a non-native speaker of English, clear, concise, and convincing writing remains a
challenge. I hope this version shows some improvements in readability and clarity of reasoning from the
earlier versions.
I am also writing this to answer some recurring critics of ego development theory by prominent
theoreticians because these pertain to Loevinger’s version, not to the one I have developed since the
1980’s. Granted I based my original research on Loevinger’s approach and followed her rigorous
requirements for testing hypotheses using actual data as a source of new theory. Most other
theoreticians started out with s ’s model of how to do grounded research and validating one’s findings, I
soon realized some limitations of her theory. It was and still is basically describing a sequence of
meaning making levels. Each level is more complex than the previous one and includes behavioral,
motivational, cognitive, and emotional components. Yet it does not explain what actually happens in
Her theory has no structural underpinnings for why and how people develop from one stage to the
next. Nor was it sufficiently differentiated, in my view, at the high end of the scale. Thus I set out to
collect new data that would allow for a definition of what underlies the movement from stage to stage
and to refine the high end. In 1985 I first proposed the structure of increasing capacity to take
perspective on experience (external) and the self (internal) at a symposium of the Society for Research
in Adult Development. The paper was well received and acknowledged as
an important contribution and expansion of Loevinger theory by participants including Lawrence
Kohlberg and Michael Commons. They and others encouraged me to continue the research and write it
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 3
up in a paper to be published in the conference proceedings. Based on the rare, yet highly suggestive
data I had collected up to then, I was also able to document two stages to replace Loevinger’s vague
Integrated stage. They provided clear criteria that distinguished them qualitatively from earlier stages
and each other. They followed the overall structure of repeating cycles of differentiation and integration
into ever larger interconnected systems of meaning apparent to the self. Self-awareness seems to move
from first noticing concrete, external features, to traits, to behavior patterns, to awareness of how
patterns are acquired via cultural conditioning, to seeing interrelated systems, and finally, to see through
the attempts of the ego to codify and explain reality.
Most of the research was done as an independent scholar, an identification that has bountiful
benefits and naturally some downsides. The beauty of this position is that it has no constraints for
exploring what peaks one’s interest, in what contexts one choses to do so, in which form, and how long
it takes. There are no deadlines, no one to make demands on progress and publishing records other
than those imposed by oneself. There is also a prize to be paid. There is no salary and no academic
support. There are no semester breaks and sabbaticals, time off when other scholars in academia do
their writing. Other than reading and attending symposia and professional conferences, there is little
intellectual exchange and challenge. There is also no guaranteed way of making a living unless one
creates independent work for oneself.
Nonetheless, I chose to follow the independent scholar path and worked on collecting more data
and refining the theory and the measuring tool for 15 years before I reentered academia to get a
doctorate and to “prove” my conjectures as not just figments of my mind. By the time I wrote my
dissertation, I based my thinking on over 4500 Sentence Completion Tests or over 130,000 pieces of
evidence. I joke that I do not recommend that others follow my foot steps for their dissertations. It’s a
piece of writing that many still consult both for its thesis and as a research model.
I consider it a powerful advantage over Loevinger’s knowledge of language that I grew up in a
multi-lingual society, and was trained in linguistics and especially semantics at university in Switzerland.
Semantics is that branch of linguistics that deals with the meaning of words, how new words get
created, and how their meanings change through the years along with the evolution of civilization. Thus,
I was primed to pay attention to minute differences in usage, context and meaning shifts over time in a
way that Loevinger’s research team was not. As I studied thousands of sentence completions, I kept
records of interesting examples and new potential categories. Initially I added them to enrich and
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 4
sometimes correct Loevinger’s manuals. Eventually, our efforts became increasingly more complex and
different from both the original manuals (1970, 1978) and the 1996 revised edition. One can certainly
write a whole chapter just on the ongoing challenges of creating viable test stems and manual revisions.
But this is not my focus here. What is important is that ego development theory as we, at the Center for
Leadership Maturity (, conceive of it is far more
comprehensive, dynamic, and complex than Loevinger’s original contribution to the field. While many
people dealing with adult development are interested in the high-end of human potential, the mature
stages and ego-transcendence, my describing of the underlying structure of development seems to me
just as valuable a contribution.
Worldwide opportunities to teach Ego Development Theory and how to do support others’ well-
being and growth by skillfully tailoring one’s approach to their level of meaning making has left me little
time to devote to writing. Sharing in person what we know about adult development has been work I
love. It is also work I believe, crucial in understanding our world full of strife and clashes among different
world views. Knowing about developmental differences can shed light on why some of these conflicts
are so intractable and longstanding, and it invites compassion and hope. Helping others who consult,
coach and facilitate growth in other adults to be aware of their own meaning making preferences as well
as teaching them to tailor their approach to the capacity of the client gives me ongoing pleasure and
fulfillment. The request for me to write down my reflections on adult development and explicate ego
development theory has been increasing. The demand also comes from within as I grow more white-
haired and less physically agile in my later years and personal teaching on other continents becomes
more of a challenge.
May this new and expanded version then serve as a trial run for writing a full-length book on adult
development. The book will look at Ego Development Theory and its study from many angles. It will
likely include the evolution of the theory and my current view of development distilled from 35 years of
study, dialogues with peers, with others of many different persuasions, and my own life experience as a
researcher, teacher, training facilitator and life-long learner. There is so much to share and to explore.
There are so many questions open about the meaning of being a human being, and so much wonder in
simply being alive and the having of ultimate questions and concerns about life’s meaning.
Along with discovering Loevinger’s theory, it was Herbert Fingarette’s (1963) insightful analysis of
the synthetic function of the ego that first inspired me to turn to the study of positive adult development,
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 5
resilience, and wisdom. Spence’s Narrative Truth And Historical Truth: Meaning And Interpretation In
Psychoanalysis (1982) added powerful evidence to my intimation that narrative coherence may be more
important than actual historical truth in people’s ability to find meaning in life. Ever since I encountered
this view, I wondered whether the relationship between objective science and the humanities—and even
religion—is analogous: the story we tell about the meaning of a given scientific fact perhaps weighs
more heavily for our survival than its absolute truth.
Ego development is a comprehensive theory of meaning making and how it evolves from its early
beginnings to very mature and integrated ways of living one’s life and seeing the ego as a necessary
facet of being a human being with all its powers and limitations.
I will have to spend focused time in exploring and justifying the choice of “ego” as a viable
construct. As a linguist, I am as clear as one can be in the world of symbolic representations and human
discourse that words mean what I assign them to mean. That is they have no intrinsic value other than
as pointers to experience. Especially abstract, psychological terms such as ego, self, soul, mind, and
purpose serve to label experiences so we can talk to each other about them, but they do not actually
exist separate from the underlying experiential continuum.
This revision has many endnotes. They contain a few additional thoughts, counterpoints, critical
observations, and alternatives views. They are for the curious reader and an indication of writing to
come, but they are not necessary for appreciating the fundamentals of adult development theory and
the detailed stage descriptions that will follow.
What I hope to offer in this revision is:
1. Improved writing
2. Some history of Ego Development Theory and some of the challenges in working with it.
3. An expanded general section of Ego Development Theory and its basic assumptions.
4. An argument for language as a mirror of individuals’ worldviews.
5. Rich descriptions of the stages that create a sense of their gradual unfolding as well as the
sudden twists and turns that move us towards greater maturity. Life seems to offer us ever
new hurdles and unforeseen opportunities to expand our awareness, to stay put or to
retreat to earlier ways of making sense on our journey through adulthood.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 6
6. Some distinctions that are especially important when teaching this theory to all the adults in
the helping professions among them coaches, therapists, teachers, HR professionals, and
leadership consultants.
7. Proven interventions that work for different groups and different levels of ego maturity.
Perhaps positions 6 and 7 will need to be written up as a separate booklet because when I look at
this list, I sense that it may be too ambitious and not integrated enough for this project.
Some general tenets of constructive adult developmental theory:
I can say with a good conscience that I have studied other people’s developmental theories to a
degree that few of my colleagues have found necessary. An exception is Ken Wilber. In Integral
Psychology (2000) he offered a comprehensive set of about a 100 tables that compare both ancient and
current theories of vertical development with each other.
I herewith offer a simple distillation of some of the generally held tenets in the field of adult
development. In all of my studies, I focus on meaning making, not just on the development of cognitive
complexity and the growth of the mind. This is so because I have never observed a healthy human
being that is not of one body, heart and mind, and spirit if you will. Although modern science has
enabled us to look at separate variables of any complex
and explore them and describe their properties
and dynamics. Nonetheless, we experience the world as a whole human being. What changes is how
we make meaning of ourselves and our experience, and how many different aspects of the experience
we are conscious of and can pay attention to..
In general, full-range human development theories share the following assumptions:
Development theory describes the ideal unfolding of human potential towards deeper
understanding, greater love, wisdom and effectiveness in the world.
Growth occurs in a logical sequence of stages or expanding world views from birth to
adulthood. The movement is often likened to an ever widening spiral.
Overall, world views evolve from simple to complex, from static to dynamic, and from ego-
centric to socio-centric to world-centric.
Later stages are reached only by journeying through the earlier stages. Once a stage has
been traversed, it remains a part of the individual’s response repertoire, even when more
complex, later stages are adopted as primary lenses to metabolize experience.
Each later stage includes and transcends the previous ones. That is, the earlier
perspectives remain part of our current experience and knowledge (just as when a child
learns to run, it doesn’t stop to be able to walk).
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 7
Each later stage in the sequence is more differentiated, integrated, flexible and capable of
functioning more adequately in our rapidly changing and ever more complex world.
As healthy development unfolds, autonomy, freedom, tolerance for difference and
ambiguity, resourcefulness as well as flexibility, self-awareness, and skill in interacting with
the environment increase while defenses decrease.
People’s stage of development influences what they notice and can become aware of, and
therefore, what they can describe, articulate, cultivate, influence, and change.
Derailment in development, pockets of lack of integration, trauma and psychopathology
are seen at all levels. Thus later stages are not necessarily more adjusted or “happier.”
A person who has reached a later stage can understand earlier ones because they are
part of their own becoming, but a person at an earlier stage cannot fully understand the
later ones.
The depth, complexity, and scope of what people notice can expand throughout life. Yet no
matter how evolved we become, our knowledge and understanding iremains partial and
Development occurs through the interplay between person and environment, not just by
one or the other. It is a potential and can be encouraged and facilitated by appropriate
support and challenge, but it cannot be guaranteed.
While vertical development can be invited and the environment optimally structured
towards growth, it cannot be forced. People have the right to be who they are at any
station in life.
The later the stage, the more variability for unique self-expression exists, and the less
readily we can determine where a person’s center of gravity lies.
All stage descriptions are idealizations that no human being fits entirely.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 8
The LMF Framework and Ego Development Theory
Constructive, adult development theory and the LMF
Ego Development Theory has come a long way since Jane Loevinger’s original (1970) and sparse
stage descriptions
compared to our current understanding of the full trajectory of development, and the
mechanisms, and patterns of vertical growth in the personal realm. We also have learned more about
group dynamics, family systems, and organizational development. Still these are far less well explored
than individual adult development.
What makes Ego Development Theory unique and different from other theories in the field of
constructivist developmental approaches is its focus on meaning making. Ego Development Theory
addresses the whole person. It is best understood as a framework that portrays the growth of individuals
as moving into ever greater awareness and integration about both the inner and the outer world.
Although Ego Development Theory focuses on the development of individual awareness, it fully
recognizes that there is no individual interior development outside a cultural and linguistic surround, nor
is individual growth possible without the external context (historical, geographic, infrastructure, etc.) as it
supports and constrains what is possible in the interior.
Ego Development Theory has been developed and refined over at least 40 years by empirical
means unlike almost all other developmental approaches
which first propose a theory, then find
appropriate means to measure their constructs. Ego Development Theory is a grounded theory. It was
derived solely based on evidence from responses to the sentence completion test or the MAP (Maturity
Assessment Profile).
Ego-development theory postulates that the content and the structure of people’ s language
production models their conceptual competence, and that the underlying cognitive structure can be
deduced from a matrix of linguistic signs. It assumes that individuals function at the level that is most
or explains the world best to themselves, particularly in areas in which they are motivated,
such as day-to-day living (see Fischer, Hand, & Russell, 1984).
At the present time, complex thought and cognition are assumed to be testable only if they are
expressed through language, the symbolic tool with the most widespread consensual validation within a
given culture.2 Other symbolic systems (pictorial, for instance) may express complex thought, but they
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 9
cannot speculate about it within that symbolic frame of reference. It is the metalinguistic (self-referral)
properties of language that make complex thought and its communication possible.
I posit that no matter what domain of human consciousness one investigates, one’s meaning is
created and communicated through language. Moreover, the assessment of ego maturity, the MAP, is
predicated on the notion that one’s choice of content and structure models one’s conception of reality.
Language as a mirror of one’s world construction: from chaos to cosmos
In terms of Ego Development Theory, language not only “reflects” human experience, but it also
organizes and filters it. We use the term language to include all symbolic representations of one form or
another. Natural language seems to be the most universally available and sophisticated of the many
available symbolic representations. To explain and learn other systems, we resort to natural language to
do so.
Several underlying assumptions about human nature will be discussed below to establish the role
of language in cognition. The relationship between language as it structures experience and ego-
development theory is then drawn through the discussion of the methods used to establish ego-
development stages.
The premise that language is constitutive of experience is a cornerstone of ego-development
theory. It includes the following assumptions about human nature:
1. Each human organism is both similar to all others of the species and also a unique
manifestation of it. All human life is governed by the same overall organic systems principle and
subject to the same “laws of nature” such as birth, change, and physical death.
2. All human life strives to fulfill the human propensity towards both individual differentiation and
systematic assimilation (see Angyal, 1965, p. 49). At each developmental stage the quality and
the balance of these two trends have to be renegotiated.
3. Humans can only develop into functional adults in a social context. One becomes homo sapiens
only as one is homo socius. The primary socialization is carried out by significant others who
transmit the culturally accepted orientation and definition of what constitutes the reality of
everyday life (Berger & Luckman, 1966). The primary means of this socialization is language.
4. The human animal has a highly sophisticated capacity for the symbolic codification and
manipulation of experience and, unlike other animals, it can become aware of this feat. Natural
language is the most fundamental, universal, diverse, and flexible of existing codifications.
5. The capacity for language acquisition is inherent in the human species. A blueprint for language
preexists. (See Pinker, 1994, the language instinct). As long as the potential for language is
activated in children through exposure and training in any particular language at the
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 10
maturationally appropriate time, they will acquire it. It will become their means for orienting
themselves within that cultural surround and the basis for continuing cognitive development. On
the other hand, individuals will not develop language without appropriate models. An external
catalyst seems to be necessary for the particular to emerge out of potentiality.
6. Human beings have an intrinsic disposition and need for meaning-making and meaning-
maintenance. Once a meaning scheme is in place it is constitutive of experience and acts as a
filter for dissonant stimuli. The psychological construct of the “ego” represents this striving of
human beings to understand themselves and the world they live in through active participation.
(Fingarette, 1963)
7. Experiences vary in quantity and quality for different individuals depending on the
circumstances of their being born into a specific historical time, geographic place, and linguistic
and cultural environment.
The parameters of the human condition, however, have remained constant throughout history and
around the globe. It has yet to be seen how cyborgs and other electronic life extensions will affect these
fundamental aspects of being social beings and mortals.
8. As a physical organism we are born, grow, change, and die within the context of our physical
environment. While we live, we need to eat, drink, breathe, eliminate waste matter, and sleep.
9. As an organism with the capacity for feelings, thought, and the need for self-knowledge and
knowledge of our world, we depend on a human environment with which we are in dialogue for
continued growth, self-experience, and self-definition.
Metaphorically speaking, ego-development theory provides one possible account of how
individuals navigate the straits of human existence by using navigational lore, common sense,
increasingly complex maps, algorithms, and intuition.
A more detailed analysis of the origin and function of language is also important because language
is so habitual an aspect of our behavior that we tend to forget how complex it is and how it channels our
meaning making. The view of language presented here is mainly based on ideas found in general
semantics and in research investigating the social construction of reality.
Berger and Luckman, for instance, state that the human organism lacks the necessary ‘biological’
means to survive after birth without a human context. The period in which the child develops minimal
self-sufficiency through interactions with his environment is also the period during which the “self” is
formed. The individual self cannot be understood apart from the particular social and linguistic context in
which it was shaped. What is to be considered important and real in everyday life is transmitted through
language and has coercive power over the child once it gets inducted into a shared language.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 11
For example, most of us are amused by a toddler calling a cat or a rabbit “doggie.” We find
ourselves subtly correcting our children every time they make this “mistake” until they have learned to
distinguish dogs from other four-legged animals by showing us that they can produce the right label. By
about age five, children will have acquired a complex linguistic system adequate to manipulate abstract
concepts, such as time and emotions, and to use effectively symbolic sound codifications to interact with
others not present (e.g., via the telephone). They will also correct a two-year-old sibling who exhibits the
dog-cat confusion: “This is not a dog, it’s a cat. Can’t you see?”
By now, labels appear to children as inherent in the nature of things. Any notion of their
conventionality or arbitrariness is lost. “Reality” is experienced as consisting of distinct, permanent
objects with clear boundaries. Knowledge of everyday reality as expressed in language has become
self-evident, automatic, objective, and immutable; that is, reality has been reified. Reification or
objectification is the process by which we attribute “real, concrete, material, self-subsistent, or separate
existence to something that does not have it” (Basseches, 1984, p. 98).
And not just children forget
about how they acquired names for things, most adults do as well and are completely unaware of their
arbitrary origins.
The fact that we swim in symbolic representations from the minute we wake to the moment we lay
our heads to rest at night is hard to fathom for most people. We use language to accomplish a wealth of
purposes and transactions: from the practical to the fantastic, from the ordinary to the sublime. We use
language to identify the concrete objects and events around us and to tell the stories of our group and of
ourselves. We also seem to use a shared language to assure ourselves and each other of the reality
and meaningfulness of our existence. Meaningful human existence without language seems
unimaginable. Even the willed silence of the hermit only means something in contrast to clatter and
cacophony of the outside world.
We cannot overestimate the genius of our capacity for communicating and manipulating symbols.
Developing language has been vital for the evolution of the human species and for its ongoing
adaptation. Language is likely the most powerful means by which we are socialized into a specific
overarching view of reality. For communication to work there must be some consensus among speakers
of how a construct or symbol relates to the thing it symbolizes and this relationship must be learned by
those wanting to participate in the collective. A shared language also functions to separate groups form
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 12
each other and insures that specific knowledge and experience is transmitted among participants from
generation to generation.
William James first called the original experience of the child a “blooming, buzzing confusion”
(1890, p. 488). In simple terms, we are born preverbal, minimally able to sort the onslaught of stimuli.
with our yet untrained senses. Then, if all goes well, our senses mature in conjunction with learning to
communicate and to pay attention to individual things. We also learn a language from our caregivers
along with names for the things that are important to our particular environment.
Figure x: Three levels of representation, prepersonal, personal and transpersonal
Within a few years children communicate, learn and think exclusively via symbolic representations
(these include sign language) and then use them throughout life. That human beings acquire complex
language is one of the miracles of development in the first place.
Are you fully conscious that languages are the product of an initially arbitrary segmentation of
experience, or the underlying undifferentiated field of phenomena according to the needs, creative
imagination, and resourcefulness of a given language group. Languages consist of concrete as well as
of increasingly abstract objects that serve communication and therefore human survival. Any object can
be formed only by segmenting a previously undivided continuum into separate entities: the object itself,
its opposite (what it is not), and the background against which it has been differentiated. The newly
created boundary belongs to all three. Each exists through the others only. Any change in one changes
the others.
This can easily be illustrated by cutting one shape (object) out of a single undivided piece of paper.
We then get three entities: 1) The background, 2) The positive cut-out, or the object, 3) The hole or
negative space created. If I change the outline of the shape, all three parts change. Black only exist in
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 13
contrast to white, hunger to satiation, life to death. All of these concepts are interdependent pairs, two
side of the same coin.
Figure: interdependence of polar opposites
Labels and their meanings, though arbitrary
at first, become automatized and institutionalized
through repetition and consensus. They then serve as unconscious building blocks for further
distinctions and ramifications. The simplest definitions of what we consider tangible objects of everyday
life, as well as the most complex, abstract, seemingly all-encompassing theories, are based on an
increasing, elaborate and progressive segmentation of the original chaos. The beginning of the Old
Testament provides a telling example for the “genesis” of the linguistic process of progressive
segmentation. I paraphrase loosely: In the beginning there was the void. Then God divided it into light
and dark, heaven and earth, etc. Then finally he told Adam to name all the creatures and make them
under his dominion. The very naming makes things “objects” that can be owned and used.
This view of language and cognition is based on the direct experience of reality as an undivided
unity without boundaries and time-space distinctions. It assumes that all manner of objects are human
inventions or constructs including such abstract notions as the ego and the self. Another way of saying
this is that all objects and labels are abstractions, “pulled out of” the underlying seamless reality.
Abstraction comes from the Latin AB-STRAHERE meaning to pull out .
With every speech act, the members of a language community mutually reinforce the shared
conceptual map or worldview for each other. By the time we are in school, we are so deeply habituated
into language, we cannot imagine life without it. We generally can remember neither our own preverbal
existence, nor how we acquired our mother tongue. For most people, the language habit remains
unconscious and automatic throughout their lives.
Fortunately, the potential for language is innate (Chomsky, 1965; Pinker, 1994). As long as that
potential is activated in children through regular exposure and training at the maturationally appropriate
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 14
age, they acquire a specific language and hence will structure experience via its grammar and concepts.
Developing more sophisticated language then becomes a central basis for continuing development
within a given speech community. The cognitive growth that accompanies children’s physical maturation
can be described as a process of continuous acquisition of finer and finer symbolic representations,
elaborations, and distinctions. This also includes organizing existing concepts into higher orders of
abstraction or of bundling them into umbrella categories. The more evolved and mature, the more
“territories of experience” (Torbert, 1991, p. 60) become available for symbolic representation and
cognitive manipulation.
Just as different cultures segment the continuum in different ways, so different individuals perceive
a slightly different segment of the stimuli continuum, depending on the microstructure of their specific
bodies (including genetic variables) and their development. They accept stimuli for processing both
according to their innate general human makeup, their unique personal constitution, and according to
the linguistic screens and limitations imposed on them by their culture. I assume that we are inevitably
shaped by both the language instinct (nature) and the language habit (nurture).
It seems reasonable to conclude that in order to grow into adults, human beings are initially
dependent on a “culturally” accepted orientation, and definition of what is real in life. Once a coherent
view of reality is absorbed, it is constitutive of experience and filters out rivaling possibilities. As
Rheingold put it: “Although it is rarely visible to us, we carry around in our heads a conceptual map of
the world, a guidebook to rightness and wrongness, ugliness and beauty, value and worthlessness”
(1988, p. 72). Such mental maps seem indispensable because they provide us with rules and scripts for
action, and explanations of why things are the way they are. Moreover, they often rationalize, justify,
and sometimes even sanctify our existence.
I will say more about how this plays out in developmental terms later when I summarize
postconventional ego development. For now, I will point out that becoming aware of one’s acculturation
marks a turning point in development. Once individuals understand that they are interpreters of reality,
that they contribute their own meaning to external and internal “facts,” and that their insight may differ
markedly from generally held definitions of what things mean, their explanatory universe has changed
dramatically. They have become aware of the inevitability of cultural conditioning and programming.
In a step beyond relativism, people can become aware of the deeper discursive bias inherent in the
construction of the object world via language. They realize that the objects themselves are inventions,
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 15
arbitrary but useful for orientation. This includes an ever-growing awareness of the process and
mechanism of thinking and meaning making themselves. In ego development, the experience of the
limitation of the concept of “ego” and the need for its transcendence become central existential tasks at
in the most mature stages of postconventional development.
Once one realizes that the universe itself has no boundaries, no objects, no causality, no time and
space (Koplowitz, 1984), one has to face one’s intrinsic need to organize experience–one’s need to
make cosmos out of chaos by attributing order, relevance, and meaning to it. Seeking a way of
experiencing and meaning making that is direct - without the filter of language - can become a central
existential quest. Ego-development theory—if it is to be viable explanatory principle—must be able to
account for the transcendence of the self at the high-end of the trajectory. In our view only a theory that
includes awareness of our symbolic embeddedness can offer an argument that can account for this
extraordinary phenomenon without resorting to spiritual explanations.
I will later argue in more detail that the experience of the artificiality of such concepts as the “ego”
occurs at the most mature stages of development. For now, I offer this summary: Each culture divides
the original, unstructured continuum in different ways (Hall, 1966) according to its specific needs,
development, and inventiveness well as its context. Labels and their meanings, though arbitrary at first,
become institutionalized and automatized through repetition and consensus. They then serve as
unconscious building blocks for further distinctions and ramifications. The simplest definitions of what
we consider tangible objects of everyday life as well as the most complex, abstract, seemingly all-
encompassing theories based on a progressing elaborate segmentation of the original chaos partake in
this process of objectification. The need for meaning drives people to integrate into their existing
conceptual frames of reference every difference that enters awareness by either labeling it or filtering it
out. Persistent discrepancies that cannot be accommodated through horizontal integration or defensive
mechanisms may induce a restructuring of the previous framework (mindset) into a more coherent new
whole. Ego-development theory attempts to account for these changes in perspective by proposing a
sequence of hierarchical invariant ego stages.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 16
Ken Wilber’s AQAL model of human consciousness evolution and Ego
Development Theory.
Loevinger developed her Ego Development Theory in the late 1950’s as part of the human
potential movement in psychology to find out what healthy adult development might looks like. This
effort was in part a reaction to the first half of the 20th century which focused heavily on psychopathology
and the many ways growth can get stunted and development derailed. If you read her original sentence
completion stems, you can clearly hear the Freudian undertones. Our current instrument, the MAP, has
far fewer stems related to upbringing and family issue though we do keep some because of their
essential importance in all human beings.
According to Wilber’s integral theory, Loevinger’s theory and Ego Development Theory as we
conceive of it is situated in his upper left (UP) quadrant because both deal with an individual’s interior.
Here, a brief summary of the main point of Integral or AQAL theory: AQ stands for All Quadrants
and describes at least four irreducible perspectives (subjective, intersubjective, objective, and
interobjective). These must be considered when attempting to fully study or understand any issue or
aspect of reality including human nature and meaning making (Cook-Greuter, 2006). Thus, the
quadrants differentiate between 1) an inside and an outside perspective and 2) between a singular and
plural perspective, that is between two basic polarities.
The four quadrants also represent dimensions of reality that exist simultaneously. For instance, all
individuals (including animals) have some form of subjective experience and intentionality, or interiors,
as well as various behaviors and physical components, or exteriors that can be observed and described.
It is clear that human infants cannot survive in isolation. They need to be raised by members of a group
and learn its language, shared scripts, beliefs, and values. The shared e represent the interior of a given
collective. We refer to these also as intersubjective cultural realities. In turn, no society can function
without ecological and social systems that organize life in the community. These usually include
established systems and institutional structures of minimally forms of commerce, housing, energy,
governance, law, politics, education, and religion. In English, these four dimensions are represented by
four basic pronouns: “I”, “we”, “it”, and “its.” Each pronoun represents one of the domains in the
quadrant model: “I” represents the individual interior (consciousness). “We” represents the collective
interior (culture). “It” represents the individual exterior (Behavior). And “Its” represents the collective
exterior (Systems).
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 17
The four quadrants are also associated with first-, second-, and third-person perspectives reflecting
the philosophical values of goodness, beauty and truth. What constitutes beauty is deeply subjective.
Goodness has to do with how we treat each other and is an aspect of intersubjective agreements. Truth
belongs to the domain of what is objectively verifiable. These same three domains have also been
characterized as a) aesthetics, morals, and science, and b) consciousness, culture, and nature. They
are discernable in all major languages through pronouns that represent first-, second-, and third-person
perspectives and are referred to by Wilber as “the Big Three:” I, We, and It/s.”
Ego Development Theory also talks about 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person perspectives (as well as 4th and
5th, and nth person perspectives) but uses these ordinal numbered perspectives to mean something
else. We are referring to the increasing altitude from which one can look at oneself and at one’s
meaning making which can be demonstrated by the perspective one can take and is diagrammed as
Figure xxxx, The increasing capacity for perspective taking on oneself
Much more will be explained later on in the separate chapters about each stage of development. It
is important here to point out the potential confusion with how these terms are used in Wilber and in
Action Inquiry (Torbert et alt. 2004). There they refer to a research method that advocates the interplay
of the “I, we, and it” perspectives. In that context what is referred to as perspectives generally means the
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 18
following: First person (my individual view and experience), second person (our shared dialogue, beliefs
and conventions), and third person (the explicit objective and scientific study of a topic.
AL in AQAL stand for All Levels since all spheres of experience also show vertical development
over time. Ego development occupies the Upper Left in Ken Wilber’s model. It explores the individual,
interior growth of self-awareness. While the focus of the theory is on the individual interior, it fully
recognizes that individuals only develop in dynamic interactions with self and others, language, culture
and external givens and conditions. In Integral Psychology, Wilber (2000) describes the most common
levels of development found in current Western society. More importantly for the field, he lists about a
100 versions of developmental notions from the distant past and from across the globe to current
theories of human development in the appendix of Integral Psychology. The observation that humans
change over the life span is ancient and is best known in its rudimentary form as the riddle of the
Sphinx: What walks on 4 legs, 2 legs, and 3 legs?
According several sources the metaphor of the iceberg works especially well to highlight the
distinction between the quadrants that are visible exterior and objective from those that are mostly
invisible, and subjective, intangible, i.e. below the surface.
Figure xxx: the Four Quadrants
The table below shows how Ego Development Theory ranges over the main waves of development
as elaborated by Wilber: It covers the preconventional, conventional, postconventional and early post-
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 19
postconventional (or ego-transcendent) ways of meaning making. The comparison table is meant to
give a sense of both the fine-tuned differentiations in Ego Development Theory and its overall fit within
the integral model. Despite the appearance of this diagram, the theory is not to be seen as a simple
hierarchy, or a stair-case like sequence of clearly separated levels which describe all human beings.
Figure xxx: comparison of several development theories from Integral Spirituality
Using tiers in the table above (or what looks like rungs on a ladder) is just one common way of how
developmental models can be represented and displayed. There are other useful ways of depicting
vertical growth including the spiral and the arch (see Figure xxx and xxx respectively). According to my
understanding of the nature of symbolic representations, all mathematical models, diagrams and figures
are abstractions. They help to explain specific and partial aspects of the underlying experience, but they
each have their unique limitations. Thus, multiple representations of the same phenomenon give a
better approximation of what we are charting than any one by itself. Still, it deserves repeating, none of
the theories and their visual representations can do justice to the complexity and mystery of living in
human form.
Let me reiterate another important point. Not just Ego Development stages are idealizations, the
levels identified by other researchers are as well. The differences occur because different scholars
focus on different aspects of the human experience and behavior. Ego Development Theory describes
the ideal outcome of healthy development for each increase in perspective taking and integration at a
higher altitude. No individual fits all aspects of these descriptions. The sequence serves as a road map,
as a way for individuals to orient themselves about how they currently see reality and themselves. This
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 20
roadmap is based on empirical evidence about how self-identity evolves over time. It shows what
individuals at a given stage have already mastered, what characterizes their new level and likely
meaning making now, and what their growth edge and potential for further unfolding might be towards
greater maturity and wisdom. Though helpful, the roadmap is not writ in stone as people travel through
life in many different and meaningful ways.
In addition, we find as a rule that the later the stage, the more varied ways there are to embody a
particular framing of reality as more and more capacities and resources come on board. The image of a
widening spiral is often used to indicate the increasing breadth. Moreover, nobody is at one or another
stage 100%. Although a person may test as having his or her center of gravity at a specific stage, we
always see a distribution of responses over at least 3 levels. Wide distributions over 5 to 6 stages are
not uncommon. The shape of the distribution can be more informative about a person’s current
propensities and potential for further growth than the final MAP score by itself. Most people show a
trailing and a growth edge around their center of gravity with lesser tails also often part of the
distribution. We consider the trailing or secondary stage as a place people employ or fall back to under
duress or because is it functional for certain demands of everyday life. The growth edge can indicate to
what degree an individual is in transition to a new understanding of reality.
General Aspects of Ego Development Theory
Ego Development Theory currently maps nine levels of increasing embrace
, a phrase we have
used in earlier version of a white paper outlining the characteristics of the stage sequence. Each level or
stage represents a distinct, qualitatively different, uniquely defined, and increasingly complex view of
self and reality. As indicated below, we define two preconventional, three conventional, three
postconventional, and one postpostconventional or ego-transcendent stage. The last stage is a catch-all
stage for what is likely several more distinct levels in human consciousness evolution. Since the theory
is based on empirical data from a sentence completion test, the method itself created a constraint as the
short verbal stimuli rarely elicit ego-transcendent responses. At the time of my first data collection
(1980-1995) there were not enough Unitive stage completions to make finer distinctions at the ego-
transcendent level. Although we have gathered again as much data overall since then, I still don’t see
enough new distinguishing markers to describe further differentiations on the growth trajectory.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 21
Naming the stages
Since we have adopted Torbert’s
well-known stage labels used in business and non-academic
contexts, we list them below for comparison and ease of reference. Depending on the audience, we use
either set of terms. In our observation, two stages (Stages 2/3 and 4/5) express the same underlying
structure of meaning in two significantly different ways.
The difference is not obvious in Torbert’s
labels, thus we use both Loevinger’s and his to more adequately reflect the different forms of self-
expression. We also see two different foci in the postautonomous Stage 5/6, although they seem more
sequential than two equal expressions of the same mindset. We use the term Unitive throughout for the
latest stage in our theory because Torbert’s respective label, the Ironist, is regularly misunderstood and
creates questions to what it actually means and how it relates to ego-development.
When doing research we prefer Loevinger’s more scientific terms with one exception. She called
the Expert stage 3/4 (her I 3/4, E5) Self-aware. There is little self-awareness present at this level as the
conscious, separate psychological self is just being discovered. Self-conscious as a stage name
expresses the characteristic of this level far better than Loevinger’s choice of “self-aware” as the
individuals labor to find and define their own identity and are quickly defensive when they don’t feel
seen. Overall, we also adopted Loevinger’s practice to spell the stage names with capital letters to
distinguish them from their same-sounding adjectives.
Table 1. Comparative Labels
Tier of Development
~% of US
Ego Development Stages
Action logics
Postpostconventional, Transpersonal, Ego-transcendent
Unitive view
6 Unitive
Systems view
5/6 Ego-aware
5 Autonomous
4/5 Individualist
4 Conscientious
3/4 Self-conscious
3 Conformist
2/3 Self-defensive
2 Impulsive
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 22
Choosing labels for the stages has turned out to be one of the thorniest issues across the field of
adult development. Ideally labels give a hint of what is characteristic of a given stage yet without adding
associations that lead to misconstruing them. An example in our case is the label Expert for the Self-
conscious Stage 3/4.
Being at the Expert stage does not mean that one is necessarily an expert in
anything. It is more a description of the held values and the self-identity that is defined by them.
Metaphors we live by
At CLM we use the terms “earlier” and “later” in discussing stages to counteract the subtle bias of
the value-ridden terms “higher” and “lower” which belong to our embodied metaphors. “Higher” is
inevitably perceived as better because from grades, to quality descriptions it does mean “better.” Notice
also the specific sequencing of terms, higher comes first. Once one starts thinking about embodied
metaphors in everyday speech one is amazed at their insidious and subtle influence on meaning. We do
use the designations “higher and lower,” however, in constructive developmental research contexts and
statistical analyses because this is the convention for science. Let me give you one more telling
example from our field. That higher is better is also part of the vertical versus horizontal growth
distinction. Bodies that are vertical or upright, that is, they are up and standing while those who are
horizontal are dead or at least lying down, a much less vigorous “stance.”
Human development can be described in many ways although most current theorists see it as
evolving in a spiral fashion. With increasing growth and maturity, the spiral broadens to include new
information and cognitive capacities as well as new ways of seeing the self. At each level, old
experiences and dilemmas are being reworked and mastered in new ways. From a constructivist
perspective, what changes are not the basic challenges that human beings encounter in life, but the
relationship to these challenges that a person can have. Similar topics are revisited yet approached with
increasing capacity for perspective taking and with more resources available to deal with them. Wilber
coined the felicitous phrase that perfectly summarizes this notion: "it hurts more, but bothers you less."
Despite the overall evolutionary directionality of development, individuals move in all directions as
indicated in the Figure xxx below: Adult meaning makers may remain in a steady state or in a plateau
for a number of years or even for a life time. They may expand horizontally and add new capabilities at
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 23
the same level they are already inhabiting. They may transform vertically to new ways of seeing reality.
And they can regress to earlier meaning making stages.
Figure xxx: Horizontal, and vertical up and down moves in human development
The MAP-test identifies the center of gravity. We define the center of gravity as that level of ego
maturity to which a person has consistent access to under ordinary circumstances without special
support conditions
or without unusual stress. In other words, the measured ego maturity stage is the
one that a person reliably and routinely uses in response to everyday life. At the same time, we have
never encountered a distribution of responses that was narrower than three levels. Often responses
span over four, five and rarely over the whole range of possibilities. Indeed, for healthy, advanced ego
development we expect flexible access to a broad range of responses across the stages, not just late-
stage material.
Most growth in adulthood seems to occur within a given stage, variously described as lateral or
horizontal development or “translation” in Wilber’s terminology. The current way of viewing the self and
reality is refined, enriched, and modified to include more diverse domains, more contexts and detail, and
to establish more connections among them. We learn new skills, new methods, new facts, even new
ways of organizing knowledge. The later the stage, the more room for such horizontal expansion exists
while the current stage or mental model of the world remains the same.
Although rarer, upward vertical development can occur throughout life. In that case, the whole
previous meaning system is transformed and restructured into a new, more expansive and inclusive
self-theory and theory of the world. It is estimated that it takes about five years to move to a new level if
circumstances are favorable and the person is open to change. It takes minimally a year of a well-
designed developmental program for some participants to shift to a new level. A very well-written study
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 24
by Manner and Durkin (2004) has convincingly shown that interventions need to be targeted a step or
two above those for whom they are designed. Otherwise there is little change. Even if we see gains in
ego maturity, we can never know whether it was the well-conceived program that promoted vertical
development or one of the many other factors that support growth in adults. Being already on the cusp
of transformation, that is starting the program already in transition, major life events, or simply the innate
potential for growth can also prompt vertical movement.
Ego Development Theory is a theory of self- identity and how it forms and changes over time. It
includes horizontal development as well as the potential transformation from one view of reality to a
broader, more inclusive one. It describes a sequence of how people’s mental models of reality evolve.
Each new level contains the previous ones as a subset. This is best illustrated with a set of Russian
dolls, where each doll contains another, smaller doll. Thus, each new level is both a new whole with its
own coherence, and – at the same time -- also a part of a larger, more complex system.
Figure: Russian nestling dolls
Coping strategies including defenses
For continuing growth, both support and challenge from the environment seem to be necessary. It
is important to acknowledge the powerful means we have to resist growth when challenges seem
overwhelming. As part of the psychological make-up, human beings have developed defenses that help
us manage threats from both external and internal sources. Some defenses derive from the reptilian
brain in response to physical threats or perceived threats to existence such as the flight, fight or freeze
reflexes. Other defenses are more psychological such as, for example, denial, projection and
rationalization as responses to more emotional and mental disturbances. Defenses are vital for survival
and for coping with stressors. They tend to become deeply and viscerally anchored in our behavior as
unconscious habits. Sullivan (1953) defined defense mechanisms as a way to screen out phenomena
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 25
that do not fit people’s already existing views of reality. Even when we become conscious of challenges
to our way of seeing things, we can often filter them out by selective inattention. In Loevinger inimitable
words, “the ego maintains its stability, its identity, and its coherence by selectively gating out
observations inconsistent with its current state – granting that one person’s coherence is another
person’s gibberish.” (Hy & Loevinger, 1996, p. 4).
When our current meaning making system is disturbed, we tend to deny or ignore the intrusion in
order to remain safely with what we know. The greater the perceived threat, the more we may cement
our current way of seeing things by actively denying or rejecting it or by simply not paying further
attention to it. While denying that something threatening is perceived may be maladaptive, putting it on
the back burner, so to speak for later processing, can be an adaptive move. But life urges us again and
again to solve disorienting dilemmas and discrepancies by responding with an enlarged and broader
perspective that allows the issue to be solved at a new level of understanding. As Einstein declared,
“Problems cannot be solved at the same level that created them.”
When the choice is between safety and risk, we can either open up to the unknown and explore it
despite the anticipated discomfort or remain closed. We often operate under the false assumption that it
is better to stay with what we know than to face the unknown even if the status quo is not ideal or
outright toxic. While Sullivan defined some of the defense mechanisms, George Vaillant (1993) first saw
their potential as means for coping and described the preferred defenses along the ego development
journey. In general, the later the stage, the lesser the need for defensive maneuvers, that is, for
experience to be different than it is. Ego Development theory predicts that different stages of maturity
will have different capacities and choices regarding defenses.
Suffering and development
What I am not claiming is that suffering is a prerequisite for transformation, yet it often
accompanies the move to a new level. The crucible of loss of loved ones, serious illness, disasters and
other “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are all potential levers for reorienting and restructuring
our understanding of ourselves and the world. Fear of the as-yet-unknown can hold us back from
unfolding. Defending against life’s challenges can get us stuck. Many of the defenses serve to protect
us against imagined or anticipated pain by conscious deselection or unconscious habit. Yet not fully
engaging in life’s ongoing challenges constitutes another form of suffering. It was famously summarized
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 26
by Henry David Thoreau as “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Ongoing development
requires that we say “yes! to life” again and again and again.
All major change can create anxiety as we are habit creatures. Growth includes the unknown,
sometimes intimated to some degree, other times utterly unimaginable. While possibly exciting, stage
change is also likely accompanied with considerable discomfort, pain, loss, and uncertainty. Most
aspects of living include relationship to other people – people who may be attached to the familiar way
we were and who wish us to remain “familiar.” Moreover, our own strongly held values have to be
renegotiated when we enter a new view of reality. To put in sharp relief, we assert here that with each
transformation we are actually entering a new reality with its own rules, patterns, and language.
For this reason, the relationship to almost any concept can be shown to differ along the
developmental path. A person’s understanding of power, feedback, time, love, integrity and truth, for
instance, changes with increasing development.
Although we observe the use of more mature defenses along the developmental spiral,
maladjustments and pathologies of all kinds are possible throughout the course of life. We have found
narcissistic tendencies to show up at all stages, but especially in highly differentiated, articulate, and
otherwise discerning individuals who hold positions of power in their arenas of influence. Given the
ego’s need to assert itself, it is not surprising that superior intelligence and the holding of more
enlightened values can create a sense of entitlement. However, we notice that the capacity to notice
and let go of even one’s most cherished assets -- which include access to complex reasoning and
transpersonal insights -- is directly related to one’s ego maturity and self-awareness.
The Language Habit and its Centrality in Measuring Ego Maturity
Ego Development Theory was built on and relies on the observation that the meaning making
capacity of individuals is reflected in their language. We find again and again that the later the stage, the
ever more subtle distinctions people can make. At the same time they can also “bundle” experiences
into more abstract and overarching concepts. See my thesis on Comprehensive Language Awareness
(1995). It provides the rationale for why I believe this is so.
It stands to reason, that changes in language over time inevitably influence what people will be
able to address in response to sentence beginnings. The MAP therefore has to respond to and integrate
changes in cultural shifts, language patterns and new concepts (memes). The manuals that are the
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 27
cornerstone for measuring ego development thus also have to develop and reflect such changes. This is
regrettably so from the perspective of the market place as well as in the eyes of those who want
certainty and stability in psychometrics. While we continue to argue that a developmental measure itself
has to be adaptable to the changing cultural and linguistic currents and the actual evidence gathered,
we are aware of the potential disadvantage of holding this view. The world of psychometricians prefers
variables to remain static, immutable and repeatable over long periods of time. Just look at the MBTI
which has been shown to have marginal validity, yet is a measure used world-wide. This is not all bad
news because, like the Enneagram, it seems to support people in expanding their appreciation and
tolerance for personality differences in themselves and others.
Social discourse as changing over time
What once may have been an indicator of a certain later level of development because of its
erstwhile rare occurrence -- such as referring to diversity or equality -- has become part of the common
parlance of many people. Because there are now laws about gender equality and diversity, people at all
levels pay at least lip service to them at work and in response to trigger stems that address men’s and
women’s roles on the MAP. The historical-cultural perspective is additional reason why we are more
cautious about associating particular values with particular levels. Formerly later stage concepts have
been adopted in all kinds of contexts at various levels of understanding. To wit, references to spiritual
are now part and parcel of the advertising industry. Reams of self-help books and programs
promise quick success in attaining spiritual awakening.
Structure and content, a vital distinction
Constructive developmental theories distinguish between structure and content. Structure looks at
the way a person responds to life, at what objects appear in their awareness, and how they frame that
awareness. Content refers to the choice of topics and concepts a person mentions. Looking for deep
and surface structure is another way of expressing this distinction. Ego Development Theory postulates
that almost any concept can be looked at through a developmental lens from feedback, to intimacy, to
power, to specific values. What a particular concept or value means depends on the user and his or her
relationship or view of a it. It is for this reason, that we delegate “values” often to the content category as
they do not tell us how a person enacts a given value only what they espouse. Chris Argyris (1977)
introduced the important distinction between “espoused theory” and “theory in action.”
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 28
What I declare as my value can take many different forms of enactment. For example, I can tell
you that I am an animal lover who hates the idea of animals being caged and experimented with for any
reason. I can then act upon this value in various ways. I can free monkeys from a medical animal lab by
destroying the lab and even killing people who tend the facility. I can do research on how to better
respond to the animals’ emotional and physical needs in research labs. I can work on and change the
legal system to ensure a reasonable treatment of such animals. I can go on the barricades and publicly
protest but do so with peaceful means. I can also be a person who can balance the need for such
research, with the need to treat animals with respect and care, and to minimize their use only if there is
no other way to find answers to a medical issue. Ego development looks at what a person feels or thinks
is right action in response to a given value they hold and what actions they take to express the value.
So far I have covered how Ego Development Theory fits into the overall field of constructive
developmental theory, and argued for the centrality of language in evaluating people’s meaning making.
I also offered some distinctions and general observations relevant to understanding Ego Development
Theory. In the following I will address the central concept of “ego” in Ego Development Theory and its
functions. The detailed descriptions of the stages and their sequential emergence then make up the bulk
of this essay.
Ego Development proper
The concept of Ego
Some aspects of Loevinger’s and my use of the term ego and Kegan’s “self” seem similar to
Freud’s superego (e.g. the development of impulse control, managing affective states, and conflict
resolution). However, I use the term “ego” here to denote the underlying principle in personality
organization that strives for coherent meaning and orchestrates how we perceive reality. “Ego
development is the term for the common element in the stage sequence and the corresponding
dimension of individual differences” (Loevinger, 1993, p. 6).
I use the term self interchangeably with person and individual whereas by ego, I distinguish two
functions: ego as process and ego as representation (see Funk, 1994, p. 15) The ego as process is the
more unique conception. The ego as representation (the I and the me as one’s identity) is a result of the
synthetic, integrative function of the ego. It describes how one’s understanding of self and one’s identity
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 29
develops over time according to a set pattern. The created identity thus changes with the changing
levels of integration. Interestingly, rare high-end SCTs seem to reflect the possibility of becoming a
witness to both the ego’s efforts at processing and to the changing results of the process of “identity
formation.” The fundamental arbitrariness and limits of defining and reifying experience were introduced
earlier and will be taken up again as a separate theme in the validation study.
Ego as the storyteller
I have introduced the notion that all terms we use are initially arbitrary, then become common
coinage by consensus and usage. The term “ego” is no different. It isn’t a real thing that we can point to.
It’s a term we use in our culture for something that we agree can be felt in a psychological sense,
something that operates in us. It common speech and in some spiritual schools “ego” is referred to as
something bad as it is associated with egotism or self-centeredness.
When used in that way, ego
needs to be curbed, brought under control, left at the door or even destroyed. Yet as simply a
psychological concept it can be researched and its function understood and shared. Thus, a clear
definition of what we mean by it in this context is essential.
Based on Loevinger’s practice, Ego Development Theory uses the term “ego” as the central and
overarching concept. She translated Freud’s “ich” as ego. According to Loevinger, it is ego’s function to
ceaselessly interpret experience and to try to make coherent sense of it. If you prefer the hard sciences,
you can think of ego as the central processing unit. If liberal arts are more your style, ego as the story
teller names it well. Ken Wilber talks about the self-system (a term introduced by Sullivan), which is a
very similar notion to ego as the story teller, or the metabolizer, and integrator of everything that
appears in consciousness.
Loevinger (1976) in her major theoretical contribution on ego development cites Fingarette (1963)
as one of her sources for defining the ego. He first characterized the ego as the psychic organizing
function or the synthetic principle in meaning making. He postulated that the psychological construct of
the “ego” is at the core of creating and maintaining a coherent world view. He defined the ego as “the
autonomous drive towards meaning making” (p. 86). The ego represents the striving of human beings to
understand themselves and the world they live in by fitting new experiences into their current meaning
system. Overall, the ego labors continuously to create and maintain coherence and it vigorously defends
against dissonant stimuli.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 30
Fingarette concluded that when the ego fails in its mandate to create meaning, humans suffer
anxiety, which is the dread of non-being or a basic sense of meaninglessness. Thus the ego is at the
very core of meaning making, constantly integrating and absorbing experience and classifying and
finding order in everything that touches the individual both externally and internally.
We agree with Fingarette and Loevinger that “the search for coherent meanings in experience is
the essence of the ego or of ego functioning, rather than just one among many ego functions. The ego
maintains its stability, its identity, and its coherence by selectively filtering out observations inconsistent
with its current state. In other words, Ego Development Theory tells us something about how a person
interprets whatever they are conscious of and can take as object. We postulate that the ego is the
meaning maker or story teller par excellence, or whatever name we choose to give this force in us. It
selects, orchestrates, integrates, and metabolizes experience throughout life. It also exerts its influence
all the way up in vertical terms into the transpersonal realm. What changes is the relationship of
individuals to their “ego.”
In summary, Ego Development Theory is a theory about meaning making. Making sense of
experience seems to be one of the fundamental drives in human nature. This need for meaning is
irrepressible and ongoing. Its ranges from the earliest beginnings of rudimentary distinctions that the
baby starts to make even in utero up to the most elaborate explanations of consciousness development
into the transpersonal realm. Story telling about who we are, and how we see reality is not just an
individual aspect of meaning making, it is also a shared activity of groups.
Ego as representation
When we speak of ego as representation we refer to as “I” and what I consider to be me or myself .
It includes one’s self-identity and self-definition. Ego development theory thus is a story about how one’s
self-identity can radically change over the course of development. It is a theory of identity formation.
Lines of development and the ego
Ego Development Theory is consciously looking at the whole person and does so in a
comprehensive way. There are many more developmental theories that measure cognitive complexity
alone or focus on other specific lines or domains of human development than theories that deal with
meaning making and the whole person. While important in understanding differences among people, the
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 31
different lines do not explain why human beings tell stories about themselves in the first place whatever
the line. Lines do not illuminate what each stage looks and feels like as an integrated structural whole.
Even though Kegan’s The evolving self (1982) is closest in intention to Ego Development Theory, it
is based on Piagetian notions and addresses primarily the growth of the mind. It focuses on the move
from subject to object as the central mechanism for growth. It does propose a logical sequence of
invariant stages through which adults develop. Nonetheless, Subject-Object theory does not identify as
central the unifying drive to make sense of experience by constructing a coherent story about it.
Not surprisingly, most research in the field of constructive developmental theory focuses on
cognitive aspects of development and the complexity of reasoning about whatever the test makers
present as stimuli and tasks. Cognitive theoreticians can rightfully claim that their measures are more
robust in their narrowly defined domains than measures that try to assess broader areas of human
being. This is so because, the narrower the focus in general, the easier it is to create tasks to measure
the target features in question and the more robust the resulting statistics.
However, the following must be raised as a concern: It seems that most of the cognitive
developmental theoreticians and psychometricians pay no or very little attention to the constructed and
“abstracted” nature of their measurements. With the exception of Wilber (1985), they are not focusing
on the underlying linguistic assumptions no matter how complex and formidable their frameworks. The
less grounded and the more abstract (“pulled away” from experience) the algorithms for measuring
something are, the further away are the resulting metrics from the actual underlying lived experience.
These authors tend to bemoan an instrument like the MAP as fuzzy or even pronounce that meaning
making is not measurable. Einstein supposedly had a sing hang in his Princeton office that read: "Not
everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
In addition, there is the problem that knowing about something has little relationship to being able
to integrate that understanding into one’s living and being. A trend we call “aboutism.”
One can learn
to reason more complexly about a moral dilemma, for instance, or pass a test on Wilber’s AQAL theory.
Yet such knowledge can remain espoused theory rather than theory-in-action as defined by Chris
Argyris and David Schoen (1977). According to these authors, people are guided in their actions by
mental models about the world, that is by tacit, unexamined maps or a set of unconsciously held beliefs,
assumptions and rules. These are rarely congruent with the explanations that people give to themselves
and others to make sense of why they do what they do.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 32
What does Ego Development Theory offer as an explanation of the human
Metaphorically speaking, Ego Development Theory provides us with one possible account of how
individuals navigate the straits of human existence by using navigational lore, common sense,
increasingly complex maps, algorithms, and intuition.
Ego Development Theory describes a psycho-logical (sic) system with three major interrelated
components or dimensions of meaning making. It tries to give answers to a set of essential questions
that describe the experience of being a human being as shown in Table xxx below.
Ego Development Theory, a psycho-logy of human meaning making which
addresses the following essential questions
* coping
* needs and ends
* purpose
1. Behavioral dimension
What are the needs they act upon, and what ends do they try to achieve? What
goals to they move towards and what life vision do they carry out. How do they
cope and master their lives? What function do others play in an individual’s life
and how do people interact?
* awareness
* experience
* affect
2. Emotional dimension
How do individuals feel about things? How do they deal with various affects?
What is the range and depth of their awareness? How are events experienced
and processed? What are the preferred defenses?
* conceptions
* knowledge
* interpretation
3. Cognitive dimension
How does a person think? How do individuals structure experience, how do they
explain things, make sense of their experience? What is the logic behind their
perspectives on the self and the world? What is object and what is subject, that
is, what can they see and acknowledge and what remains hidden from
The operative component looks at what adults see as the purpose of life, what needs they act
upon, and what ends they are moving towards. The affective component deals with emotions and the
experience of being in this world. The cognitive component addresses the question of how a person
thinks and reasons about him or herself and the world. It is important to understand that each stage or
emerges from a synthesis of doing, being, and thinking.
While cognitive capacity seems to be a
prerequisite for continued growth, it is not sufficient for gaining ego maturity. Many very smart people
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 33
who score high on intelligence tests, score at the conventional levels of ego development precisely
because maturity and wisdom are not the same as complex reasoning applied to solving specific
cognitive tasks.
The major difference of Ego Development Theory from other constructivist developmental theories
consists in the broad understanding of ego as the story teller and integrator of all aspects of a person’s
awareness. Howard Gardner (1985) first introduced the notion of multiple intelligences or separate lines
of development. There are numerous specific tests that measure various lines. They are also given
much attention in Wilber’s AQAL theory. Ego or what Wilber used to call the “self system” integrates
them all into an overall worldview or take on reality.
Human beings are whole persons. They make sense in a comprehensive way, always aiming to be
able to explain their overall experience by creating a coherent narrative. The existentialists were
perhaps closer to understanding the need for meaning than many people working in the adult
development field today.
On the other hand, we can also focus on what innate proclivities, favorable circumstances and
external supports enhance the capacity of individuals to synthesize a self-supporting story from the
myriad, constantly changing challenges and demands of life and to live a life full of vigor and forward
They realized that small disturbances can be dealt with our defenses whereas anxiety is the results
of a deeper malaise. It’s the absence of meaning resulting from a profound incapacity to make sense of
life over a prolonged period of time.
The basic human drive for differentiation and integration
Human development in general can be looked at as a progression of different ways of making
sense of reality or in a sequence of stages of meaning making. The stages follow each other alternating
between those that emphasize, on balance, differentiation over integration and those favoring
integration over differentiation. It’s a matter of relative preference, however, not of an either/or situation.
In Ego Development we observer this pattern of ongoing differentiation and integration both overall and
from stage to stage.
In the mid-sixties psychologists first postulated that human beings individuate by continuously
renegotiating the balance between differentiation and integration. Angyal called it the innate double
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 34
trend towards autonomy and homonomy. He defines homonomy in this way: “Homonomy is the wish to
be in harmony; with a unit one regards as extending beyond the individual self. The … whole may be
represented ….by a social unit—family, clan, nation—by an ideology, or … by a meaningfully ordered
universe” (1965, p. 15). We know this polarity also by other names, such as separation and
participation; mastery and relatedness; independence and connection; or agency and communion.
The image of a spiral below represent the differentiation-integration trend in development
especially well. Overall, we account for this pattern as follows. Stages 3, 4, 5, and 6 , that is the single
number stages on the left side of the diagram represent stages of integration. People at these levels are
embedded in a specific holding environment. They move from identifying with others who are externally
alike to oneself at Stage 3, to the like-minded at Stage 4, to the like-principled at Stage 5, and to the
like-spirited at the Unitive Stage 6---where spirit is seen as radiant in all sentient beings. People at these
more communal or collective stages are generally more at ease because they feel connected in ways
that fits their current cognitive, emotional and transactional needs. This is in contrast to the uneven
numbered stages of differentiation. Because of the nature of separating oneself from a previous
embeddedness, there is more discomfort and more uncertainty.
Stages of new
Integration - Embeddedness
Maximal subject/object differentiation
symbiotic fusion
deconstruction of
illusion of
separate self
Differentiation away from
early fusion
of separate,
enduring, self-
Increasing integration
individuation &
Conscious union
with Ground
Conventional Development Postconventional Development
Stages of new
Differentiation - Separation
4 05
Stages of new
Integration - Embeddedness
Maximal subject/object differentiation
symbiotic fusion
deconstruction of
illusion of
separate self
Differentiation away from
early fusion
of separate,
enduring, self-
Increasing integration
individuation &
Conscious union
with Ground
Conventional Development Postconventional Development
Stages of new
Differentiation - Separation
4 05
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 35
Stages 2/3, 3/4, 4/5, and 5/6 Stages called or Self-protective, Self-conscious, Individualist /
Pluralist, and Construct-aware respectively are stages of differentiation. Individuals at these stages can
step back and distance themselves from the previous known holding environment. They take on a new
and greater perspective. They tend to assert their newly won independence and often reject prior ideas
of what constitutes the good life. At the same time they generally express some distress because of the
loss of the connection and certainty they leave behind.
The same spiral figure also depict the move from conventional to postconventional meaning
making as an overall shift from increasing differentiation to a greater and greater integration of
personality and meaning making. Unlike Integral Theory , we find that this transition is as or more
fundamental than the transition between first tier and what AQAL refers to as second tier.
An overall shift from differentiation to integration also marks the transition from conventional to
postconventional stages. The first two tiers of development constitute a movement away from the
symbiotic embeddedness of the newborn towards greater and greater separation and independence.
Said differently, development from birth to adulthood shows an overall trend of increasing differentiation
towards an independent, well-defined, individual self-identity or self-authorship.
Figure 3: The Arc Human Development (current stage names)
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 36
This movement is equally evident in communal cultures. Piaget first postulated that formal
operations -- the Achiever stage in this model -- is the adult stage per se as it allows for differentiated,
analytic functioning and reasoning within the parameters given by a specific society or culture. From the
conventional Western perspective, the acquisition of this scientific, rational frame of mind is seen as the
goal of socialization and schooling and defines what it means to be seen as a fully grown adult. The
postconventional stages (from the Individualist Stage 4/5 through the Unitive Stage 6) show an overall
trend of assimilation and integration towards an ever more conscious sense of unity with the ground.
By most modern expectations, fully functional adults see and treat reality as something preexistent
and external to themselves made up of permanent, well-defined objects that can be analyzed,
investigated, and controlled for our benefit. This view is based on a maximal separation between subject
and object, thinker and thought. It epitomizes the traditional scientific frame of mind that is concerned
with measurement, prediction, and control. It also represents the goal of much of Western socialization
and schooling. Most adults (including many developmentalists are not concerned with the basic
arbitrariness of defining the objects. They are quite unaware that according to Koplowitz "the process of
naming or measuring pulls that which is named out of reality, which itself is not nameable or
They assume that subject and object are distinct, and that by analyzing the parts one
can figure out the whole.
In much of the research literature using Loevinger’s ego development framework “advanced” ego
development refers to the self-authoring Achiever stage since today’s modal stage is somewhere
between Expert and Achiever. (See Manners and Durkin, 2004). Thus helping individuals who make
meaning from the Diplomat and Expert stages to move to the self-regulating Achiever stage is seen as a
central task of society and its institutions.
Later (higher) is not necessarily better than earlier meaning making, it’s a matter of
optimal fit
Unlike other theories which propose and describe later stages as ever more ideal and better ways
of being, EGO DEVELOPMENT THEORY shows how each new stage has its own strength and deeper
insights as well as its stage-specific vulnerabilities and new forms of unhealthy expression. As
Loevinger noted a long time ago, later is not happier or more adapted. On the contrary, with greater
awareness comes also greater awareness of unresolvable dilemmas and paradoxes in life. As
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 37
emphasized before, from a Construct-aware perspective, it is useful to give multiple representations of
the same territory of experience as various representations point out different areas of focus and their
dynamic interrelationships.
Mapping the Expansion of Self-Awareness:
From Birth to Ego-transcendence
None of the other developmental theories seems to pay quite the same attention to the phenome-
non of the evolution of perspective taking even though the capacity to take multiple perspectives is
mentioned in almost all theories as a mark of more advanced development.
I will use this structural indicator as one of the most salient markers by which to gage a person’s
level of consciousness. Knowing what order of perspective a person can take, helps to anticipate what a
they can see and process regarding both their internal and external reality. The above figurative
representation of the ongoing “ramification” and increasing capacity for perspective taking is fleshed out
in more detail in the following separate stage descriptions. These answer the questions in Table 2 as to
what is likely to be observed at each stage in terms of complexity of action, affect and thought. We
intend to show that each level relates differently to these various aspects of reality. Indeed, one can say
that each stage constitutes its own reality.
Specifically, I will address the following:
A summary description of the nature of each tier: preconventional, conventional, and
A figurative representation of each separate level of perspective taking in sequential order
Chief new capacities and differences to the prior stage
A description of the present type of self-identity
Cognitive capacity
Level of internal awareness and emotions
Relational capacity
Main concerns and available coping strategies
Some language clues
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 38
Bell-like distribution of stages
To begin with, it is useful to understand that the distribution of Stages has a bell-curve like shape.
Early and late stages occur much more rarely in adults than the conventional and early postconventional
ones. The samples below represent different selection criteria. The newer samples come from more
professional groups or from individuals who selected to take the MAP instrument on their own accord.
The inclination to find out about one’s own personality make-up via testing rarely occurs before the
Achiever stage. When MBA students at Boston College -- who had taken a sentence completion test in
the admission process -- were given an opportunity to request feedback on their results free of charge,
Diplomats and Experts chose not to engage.
When claims are being made that we are on a tipping point in humanity’s overall consciousness
evolution, we have to be cautious about what sample of people we look at. The table 3 shows the
distribution of stages in 4 different populations based on different selection criteria. The often cited 10%
for this shift is not a robust estimate based on any actual data. It’s more of a hunch – and a hope.
Table 3: Comparison of Percentage Stage Distribution in four different Samples
N=4510 USA
mixed adult
N=497 USA
managers &
N=535 UK
managers &
N=3397 international
2000-2007, self-selective
Impulsive/ (2; 2/3)
Conformist (D3; 3)
Self-conscious (3/4)
Conscientious (4)
Individualist (4/5)
Autonomous (5)
Construct-aware (5/6)
Unitive (6)
Most publications use my dissertation numbers (N=4510) too give a sense of the overall
distribution of stages. It is the most diverse sample available so far. It includes priests and prisoners,
accountants and artists, and subjects spanning ages 18-82 with the middle 35-65 being the most
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 39
From Symbiotic unity to Unitive embeddedness:
The evolution of meaning making in adults
What follows is a description of how each stage is a whole structural unity in itself as well as a part
of a larger, more complex and integrated way of looking and acting in the world. Each stage has its own
stage-specific achievements and triumphs over earlier stages as well as its specific limitations and
The earliest tier, the preconventional, is rarely encountered in professional contexts as we expect
these to be traversed in childhood and left behind as main modes of functioning. However, they reside
as experiences in our memories and serve as fallback positions in times of extreme duress. At later
stages, we also have access to them in more skillful ways in order to maximize the support and
influence we have on those at earlier levels who may need clear boundaries and “behavior manage-
mentto function in society. It is seen as a sign of later stage capacity if one has access to prior stages
and can choose to employ their strengths depending on the context and the need of the situation.
Overall we will give a general description of each stage which addresses cognitive, behavioral and
affective aspects of a person at the given level. A diagram represents the current level of perspective
taking and summarizes chief aspects of that level’s meaning making.
Because it is a theory of adult development, Ego Development Theory does not focus on infant and
child development about which there is ample literature on both the micro and macro level and in all
areas of interest. I mention these vital aspects here briefly for completeness. There is wide consensus
that human beings are born undifferentiated and symbiotically merged with their initial caregivers. Good
adjustment in adulthood depends on the successful solution to the problems of these earliest periods in
life including developing a separate self-identity as well as adequate psychosexual, intellectual,
emotional, social and moral development.
Infants also have not yet acquired verbal language. All development from birth to the beginning
capacity for language is subsumed in the Symbiotic Stage 1 in Loevinger’s theory.
We follow her tradition and just mention Stage 1 briefly. The Impulsive to Self-protective adult
stages are next. These represent a child’s normal maturation from age 2 to about age 12 as well as
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 40
stages of “arrested” development in adults. We introduce Stage 2 as representative of adults who have
already achieved a vital move out of the very earliest totally dependent infant days. They are beginning
to use simple verbal language. They can express their most basic needs-with crying, making noises,
pointing to themselves and to things they want or recognize. When things don’t go their way, they often
have temper tantrums or hide. There is as yet little impulse control. Adults at the Impulsive Stage 2 can
generally only survive under the protection of others or in institutions. Mentally delayed and seriously
emotionally disturbed individuals are among those adults needing life-long support and protection.
A good percentage of adults in some cultures operate from the Opportunist Stage 2/3. Natural
disasters, social upheaval and war are some of the threat conditions that invite or may even demand
opportunistic behavior for survival. The “Rule-oriented” stage between Self-protective stage 2/3 and the
Conformist stage 3 is included here for theoretical reasons as well to show the step-wise evolution of
perspective taking. While common in adolescence, it is very rarely seen in adults and not included in the
stages of the LMF.
To figuratively represent the increasing perspective, I will use the following symbols:
The Symbiotic Stage 1:
Cognitive: 1a nominal actions
Perspective on the self: none
Self: Con-fused, confounded, undifferentiated self
Others: not distinct and separate, but simply sources of survival
It is at this stage that infants first begin to construct a stable world of objects for themselves. In
doing so, they separate themselves out as objects in the world as well. They can now refer to
= the evolving self-sense; the self as the star (the locus
of meaning making and perspective taking
O = other / object
= direction of perspective, of what is noticed intitially ourside
and later on inside as well
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 41
themselves as “Bobby wants” or “me”. According to the conception of language as a fundamental
aspect of meaning making, the self sense develops in conjunction with the cultural context, the shared
language and values as well as the outer reality. These are inevitably intertwined
. Development does
not happen outside of a viable environment. Strands of development later quite distinct are very much
undifferentiated at this stage.
The Symbiotic stage is not represented in the Leadership Maturity Framework or in the MAP
or in
Loevinger’s work as adults at this stage are likely pre- or nonverbal and usually institutionalized or
completely dependent on the care and protection of others. They do appear in the work world as clients
and patients and their care requires great patience, inner strength and compassion. If cared for by
people at preconventional stages themselves such as in prisons, the care givers exploitative and
abusive tendencies may need monitoring.
The Impulsive Stage 2:
The first person perspective = 1stpp
Cognitive: 2a Primary actions, sensorimotor stage
Self: rudimentary, physical self-labeling “me, mine”
Differentiation: in crude dichotomies
Others: needs fulfillment on demand, actions directed towards getting although there is little
understanding of how to get what one needs.
Children at the Impulsive stage are governed by their impulses; hence this is called the impulsive
stage. They make sense of the world entirely through senses and movement. They don’t have many
ways to deal with setback, yet they may notice and react when they don’t have enough of what you
want, or when things are away
. Mom is there holding you and feeding you, and then, it’s over and she
puts you in your crib. At this stage, you’re totally dependent upon others, and if you’re reasonably well
cared for, you make sense of being alive by feedback from your sensations. Magical ideas prevail and a
sense of unlimited power exists only curbed by punishment from or withdrawal by those who have more
power than you. Punishment is not related to one’s behavior but perceived as random or retaliatory and
as imminent in things. Adults at this level show signs of the beginning use of language simultaneously
with the emerging ego as reflected in such statements as “I want.They assert their budding sense of
self by such words as “no,” and by expressing ownership “mine.” Like young children, adults at this
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 42
stage are governed by trying to fulfil their basic needs. If these are not met, the Stage 2 persons have
little recourse other than crying, screaming, or withdrawing into themselves. They are easily
overwhelmed, feel abandoned. The general tenor of this level is a profound sense of helplessness.
It is the first stage that is measured with the MAP, and reflects the first person perspective. This
means, people at this level can only look in one direction. The inability to grasp fully some of the verbal
clues in the MAP instrument marks the limited understanding of the world characteristic of this stage.
Other people are simply seen as objects who can gratify their needs, not as people with their own
needs. Good people give to me, mean ones don’t. There is cognitive simplicity together with verbal
limitations. The impulsive individual has an inadequate conception of the complexities of adult life and of
the world and readily appears confused, anxious, and overwhelmed.
In most cases individuals at this early adult stage need protective custody, live at home with their
parents or in institutions. They need legal guardians as they cannot make decisions for themselves.
Main anxiety: not yet differentiated out. A constant and vague sense of threat and insecurity is
Language Clues: We find very simple statements: things are good or bad, clean or dirty; people are
nice or mean. Present and past tense sentence stems are not distinguished. Subjects are unable to
understand and respond to the longer stems such as “crime and delinquency could be halted if –“
Affects are expressed in bodily terms rather than as feelings. When I get mad, I see red. Repetition of a
few simple ideas is the most conspicuous sign of the Impulsive stage. Many protocols contain the same
or almost the same one word completions to several stems. A lack of affect and a helpless tone is also
typical of this level.
Self-Protective or Opportunistic Stage 2/3
First person perspective with an energetic target
Cognitive: 2b preoperational actions
Self: single concrete features, minimal action-based self-
description in terms of what I want
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 43
Other: a beginning sense of others as having their own wants and competing for goods, space,
dominance, and power
This is a stage of differentiation, of emerging out of total dependence on the care of others. At the
prerational, preoperational stage children learn to talk with more than one word sentences and begin to
use symbols, but they don’t yet understand cause and effect or the general rules regarding how the
world works. For this reason, even adults at this stage of development tend to use magical thinking to
make sense of the world and their place in it. This mindset may work adequately especially in certain
cultures and subcultures (prisons), which is why some people stay at this stage, sometimes for life time.
In the modern world, most people at this stage are disadvantaged and considered “uncivilized” while as
developmentalists we would say “not yet socialized.”
This stage is familiar to most people from watching or dealing with young children before they enter
kindergarten. For a time, everything becomes a test of wills for two-year olds. Tantrums and hitting are
the result of a thwarted will as well as a reaction to conflicting needs and frustrated desires that cannot
yet be internally negotiated. At this stage, arguments and logic are useless. These behaviors are also
common in adults at the Self-protective stage. They are not capable of insight into themselves or others
in a psychological sense. But they have a greater sense of what works and what doesn’t, who they can
and who they cannot manipulate than the earlier, more helpless stages. Their actions have not only
directionality but a target. They know that the only way one can get what one wants is by controlling
others and protecting oneself.
We distinguish between the Opportunist and the Self-protective expressions of the same worldview
depending on the individual’s physical power and temperament.
The Opportunist version of the Self-protective stage is aware of his or her physical strength and
size (or status power) and may use it to intimidate others in order to get what they want. Opportunists
are generally wary of others’ intentions and tend to anticipate the worst. Everything to them is a war of
wills. Life is a zero-sum game. It is important to realize that much aggression may stem from profound
uncertainty, a sense of vulnerability and being confronted by a world whose rules they may not actually
understand. In a self-protective move, Opportunists may be aggressive to pre-empt expected strikes of
others. They are people of action, not of thought and planning.
On the other hand, those who are shy and physically less strong and able to defend themselves fit
the Self-protective form of this level. Because of their greater strength and the supremacy of males in
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 44
many cultures, it is more often women who inhabit this world.
They focus on protecting themselves
and not becoming a target of others’ aggression. It is ironic that individuals at this level are rarely seen.
They are invisible because hiding is a common and sometimes temporarily successful way of dealing
with their vulnerability to being bullied, abused and exploited.
Self-protective adults of both forms are careful to maintain their essentially fragile selves. The self
is not yet a separate adult self, but one synonymous with one’s will, ideas, wishes. The self may be felt
as having two sides, an inner real self, and an outer self or “a false face” in order to shield oneself. This
can lead to secrecy, underhandedness and deceit. If others knew what I wanted, they would have power
over me. Self-protective people need to resist the will of others, to test limits and to assert their own
control be that by acting big or by withdrawing. Because there is a beginning ability to anticipate
reactions in others, this is the first stage with an emerging awareness of others as separate people or
“objects.” The Self-protective stage thus acquires the rudiments of conscious social interaction. “If I
understand what others are after, I can better work them to get what I want.”
Feelings. Persons at this level often “get into trouble.” Trouble happens inadvertently when you
cross a boundary. Self-protective folks try to look out for trouble and to avoid its consequences.. For For
both Self-protective and Opportunistic persons, the world is a hostile place rife with danger. Rules are
recognized, but mostly followed for immediate advantage or to avoid punishment. Being clever and
grabbing opportunities is necessary for survival. Self-respect is experienced in relation to the amount of
control one can achieve in opposition to others. Self-protective individuals often think they are the odd
person out. They may feel isolated, but do not know how to relate to others differently. “It’s always me
against the rest.” This creates a self-perpetuating dynamic of very low trust and hyper-vigilance. In a
social context, they are often invested in concrete visible world of “things” one owns. These are meant
to demonstrate one’s position of power from tattoos, to clothing, to fancy boy toys.
Morality: When Opportunists lose a test of will, or overstep a boundary, they see the cause as
outside themselves. They get frustrated and tend to show free-flowing anger and hostility. Others are to
blame, never oneself. Their own anger towards the world is projected outward. Thus others are
experienced as angry all the time. Self-protective people have an expedient morality. Actions are only
bad if one is caught and punished. When caught, people at this stage are shameless and show little
remorse. They do not feel responsible for failure or trouble they cause because they do not yet
understand the connection between action and consequences, that is, linear causality. Blaming others
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 45
for one’s shortcomings is a way to protect oneself. Stage 2/3 individuals rely on luck tokens and magic
to protect themselves. Individuals who choose dangerous, but dangerous jobs often represent the
positive, daring aspects of this stage. Some firefighters and test pilots, for instance, are known to carry
lucky charms, and are often described by others as loners. They may also inhabit later stages.
Interpersonal: Self-protective individuals especially the Opportunist type tend to cause much
friction and hurt feelings wherever they go because of the “I win, you lose” mentality. This is especially
so in relationship to others at more conventional stages. In turn, others describe Opportunists as
unpredictable, unreasonable, manipulative and exploitative. They resent the “brutish” and “egocentric”
behavior and may call them names. Nonetheless, it is possible for Opportunists to achieve considerable
career success. This is especially common in contexts where a good nose for business opportunities
presents an immediate, short-term advantage and where unilateral power is given some respect. This
form of dealing with others is therefore often part of gang culture and prison hierarchies.
Social: Self-protective people are not well embedded in social networks and do not understand
subtle human interactions that are not based on power differentials. Their relationships with others tend
to be volatile. Friendships blow up easily. Feelings are externalized and projected outward. We see little
expression or reflection on their own emotions both because of a lack of insight as well as for self-
protection. Showing weakness of any kind is dangerous. “The more others know about me, the more
they can take advantage of me.” Thus, most Self-protective individuals tend to express general hostility
and readiness for fight or flight. Those in specific high-risk jobs (test pilots, prison guards, firefighters if
they make meaning from the Self-protective stage, must rely on their buddies to survive and may
therefore have mutual protection pacts. Cognitively smart individuals at the Opportunistic stage, may be
able to present a noble mask saying all the right things, mentioning pro-social values, but act out as
soon as they perceive any threat to their wishes and power.
Depending on their own stage of development, Opportunists are often charged with immoral and
self-serving, manipulate behavior that they ought to stop. As developmentalists we counter, that it is not
a matter of will or wanting, but a lack of understanding that the Opportunist displays.
Cognitive style: Thinking is concrete and dichotomous, based on global, undifferentiated
judgments, and simple ideas. Things look black or white. Others are either for me or against me.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 46
Preoccupations: Favorite themes are those of domination, gaining control and advantage, and
deceptive maneuvers. On the other hand, Self-protective people are always fearful that someone else is
trying to dominate, control or deceive them.
Internal dimension: Self defined as what one does or wants to do right now rather than in terms of
psychological states or plans and longer-term goals.
Problem solving “This is your problem, not mine.” “I don’t care.”
Defenses: Self-protective adults use blaming and a system of distortions to minimize anxiety and
maximize good self-feelings. Their defenses or coping style is immature: Fantasy, acting out, projection
are the most common ones. All causality and all-important psychological action is seen to be part of the
constantly threatening outside world. (See Vaillant’s hierarchy of defense mechanisms).
Depression: There must be something wrong if I can’t get what I want. I hate it when I am feeling
controlled and constrained. Sadness may be expressed in aggression towards self or others.
Main anxiety: Threat of annihilation or enslavement.
Sample character: “Archie Bunker”-types. They are self-protective, bull-headed and have tunnel
vision, constantly blowing up and blaming others for what is happening to them. At times they have a
biting humor that exposes others’ soft sides. Self-protective adults are concerned with their concrete
little world, often thrilled with bodily aspects and satisfactions. They show prejudice; polarize arguments
and exploit others’ weaknesses.
Language clues: Experience is described in simple dichotomies - good/bad, right/wrong, fun/boring
or with concrete, physical words such as in “life is hard.” Often strong negative affect is expressed.
Sentences are short with barely an explanation or elaboration. Opportunists may use physical terms for
non-physical concepts and only differentiate among the simplest feelings such as feeling sick, upset,
excited, and mad.
The Rule-oriented stage, Delta/3:
This stage is subsumed under the Conformist-Diplomat Stage 3 in LMF
The second person perspective
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 47
Cognitive: 3a primary actions
Self: single external features; beginning comparisons,
one variable at a time
Other: I see the other and the other sees me and
notices what I look like and what I do; beginning
recognition that if I want something from others I have
to make myself appealing.
The Delta/3 stage is included here because it shows the cognitive differentiation that occurs from
Self-protective thinking to Conformist dependence and provides a logical link for mental growth. It is not
included in our measurement tool, the MAP, because it is statistically rare as mentioned in endnote #7.
At this stage people vacillate between two points of view. They can take one or the other view, but
not both at once. Sometimes they wonder “how do you look to me?” but newly also “how do I look to
you?” They now recognize external differences regarding self-presentation and behaviors. Often
children entering school are exploring this developmental stage. The Rule-oriented stage describes
adults who are discovering the second person perspective and who begin to make simple, external
comparisons based on concrete mental operations.
They become preoccupied with finding out the social conventions and rules based on the
beginning need to fit in and to be liked. One wants to look “right,” and acceptable, therefore the
emphasis is on external attractiveness and appearance. People at this stage show more trust in the
world since acceptance and protection can be gained by following the rules. The world is experienced
as less hostile than for Self-protective folks. Persons want to be “re-spectedwhich means, “seen” by
others. Respect can now be gained by adhering to group norms, not just by might. One also gives
respect to others in the form of noticing them and how they act and look. “People notice me when I am
here. I listen to them, they listen to me.” With the second perspective, one discovers the possibility for
simple feedback. One can find out what others think about one. “I can ask my friends what they think;
they will tell; and the world doesn’t collapse! I can trust them.” The ability to take a second person
perspective is a milestone in the development of social interaction.
At this stage, the superficial likeness to others is discovered and experienced as comfort. One is
not alone! This new feeling is enjoyed in loose associations such as clubs, in which one shares similar
action interests and hobbies.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 48
Language clues: Rule-oriented subjects make simple factual statements, refer to concrete behavior
and single features of appearance. They are passively responding to stimuli, trying to avoid getting in
trouble, but uncertain how to do this. They may feel they have done something wrong, but they can’t say
how or why. Overall their utterances often lack affect either positive or negative.
The Conformist, Self-conscious and Conscientious stages, stages 3, 3/4, and 4 respectively, cover
the ego stages of most people after about the age of 12. We have found that roughly 80% of adults
populate these three stages with most people in the adult working world moving from the Expert to the
Achiever stage. In Piagetian terms, stage 3 represents functioning at the concrete operational level,
stage 3/4 uses abstract operations and stage 4 individuals rely on formal operations for their meaning
making. According to Piaget and the cognitive schools of constructive development, Conscientious
stage 4 people have a linear view of reality: they define objects (variables) as being separate and
having closed boundaries; they see causality as linear and variables are treated as independent.
The expanded 3rd person perspective with its formal operational capacities is widely considered the
adult stage in much of Western culture; and society and institutions support and reward its achievement.
It is also the stage that is described as “high” ego development in research projects that use Loevinger’s
theory only (Manners and Durkin, 2004). A citizenry capable of rational deliberation and choice based
on pertinent criteria (not external features, sameness or tradition) would seem to be a necessary
precondition for democracy to work. Only such a perspective and rational assessment of choices can
safeguard the whole and at the same time allow changes to be reflected in the laws.
The Conformist Stage 3 (Diplomat)
This is a stage of integration into a new social container. At the Diplomat or Conformist stage,
people make sense of the world in a new way. They now have developed enough skills to get around in
the world, accomplish the daily tasks of life and, in general, manage ordinary, concrete things and
situations. They now actively want to play by the rules.
Expanded second person perspective (2nd p.p.)
Cognitive: 3b concrete operations
Self: several external features; vital
statistics given; rudimentary internal
states, conflict avoided or suppressed
Two types of other:
1) own family, tribe, group, nation:
provides identity, values and protection.
Boundaries between self and in-group
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 49
It is the first stage that can be considered as socialized, that is, to know about basic interpersonal
skills such as sharing, and protecting one another. Most importantly, people at this stage see others as
important people in their own right. They want to be like those in their environment whom they admire.
We might say that they discovered the beginning of the “we-space.” They sing the choir of the crowd,
yet without a separate voice. One can now trade magical, egocentric thinking for group-centric thinking
and the security of being a member of the group. Being a part of a group gives people a new way to
deal with the fact that “it’s hard to be an adult and get along.
The Conformist stage 3 describes persons with a frame of mind naturally developed in latency and
early adolescence. Their self-identity is defined by their relationship to a group. This leads to confused
boundaries between oneself and the group (whether family, sports team, or nation). Being part of this
larger entity allows one to be protected and share in its power. The price for inclusion is an unexamined
demand for loyalty and obedience. This holds for both leaders and followers at this stage. In cultures,
where ostracism is a form of severe punishment, being “shunned” is meant as a death sentence. “You
no longer exist for us.”
Conformist adults actually relish the dependency that group membership bestows. It provides
safety in numbers and a new sense of power. The self is defined by and generated by the expectations
and values of those others to whom one “belongs.” Conformists tend to accept norms without inspection
or questioning. Their cognitive world is divided into simple categories, and types of people, mostly
based on external distinctions. Having a holiday table just like the one seen in a famous “best home”
magazine, or owning a car just like one’s boss’s might really make a Conformist happy.
The boundaries between self and others, however, are confused, literally fused and blurred. On the
one hand, there is total acceptance of the family and in-group (such as peer groups in adolescence), on
the other hand, we see blind rejection of deviance and out-groups. It’s “them” against “us” now instead
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 50
of the Self-protective person’s lonely stance of “me” against “them,” which included everybody else
(even family members). For the Conformist, you are either ally and friend and approve of us and what
we do, or you are the enemy. The more status the group has, the more Diplomats feel worthy as one of
its members. If it took some effort to fulfill the required demonstration of obedience and submission, they
feel honored to be admitted and wearing the insignia that tell others so.
Having a shared truth gives people a ready-made way to make sense of the world. Sometimes this
goes beyond feeling valued as a member of the group. Some groups believe that their truth is the only
truth. This fosters a sense of superiority. Members are told that they are the “chosen few” that shall be
saved. All those who do not belong are doomed, considered heathen or barbarians, or whatever label
makes them lesser or non-human. This kind of mindset is particularly common in various fundamentalist
religious groups. They can judge harshly those who do not belong. It is difficult for someone whose self-
sense is based on belonging to such a group to even realize that there may be others of different faiths
who believe equally fervently that they have the only truth.
In general, Stage 3 people try to uphold tradition and to avoid rocking the boat. They are
accommodating, sometimes overly nice and non-confrontational. They don’t like to be singled out and
get feedback. Feedback is experienced as critique and as having done something wrong and
displeasing. Diplomats expect guidance from above or from those who lead them. They are not yet
ready to take a stand to express themselves. They don’t have their own opinions to assert although they
may be good at expounding the values and beliefs of their group. Nor can they take initiative for
themselves. They might do so for the benefit of their group when told to do so by an accepted authority.
Uncertainty and conflicting feelings cannot yet be registered as they threaten the very being of a
Conformist. The description of this stage in terms of “not yet” exposes a common Western bias.
Stage 3 persons have to keep up with the neighbors. They make sure they are seen in the right
places (for instance, in church on Sunday) and with the right group. They are often eager to contribute
to the group by volunteering (PTA, church social, men’s club) and taking on preset roles in their
respective clubs. Acquiring material assets and status symbols is important as these symbolize status
and prove one’s worth. Moreover, the visible assets are important because the provide real personal
satisfaction and they indicate one’s success. Nametags on the door, being listed as the employee of the
month show that one is noticed. Trying to keep up with fashion, neighbors and material gain can, of
course, also become a burden and a source of unhappiness and stress.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 51
Morality: Conformists adhere to a simple rule: “everything goes into two piles. The good, or correct,
and the bad, or incorrect.” Knowing the distinction makes it easier to make sense of the world. Every
decision, every idea, every person, every action, fits in one pile or the other. There are few, if any,
shades of gray, no irony, and no intangibles. Actions are carried out with conviction. This is how it is
done around here. “Either you are with us and agree or you are against us.”
Unlike at the Rule-oriented stage where simple rules are inconsistently adhered too, here rules are
beginning to be internalized and followed without question. Shame is a common response to
transgressions and for undesired consequences of one’s actions. Because of their strongly held and
unquestioned values, Conformists are apt to feel responsible in situations in which they are not to
blame. Repeatedly saying “I am sorry” is meant to soften any repercussions. One should have done the
right thing all along.
Conformists are identified with and bound to those with the same tastes, attributes, beliefs and
expectations, and confused or threatened by differing demands, perspectives, diversity, and complexity.
The values of one’s own group get introjected as strong “shoulds,” while the values of those who are
different are denigrated and likely rejected as “evil.” Thus, life is governed by rules of what can be and
cannot be done. Others with differing views are morally condemned. Sexual and aggressive feelings are
likely denied or suppressed out of fear of rejection and abandonment. For the same reason,
commandments from various religious are taken in as the Truth and not examined. The “holy books
contain the literal truth. Any questioning of their commandments guaranteeing salvation is seen as a
form of treason or a sign of having fallen from grace.
Social: To be liked one has to have an attractive social personality. It is important to be nice,
pleasant, and accommodating. People are judged by the way they dress and talk and by the proper
manners. Great care is taken on neatness, outward appearance, cleanliness of one’s domicile or office.
There are those whom by temperament, are more contrary. At the Diplomat stage, it is possible to
find some sense of OK-ness as a non-conformist. Rebels, have-nots and other misfits often need, find
or create their own cliques. One can either be a loner or create or join an alternative group and display
the markers that identify one as a member of that clique. This can happen because the individuals don’t
fit the prevailing norms or do not have the tokens that would help them to belong to the high status
Multiple cliques, such as fraternities and sororities on campus, often attract various kind of
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 52
students with a conformist mindset . Each has its own traditions with different acceptance rituals and
admittance oaths.
Feelings: Blind conformism, fundamentalism and prejudice can be expressions of this early
conventional frame of mind. Potential aggression against self (putting oneself down) and negative affect
or disappointment are often countered by demonstrations of overly positive feelings and enthusiasm.
One’s negative feelings “I hate you” are split off and projected outside and then experienced as “they
hate me.” Anger and other disagreeable feelings are suppressed as they threaten the status quo. They
rarely reach awareness. ‘
ß introjection----
Ideas, commands accepted as
right without thinking
conform to
ß self-regard -à
positive wishes
negative wishes
own desires split off:
-----projection à
good other (in-group)
bad other (out-group)
Conformists’ main coping moves are projection and introjection. They imagine that others think,
want, feel what they themselves think, want or feel (projection) and then try to fill those imagined needs.
They also swallow others’ definitions, norms, values and opinions without questioning (introjection). If
my mother, the church, or the boss says so, it must be true.
To summarize, the Conformist- Diplomat does not yet have a self in the sense of a separate adult
identity. Instead, he or she is defined by others. The self-other boundaries are blurry and not
differentiated. Thus, relationships often have a dependent, “sticky, I-need-you” quality.
Interpersonal style: Because Conformists so desperately want to belong, they will conform to the
rules and norms of whatever desired group, gang, political party they belong to. In companies they are
the ones that smooth discontent or incipient conflict among coworkers and make sure that the place has
a pleasant atmosphere. They value being nice and helpful. They see relationships in terms of expected
behaviors (loyalty, being friendly) rather than in terms of deep feelings and motives.
Cognitive style: Conformists are interested in the concrete, visible aspects of experience and tend
to use superlatives and conventional clichés to describe it. These clichés, however, are taken seriously
and not experienced as clichés. References to inner feelings are stereotyped and predictable and
aligned with cultural expectations.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 53
Conscious preoccupation: Conformists put great value on appearance, status symbols, material
possessions, reputation and prestige. They are concerned with social acceptance and attempt to adjust
to group norms. They deeply care about other’s opinions and evaluations although they are not likely to
ask for feedback. “What do others think about this or that, or about me?”
Internal dimension: Conformist individuals worry about what others think and feel at any given
moment as their sense of self-worth depends on others’ approval. In protocols they express simple
“acceptable” feeling states: sad, happy, nervous, upset, but do not differentiate feelings into subtler
graduations. The sense of “shoulds” and “oughts” and sense of shame and embarrassment if those
shoulds are not fulfilled can be crushing.
Main anxiety: not to belong and to be cast out. Most threatening to a Conformist is being
disapproved by or deserted by significant others, rejected by one’s group. Their anxiety is thus a fear of
being non-existing and the loss of a sense of self as a loss of “me-as-accepted-by-others.”
Problem solving: Generally, emerging problems are denied, or relabeled and white-washed. “Never
mind that. If you look at the bright side, it’s not really so bad.” Asking a superior for what to do is the
most natural way of dealing with difficulties. Conflict is not yet registered or if experience, it is avoided as
too threatening. It can become great challenge to a Diplomat if he or she belongs to different groups
with conflicting value sets. With today’s mobility and complex arrangements, this is becoming challenge
for Diplomats is becoming more common.
Organizational type: Conformists seek acceptance and protection by a larger entity. They are most
apt to be drawn into organizations with a clearly defined identity and hierarchical structures. Clear
instructions, advice and guidance are preferred over freedom to show initiative. Thus, command and
control enterprises such as the military are attractive.
Coaching-Counseling style: Conformists like to give lots of adviceà telling others what to do or not
to do. They also tend to compare and evaluate others according to their own preferences where the way
I manage or we do it here is the right way while other ways are simply wrong and need to be corrected.
Sample characters: Edith Bunker in All in the Family takes all kinds of abuse by others, particularly
her spouse Archie, but she stays with him. She is fluttering and fussing around him, always trying to be
positive, to see the best in everybody and in everything. Edith finds pleasure in taking good care of her
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 54
loved ones. However, the character Edith also displays an open-mindedness which is not typical of this
Language signs: The language is often impersonal, nice and positive and may be full of clichés.
Short, stereotypical phrases, exaggerated positive affect are common on the MAP. Everybody and
everything is fun, important, wonderful. When describing situations; concrete aspects and factual
information is given. Conformists describe their and others’ behavior in terms of I “always”, we “never.”
The vocabulary for feeling states is simple, undifferentiated.
The Self-conscious or Expert Stage 3/4
This is a stage of differentiation. A conceptual watershed is crossed when one can take the third
person perspective.
Third person perspective: Self and others as
separate persons with unique differences
Cognition: 4a abstract operations; beginning ability to
take a 3rd person perspective or to look at oneself
Self: Separate self is differentiated from others; sense of
specialness. Identity = clusters of external attributes,
conventional traits, “self-conscious” in the sense of
readily feeling uneasy and being judged.
Other: others too are seen as separate persons who are
different from me. Need for constant comparison and
measuring. Do I pass muster? Do others measure up to
my ideas and standards?
The Self-conscious stage 3/4 characterizes people who are now able to step back and look at
themselves as objects from some distance for the first time. This allows them to begin to notice patterns
and to start to reflect upon their own and others’ behavior. This capacity to reflect on oneself , however,
is as yet rudimentary as most of an Expert’s energy is externally focused.
This stage has a distinctly different clinical feel than earlier stages. Individuals begin to have
access to some self-understanding. They now want to be different from others, be recognized as
special. Often the work hard to differentiate themselves from the immediate family context and assert
and express their newly discovered personhood. Experts also make sure that they are seen as different
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 55
from their parents, siblings and from others doing similar things. They feel good when they are noticed
and get the respect for what they know and can do.
The third person perspective permits operations with abstract objects and concepts. While
conformism was widely spread during Loevinger’s time, we now find few people operating at the early
conventional, Conformist stage in our subject pools. In the sixties, consciousness raising efforts on all
fronts have contributed to this social shift from Diplomat to Expert as a desired and accepted shift in
consciousness. Finding your own voice and becoming your separate self identity as an adult is the most
widely supported and rewarded movement especially in the modern West with its emphasis on agency
and individualism. The transformation from being a part of a group identity to finding one’s separate
identity and finding one’s voice is in many ways the task of healthy adolescent development. However, it
often becomes first necessary for doing well when one moves away from home and familiar
environments or when one enters the work force.
At the Self-conscious stage 3/4 the focus changes to individual differences away from fitting in and
being like those in the original reference group. People start to express their own personhood more
often in contrast to others. They now also tend to assert their own needs and wants, which were
suppressed at stage 3 for the sake of being accepted. Indeed the previous enmeshed self-sense is now
experienced as a constraint, as a fake identity. Having played along with the prescribed values no
longer feels genuine. Given this drive towards separation and individuation, Experts often leave the
beliefs and values of their family of origin behind to the chagrin of those abandoned. They experience
this move away from tradition as a puzzling and hurtful, or worse as a betrayal of their most cherished
Identity: The third person perspective theoretically also allows for beginning introspection.
Individuals at the Self-conscious stage are now interested in discovering the kinds of behaviors that
make them successful and respected. They start to describe themselves with slightly more differentiated
attributes (lonely, jealous, curious serious), norms (feminine), and conventional virtues (honest, patient)
than their Diplomat colleagues. That is, they start to describe themselves with common traits - generally
recognized character patterns that people display over time. This new capacity to identify some special
characteristics of oneself is enabled by a budding understanding of one’s life in linear time. One can see
how one behaved in a specific way before and one expects to behave in similar ways again. One may
even have an inkling of how one would like to be and make an effort to change.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 56
Experts of first need to be taught to speak in their own voice and assert their position as well as to
critically analyze matters as simply mouthing the opinions of those one respects is more common.
Learning to notice their own suppressed and unexpressed feelings and thoughts is often the task of
therapy and coaching for this group. Experts are sensitive, that is, self-conscious, when it comes to
negative and critical feedback. Criticism is experienced as a rebuke of the whole person as Experts are
identified with what they do best and in what they believe. They often display compulsive and perfec-
tionist tendencies in their efforts to outdo themselves and to be a the top. “Good enough” is not good
enough for many an Expert. While they feel hurt and threatened by criticism, they are swift with directing
criticism towards others. It is the shortcomings, faults, and inadequacies of others that make life difficult
in the Expert’s eyes. In addition to having special expertise and knowledge in an area of interest,
blaming and finding fault with others is a chief way to establish one’s sense of superiority and power.
Cognitive: Because of the capacity for abstractions, adolescents as well as adults at this stage see
multiple possibilities and options. They can use them with a vengeance -- offering innumerable solutions
and permutations for every problem. What is missing is the capacity to prioritize, to see that not all
solutions are of the same quality. Experts tend to focus on doing things right or correctly, not yet on
doing the right things. That is they offer single loop solutions, rather than questioning their preferred
approach. Indeed, their own way of doing something is seen as the only right way. Indeed, They are
identified with knowing the newest and most cutting edge products and procedures in their area of
expertise. The focus on detail is one of the reasons that Experts who are promoted to managers, often
fail. They can’t see the bigger picture and aims of their department or organization and thus can’t
prioritize accordingly.
Social: Experts may reject their family of origin or their childhood beliefs, yet they still need a
reference group that accepts and respects them. Only now they want to be accepted by others because
of how they are different and special. Expertise and knowledge are ways to distinguish oneself. Profes-
sional peer groups and organizations thus supply the need for approval and belonging. Degrees, au-
thorities, and reference books in the field also provide the needed support for defending one’s approach.
However, feeling special can easily lead to feeling superior as one wants to stand out from the crowd.
The group is needed, but one stands at its periphery threatening to leave, without ever quite leaving.
Moral: Stage 3/4 persons often feel they have it all “figured it all out.” They know all the answers.
They know what to believe. They feel righteous and tend to blame others and to put them in the wrong
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 57
They have high moral standards and a strong sense of what should be. “Shoulds” and “oughts” are part
of their way of making sense of life and of orienting themselves. The super-ego is very strong. Experts
may feel disappointed with themselves when they don’t fulfill what they know they should yet find
excuses for why they didn’t perform according to their own values.
Work: Experts are often difficult for others to work with. They want to be single contributors and do
not easily collaborate. Not only are they critical and often self-assured in their knowledge, they tend to
be argumentative and hurt when they feel they are not respected enough for what they do or say. In
general, they do not hold back their opinions as they do not yet realize that their perspective is only one
among many possible ones. They know the truth, the best approach, the right way of doing something.
Experts are happy in perfecting their crafts or procedures. Creating efficiencies, perfecting processes
and steps to run things more smoothly, is part of their many gifts.
At the same time, the perfectionism can become their challenge. When they need to delegate a
task they want it to be done their way. When it is not, Experts are quick at taking the task back and
executing it themselves. Thus, they are often overworked and overburdened by their workload and level
of perfection, be that at work or at home. They cannot yet conceive of the possibility that things could be
done well in more than one way or that others could also do them adequately.
They tend to evaluate others according to their own capabilities and standards. Severe criticism of
how another thinks is a common form of intellectual aggression at this stage. A sense of superiority is
not very well hidden and is activated by the smallest inadequacy in others. Technocrats, bureaucrats
and highly educated specialists, such as engineers and scientists in the hard sciences, are particularly
prone to get their self-sense from identifying with their knowledge or expertise.
In interpersonal situations and at work the “yes, but” syndrome is very common. Having the last
word or one-upmanship - that is, listening to the other and then adding one’s own opinion to remain on
top - is typical.
Because their process is additive, people at this stage cannot yet prioritize among options or
synthesize several possibilities. While Conformists try to suppress aggression for the sake of
acceptance, it now reemerges. Self-conscious individuals often have a hostile sense of humor.
Ridiculing others is a common sport. While there is a cognitive capacity to look inside, one’s defense is
to be ultrarational. Rather than being followers or bystanders - the preferred roles of the Conformist -
Self-conscious persons may relish being movers, and initiators. They enjoy oppositional battles with
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 58
others who defend different positions. They live in a world where things are sure and clear, and they feel
very much entitled to impose their views on others. Thus they can seem argumentative and opinionated.
On the plus side, Experts are concerned with fulfilling their adult responsibilities and duties and
with doing things right. They are very adept at finding new and different solutions, better ideas, more
perfect procedures, and greater efficiencies and doing things well. If managed skillfully, their positive
contributions can be considerable. Experts are absolutely necessary for running the routine affairs of
every society and every group. They may prosper especially well in today’s highly technological and
digitally-coded world.
Impulse control: Self-conscious persons have societal shoulds and oughts well internalized. Their
super-egos are strong and not available for inspection. Feelings of shame and guilt for transgressions
are expressed in simple terms or rationalized away.
Cognitive style: Self-conscious persons are capable of abstract thought and operations, including
multiple views, permutations, and careful comparison among variables.
Internal dimension: “Psychology” is understood in terms of stable moods and traits of self and
others. Self-conscious persons tend to generate innumerable solutions without being able to prioritize
among them. The decision process gets often hung up. See Perry (1968) on multiplicity. The necessary
synthesis and analytical weighing of different solutions develops at the next stage.
Organizational type: Engineering types, technocrats, bureaucrats, and a percentage of
professionals of every ilk are at home here. Being in charge of oneself and one’s environment is a chief
trait. Self-conscious individuals have a clear-minded, pragmatic leadership style because they are
unencumbered by fundamental questions and complexities. “Do what I do and you will be fine.”
Chief defenses: Self-conscious people intellectualize, rationalize and explain away what doesn’t fit
their expectations or set beliefs. They are rarely lost for an answer or an explanation. They often blame
the structure, the tools, or the incompetence of others for what is not working as it should.
Counseling/coaching style: As managers and consultants, they are asking many questions and
accumulate facts. They want to know the causes and ask “why did you....? This can readily be heard by
employees or clients as criticism and blaming. They proffer advice and share their opinions and
interpretations without a sense that they are theirs and not necessarily the clients’. “If I can do it, you
can” is a common message that shows the lack of awareness that people differ and that their way may
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 59
not work for everyone. Compared to later stages, Expert coaching clients often seem more set in their
ways and resistant to change. No one can tell an Expert anything they don’t know already or know
better. They will discredit material or arguments that do not fit into their own schemes of how life works
by dismissing counter-evidence or belittling others.
Main anxiety: Having just recently discovered their own separate personhood, Experts fear losing
this sense of specialness. Moreover, they fear being reabsorbed and getting drawn back into the fold,
into the mass of others. They also fear that if they should open themselves to others’ views, they might
lose their current certainty and strong sense of self. This fear of incompleteness and vulnerability is
often counteracted by showing a strong front and by not admitting any ignorance or vulnerabilities.
Language clues: Experts are beginning to use more complex syntax. The vocabulary for
psychological states is becoming more nuanced. Simple comparisons are common “too much, not
enough, similar to.” We find the rudiments of qualifications, conditions and explanations. There is a
beginning, yet passive interest in causality “I wonder why?” Notably, there are now references to the
passing of time “sometimes, often” and occasional brief explanation for their views although simply
asserting how things are is the favorite mode of expression. Experts also now tend to consistently
respond with the past tense to past tense sentence beginnings.
The Conscientious or Achiever Stage 4
The Conscientious stage is a stage of integration and re-embedding oneself in a larger cultural
context, but now on ideological affinities and self-chosen criteria. It is the target stage for much of
Western culture. Our educational systems are geared towards producing adults with the mental capacity
and emotional self-reliance of the Achiever stage, that is, rationally competent and independent adults.
Democracy as a form of government is based on the idea of a citizenry that has the capacity to think
independently and to make reasoned and informed choices . Bob Kegan coined the felicitous term “self-
authoring” for this level. Along with expertise, an independent, entrepreneurial, and self-reliant mindset
is the financially most well rewarded stage in the US and much of the West.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 60
Time -expanded 3rd person perspective
Embrace: Self in society, others with similar goals and aspirations
Time frame: Self as it is (traits), self as it should be (goals, ideals)
Cognition: 4b, formal operations; clear separation of subject and object, knower and known.
Preoccupations: Reasons, causes, goals, achievement, effectiveness, contracts and agreements.
Positive equilibration: rational, analytical determined, conscientious, fair; successful; competent with
high self-esteem
Truth: Can be found through appropriate scientific methods if not now à later
Our institutions of education, jurisprudence and much of business are based on the premise of
independent adults pursuing their self-chosen interests within the given contours of the social
The critical new dimension of the Achiever perspective involves a full awareness of linear time
along with the need for broader relational social context. The third person perspective allows individuals
to look backwards and forwards in life. Conscientious folks deliberately want to find out who they are
and what they would like to become by consciously exploring past experiences and choices and thinking
about the ideal future self. Five to ten years backwards and forwards is now a regularly envisioned
timeframe. What do you see yourself having accomplished in five years? is also the most common
prompt in conventional job interviews.
Moreover, this is the first stage where people grasp that they can continue to grow in mind and
heart as adults. They have places to go, personal goals to reach, and opportunities for self-knowledge
and self-improvements. Conscientious folks, cherish self-knowledge and work at increasing it. They
generally have positive self-regard based on their capacities and successes. They have gained a
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 61
measure of independence and self-authorship that makes them feel they are the masters of their ships.
As captains of their own self-enterprise they are no longer as vulnerable to being accepted or excluded
as Conformists and Self-conscious adults are.
Cognitive style: Conscientious persons can think in terms of formal operations, logic and sequential
order. They are beginning to appreciate conceptual complexity as well as the nature of a closed system.
They are aware of contingencies and qualifications, and see alternatives to conventional responses to
problem solving. They can now notice contradictions and inconsistencies both within themselves and in
the belief systems they adhere to. They may see that the way a problem is framed is the problem. They
consider that not all goals are equally worthy of pursuing, that is, they may begin to recognize the
potential for double loop exploration. Overall, Achievers are planful about their actions, concerned about
priorities and consequence, and capable of revision and iterative assessment on as well as reorienting
towards new goals.
Conscientious adults generally believe in the perfectibility of humankind and in the scientific
method to “uncover” the laws of the universe. People believe that the proper scientific methods of
investigation and procedures will eventually lead to the discovery of how things really are. They look for
the laws that explain human behavior as well as answers to how the universe works. Formal operations
and abstract rationality are at their peak at this level. Much of the world’s scientific progress is generated
from this mindset and with the drive for discovery that is quintessential for Achievers.
In many contexts, the Achiever mind set and capacities are not fully appreciated for what they
offer, and for what they continue to contribute to human well-being and prosperity. Conscientious adults
are committed to work towards the betterment of humanity according to what they consider an ideal
future. Whether they believe in democracy, communism, socialism or whatever form of government
ideology, they are convinced their particular approach is best for all.
As scientists they have more tolerance than Experts for some delay between action and results,
research and findings, questions and answers and are less likely to believe that they can go it alone.
Cross-department or cross-disciplinary collaboration is necessary to untangle and solve some of the
more complex puzzles of the external world.
Formal operational cognition allows individuals to separate events into variables that can be sorted
around many criteria. Achievers and beyond recognize that making new distinctions is an aspect of
expanding one’s mind and internalizing new knowledge.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 62
Making new distinctions is also a bedrock of EGO DEVELOPMENT THEORY as it uses
distinctions in language to trace the development of individual minds and to differentiate among different
mind sets and self-identifications shared by many people. It is these changing ways of shared
worldviews that we identify as consecutive stages. As a psychometrician, Loevinger and her approach
to theory making and testing shows the formal operational tenets at their best. She made a pioneering
and lasting contribution to psychology. At the same time, keeping sharp boundaries also limited the
reach and usefulness of her method. Proof was paramount to her and keeping the SCT-test for research
only as she created it. Using it in other contexts, for example for coaching and supporting clients in
vertical development was anathema to her., She also objected to using the SCT to explore rare
hypothesized high-end levels of meaning making because it went against her belief in what science is
and should do.
Aboutism: Because of their access to formal operational thinking, Achievers can create complex
theories as well as learn all about complex topics. However this is done from an external point of view:
They can learn to know everything there is to know about a theory without transfer of the conceptions to
their interior life. Thus, one can pass a test in integral theory, for instance, and yet hold the theory as an
Achiever. In ED Theory we call this external knowing about complex theories “aboutism.” High
intelligence and access to cognitive complex thought can seduce individuals to overestimate their ego-
development. Accordingly, cognitively-oriented developmental theories and measurements also tend to
privilege sheer intellectual prowess, memory, and the complexity of arguments over a more holistic,
integrated view of personality. ED Theory offers a view of development that includes an assessment of
how individuals hold the knowledge they have and how they relate to their knowing. It offers a path that
not only values intelligence, but a way of looking at human growth that values self-awareness,
compassion and wisdom.
Identity: Persons at the Achiever stage are curious what makes themselves and others “tick” in
more than a passive “I wonder why?”-way. They will actively ask to find out what motivates others and
explore causes of both their own and others’ behavior. While Experts are proud of themselves and their
cleverness in their area of expertise, Achiever are more aware of their overall career path and how they
got to where they are. At the same time, they trust in the potential to improve themselves through effort,
learning and feedback. Feedback can now be listened to without necessarily agreeing with it or feeling
one’s whole identity has been diminished. Whether the critic is right, misinformed, or misjudged me, the
their response is useful information both about myself and about the critic.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 63
In general, Achievers are concerned with reasons, causes, goals, consequences and the effective
use of time. They believe that the truth about themselves can be found and are motivated to figure
things out and to inquire. Personality tests, asking others for feedback, Taking educational and
professional courses and retreats as well as a new level of introspection lead to increasing self-
knowledge. Achievers learn to understand themselves backwards and forwards in time, and describe
past feelings, personal dreams and future goals. While the past is seen as an important source of
information and experience, Conscientious folks tend to focus on the future and what is yet to be
accomplished. With awareness of time as a linear progression, there is also a greater capacity to
observe one’s motivations across different periods and in different actions. “Why do I do what I do?”
Thus, the analysis of others and self-analysis become a favorite pastime and challenge. Many
typologies and theories about human behavior come out of this motivation to classify and understand
other human beings. From psychoanalysis, to behaviorism, to Rogerian therapy, to Gestalt approaches,
many of the major therapeutic schools were born out of the Achiever mindset. Knowing the root causes
and reasons for unwanted behavior helps one to fix problems and to achieve better outcomes. Indeed,
finding the causes and working out explanations for what one observes are paramount for the scientific,
modern method of inquiry and knowledge acquisition.
Emotional: It is at this level also that individuals become able to distinguish in much more subtle
ways among different aspects of being a human being. They realize that we can deliberately dissemble
and that it is important to distinguish between appearance and feelings, what is being said and what is
left unsaid. Formal operational cognitive capacity is behind this capacity as it allows for variables to be
separated and sorted around many criteria. A sense self-certainty common at this level comes from the
notion that one can improve oneself. Because people can and want to explore feelings that don’t yet fit
their current understanding of themselves, they are more likely to explore these rather than to deny, or
ignore them, or project them onto others. They may still employ these defenses, but more areas of
experience are open to inspection. Many become familiar with their own preferred proclivities and
defenses. Because of their understanding of linear time and knowledge acquisition, and because of their
ability to prioritize, Achievers can now postpone exploration and put things on the back burner. If they do
notice discrepancies between their values and behavior, they can learn to deal with tensions in more
productive ways than before. Some mention that they consciously use negative energy for a positive
push. For instance, anger at injustices in the child welfare system can be used to make a difference by
organizing a letter campaign, writing to a congress person, or joining or forming an advocacy group.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 64
In contrast, when life doesn’t go so well -- when there are disappointing results or even “failure” to
achieve goals make a difference or to -- Conscientious meaning makers can be very severe critics of
themselves and fall into deep despair. As self-authoring individuals who accepted that they are in
charge of their own destinies, not being successful is taken as a sign one has not done one’s best or
betrayed one deepest potential. That is, one has not just failed the particular cause, but one’s duty to
oneself as a full member of adult society. This exaggerated sense of being responsible for how things
turn out may lead to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. This is so even when external circumstances
contributed to the unsuccessful outcome. What is not yet visible to Achievers is a more systemic view of
reality. They see themselves as independent wholes rather than also interdependent parts of multiple,
overarching systems. Additionally, seeing positive results and get rewarded for them is an important
way the Achiever finds self-affirmation. The long-term view, the idea of having sown a seed which may
or may not take root is not yet enough as an Achiever’s timeframe is often at best a decade or two.
Moral: Conscientious adults have internalized societal standards. They often question the “shoulds”
from their family of origins and their professional contexts and want to live according to their own ideas
and self-chosen values. It is with the Conscientious stage that people have enough of a perspective on
themselves as objects and on their life as changing over time to become truly introspective. “Do I live up
to what I believe in?” is a serious life inquiry. Guilt for having made the wrong choices and regret for
having missed opportunities are central emotions. When aggression is turned inside, self-criticism can
be severe. Conscientious individuals can fall prey to hypercritical, neurotic self-criticism especially easily
because their plans and intentions are so single-minded and high-aiming. At the same time,
Conscientious meaning makers may have very high standards for others as well and expect them to be
self-authoring and responsible like themselves. They cannot yet truly fathom that there are people with
earlier, more limited perspectives, and less choice and capacity that they have. They don’t understand
that an Opportunist will likely exploit the system if given half a chance not because he doesn’t want to
but he cannot do other. They do not see that Diplomats will not likely thrive when given an opportunity to
take initiative and to stand out via an individual contribution. They may get very frustrated with the
single-minded drive of the Expert to perfect a narrow specialty without consideration of the bigger
picture or the overall mandate of an organization. While excellent individual contributors, Experts often
are unskilled in collaboration and cross-disciplinary efforts. Like their conventional brethren from earlier
stages, Achievers too believe that if others were more like them, the world would be a better place.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 65
Interpersonal: Because of the genuine interest into who others are and the concomitant need to
share one’s experience, interpersonal relationships become intense and important. Social contacts
become increasingly diverse and rich. Others are appreciated for having different expertise as long as
they don’t encroach upon my beliefs. “Let’s leave our personal views aside” is a typical Conscientious-
type compromise that keeps the definite boundaries between parties intact, but allows for collaboration.
Increased self-differentiation and personal independence does not, however, involve more egotistical
and self-centered behavior. On the contrary, others can now be valued for who they are independently
of one’s own needs and wishes. One joins a group or cause as a contract in order to accomplish certain
goals, to fulfill agreements, and to actively partake in the well-ness and governing of the overall
enterprise. One’s loyalty is to a chosen belief system or ideology rather than to the individual proponents
of them. Unlike Conformist and Self-conscious people, Conscientious adults function well in different
teams and contexts concentrating on the task or problem to be tackled.
At Stage 4, people no longer rely so much on others in their original in-groups for knowing what to
believe and what to do (Diplomat). Nor do they derive meaning primarily from their professional contexts
and craft expertise although those may be appreciated like Experts. Rather than relying on knowledge
generated and received by the thought leaders in their area of interest, now they choose how to proceed
based on their own critical examination of what works, and what it important to know. That extends to
the conscious choice of what kinds of selves they want to be, what values they want to commit to and
what purpose they want to enact in the world.
Social context: In general, self-authoring adults realize that they need to cooperate with others in
order to be successful and to get things done. They tend to associate with people who have made
similar choices about what they deem important to accomplish and the kinds of goals they therefore
want to pursue and realize. These associations reach across differences in upbringing, education, race,
gender, and personality type. But diversity is not yet necessarily valued for its own sake even when it is
defended on legal terms. “Let’s agree to disagree” is a common and practical Achiever motto. It allows
people to bridge differences that could not be crossed at earlier stages. In order to accomplish what
they feel needs to be done, they join existing groups who share their ideals and aspirations. Additionally,
they may actively create a social entity themselves that fosters their view of reality and their dreams of
what a better world looks like. Achievers now can belong to diverse groups at the same time with
different agendas and characteristics without feeling torn among them or getting confused regarding
competing loyalties. They can adjust behavior in order to fit in if necessary or take on a leadership
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 66
position whichever is required. Especially in today’s electronically interconnected world, Stage 4
individuals join together with others in order to achieve specific aims. Such relationships are no longer
confined by geographic proximity. Instead, projects and efforts to change the world can now have global
participation and a global reach.
Achievers often feel an urgency as time is ticking. They are preoccupied with getting things done
with responsibility, conscientiousness and expediency.. They may have a driven quality to accomplish
something or to improve the world versus the need of later stages to develop oneself as an instrument
of change. Issues of legacy and making a lasting contribution are important to their self-image. One
hopes to see the results of one’s efforts yet can envision these also to benefit the next generation. The
mood of the stage is earnest conviction, seriousness, idealism and enthusiasm usually oriented towards
action and external targets. Those whose proclivity is towards thinking, may create complex theories of
psychology or philosophy or dedicate themselves to research.
Conscientious persons change others’ minds by convincing them with rational arguments and
evidence rather than by putting them down. Their self-esteem depends on achieving their own set goals
and lesser on external affirmation and approval. For all that, the drive to succeed and achieve, can
readily lead to over-extension and exhaustion. Achievers find it difficult to acknowledge their limits of
time and energy. Engaged in their projects, they hardly slow down to look at the present moment, to
reflect upon life as a whole, or to give themselves a break. They may resent others who make time to
balance their lives or they may want to learn to do this better themselves. Work-life balance issues are
among the most common complaints of this stage/
Given their cognitive capacity, Stage 4 individuals are in love with the hypothetical, with theories at
the espoused level. They are convinced that society can be controlled and improved. They have the
frame of mind where formal operations are at their peak and rationality, progressivism, positivism and
reductionism have their strongholds. Not knowing or trying to figure things out is not an option. If they
realize they lack knowledge in a particular area, they can admit to it and learn or rely on others who are
knowledgeable in the area of inquiry.
For Conscientious persons in the sciences rationality triumphs! They are interested in analysis
(ana-lysis = breaking up). Truth can be found if diligently pursued, if not now clearly over the long run.
One can come closer to it by consistently applying the scientific method, by looking at things rationally,
by continuously improving and refining one’s methods of inquiry and measuring tools. The electron
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 67
microscope and the telescope are just two such tools that let us peer in into the infinitely small and the
immeasurably large. While Experts tend to rely on authority or received knowledge to orient themselves
(a renowned expert, or the newest trade journal), Conscientious individuals can be skeptical of
conventional approaches. Researchers at this level are known for their intellectual skepticism towards
things that are not yet proven. However, they do believe that the laws of the universe can be figured out
eventually and proven.
Work: The life of an Achiever is often driven by an urgent sense that time is fleeting and that it is
therefore a scarce commodity one has to use effectively. “Time is money.” Unlike the Expert who is
more concerned with individual contributions and in perfecting whatever they are tasked with even if it
takes forever, Achievers are able to prioritize among many tasks and steps in a process. They are also
now capable of balancing the need for effectiveness with a desire for efficiency. The latter often allows
them to truly delegate tasks to others. They trust that they can do a good job despite approaching the
assignment differently than the delegator. At the same time, Achievers tend to overestimate the level of
control human beings have. They see it as their role to make decisions with the best of intention to
serve the greater good. Others may experience this as a unilateral and overbearing need for control.
Achiever values can include alternative life choices in reaction to what some perceive as the
excessive focus on success at this level. “I don’t want to run in the Achiever rat race of success and
money. I prefer to focus on family and a peaceful existence.” This reaction is not necessarily a matter of
fundamental disapproval of the Achiever drive, as the alternative life choice may be just as driven by a
need to be in charge. It is important to distinguish between non-conventional and postconventional ways
of meaning making here. At the conventional stages, alternative life style choices are mostly a matter of
individual preference. The serious questioning of the underlying assumptions of the achievement
mentality becomes a focus at the next, the Individualist stage.
Because of their experience of linear time, Achievers sometimes acknowledge that they stand on
the shoulders of others, that is, if they don’t revel in their own selfhood and being self-made men and
women. Being in control is a very powerful aspect of being an Achiever and losing control is seen as a
major threat to one’s well-being and self-identity. Thus much energy goes towards reaching one’s goals
and remaining independent. Towards the end of a career and looming retirement, this becomes a
unique challenge for Achievers as having to give up independence feels like losing the self.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 68
Moral: Societal values and morality are internalized if they fit self-evaluated standards and one’s
personality. Conscientious persons tend to be self-critical, even hypercritical. They now may feel guilt for
consequences of actions even when these were unintentional or unavoidable. They are self-reliant,
conscientious, and efficient and preoccupied with attaining goals and ideals. They will bend or break
rules in order to change social structures and to serve the greater good or their need for freedom.
Whereas earlier stages break rules because they don’t like them or because they feel constrained by
them in what they want to do, Achievers often offer valid justifications for doing so.
Interpersonal style: Conscientious persons have a sense of responsibility and obligation towards
others even while they pursue their own agendas and ideas. They see themselves as indispensable and
contributing members of the larger community or society, yet separate and responsible for their own
choices. They are conscious of the importance of communication and appreciate the mutual expression
of differentiated feelings and ideas.
Conscious preoccupations: Achievement of long term personal goals as measured by inner
standards is important as are the attaining of one’s ideals and values. These are often the ones
currently most salient in the cultural surround. Thus, the money motive and the focus on individual
success of many Achievers fit very well with a capitalistic and the western outlook on reality.
Conscientious individuals are often also concerned with motivation and reasons for behavior. Many
reflect on themselves and express more differentiated feelings or can now identify with contradictory
traits. “I’m an optimistic pessimist.”
Internal dimension Achievers are interested in feelings, moods, traits, and motivations. “Why do I
do that? What causes others to be what they are and to behave in certain ways? How can I use my
knowledge of them, to help us achieve our goals? What do I need to know and do in order to get along?
What can I learn as skills to become a better in conflict resolution or team management?” They are now
open to continuous learning and self-improvement in a way earlier stages were not. The ways one can
be an Achiever is astoundingly varied.
Decision making: When they take responsibility to do something about a recognized problem, they
can move with conviction. They are concerned with how to get started. “How do you get people to help?
What is the most efficient and effective strategy to get this job done?” Conscientious persons are willing
to take risks and to fail to a degree in order to find out. When they are in charge, they feel empowered to
make unilateral decisions in the perceived interest of all.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 69
Organizational style: Alliances are task-related or problem-oriented. How one relates depends on
the specific and one’s role in the group which changes in different settings.
Chief defenses: Intellectualization, rationalization, suppression of shadow are the chief ways the
Conscientious person defends against doubt and criticism. “Better to concentrate on the positive and on
what can be done than to dwell on the problems and difficulties.” “Better to say, I am sorry later, than not
to act when opportunity arises.”
Depression: Conscientious persons most often suffer depression in the form of guilt for not having
fulfilled their goals and ideals, for the loss of a sense of being able to accomplish them, and the ongoing
and deep fear of loss of control and autonomy.
Fear: More even than Self-conscious adults, Conscientious persons fear the Conformist frame of
mind with its dependency and “submission.” Blind obedience and uncritical absorption of ideas is seen
as “bad-me.” Conscientious persons must make sure they are not pulled back, unconsciously subsumed
in someone else’s scheme. Fear of loss of progress, control, and clear boundaries are overcome with
action and relentless forward moving.
Counseling/coaching style: Similar to Experts, Conscientious persons tend to ask lots of questions.
However, they also now inquire with questions like “How is it? What does it feel like?” What do you
imagine would happen if…?”They have a greater ability to listen to others’ experience and play-back
(restate) expressions without adding their own interpretation. They are also able to encourage others to
discover their own solutions. In general, they are not yet aware of developmental differences and may
therefore demand behavior that is in over the client’s head.
Language clues: Conscientious persons recognize and express conceptual complexity and
explicitly refer to causal relationship, consequences and priorities. We find many terms related to time
(efficiency, planning, goals, future) as well as implicit references to lapse of time (now, used to, when I
was a child; is growing). Conscientious persons begin to describe themselves as complex psychological
beings using differentiated psychological vocabulary. In MAP protocols one begins to be able to get a
sense of the unique individual. “I” statements are revealing, not clichéd, and often contain elements of
contrast, self-criticism as well as explicit ownership of responsibility. Achievers tend to frame choices in
contrasting either/or terms.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 70
The major limitation of the conventional mindset is its acceptance of facts and the external world as
real and its blindness to the acquired nature of their beliefs. They accept the grand myth of conventional
science that all problems can be solved with the appropriate technological inventions, if not yet, certainly
in the future. Although complex scientific analysis is applied, the underlying assumptions of any system
are rarely questioned or made explicit. Especially at this stage, knowledge, measurement and prediction
are taken for granted as means to control nature, self and society. The attitude of certainty that
permeates the Achiever mindset, changes dramatically with the move into the next, the first
postconventional stage of development.
The transition from conventional to postconventional meaning making is also signifies an overall,
large-scale shift from increasing differentiation and the creation of an independent self-identity towards
increasing integration and deconstruction of the separation developed in the first half of the growth
trajectory. The visual representation of the overall contours of ego development referred to in Figure 3 is
repeated here as a reminder
The arc of adult development (corporate stage names)
The first half of the trajectory – from Symbiotic embeddedness to Achiever independence -- fosters
the increasing separation from the newborn’s union with the mother towards the discrete, self-sustaining
adult identity with clear boundaries, an self that is capable of making reasoned decisions, postpone
gratification and pursue meaningful goals and purposes. It is this self-governing Achiever that is often
viewed in the modern world as the fully developed “adult.” The second half of the trajectory – from
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 71
Pluralist to Unitive -- represents a step-wise deconstruction of the sharp and artificially created
boundaries towards an ever deeper identification with all that exists.
The second half can also be likened to an ongoing individuation towards a more holistic, full-
bodied, and integrated self that is fully aware of its interdependence with other systems and one that
can take a perspective on its fundamental non-separateness. This movement can be usefully described
in having two layers. A) The general systems stages which comprise the first differentiation and
integration – from the Individualist-Pluralist to the Strategist stage. B) The second differentiation and
integration – from the Construct-aware to the Unitive stage. The latter two replace Loevinger’s
Integrated stage (I6 or E9). It is likely that Loevinger could not conceive of a self-identity with fluid
boundaries because it was not part of her psychometric frame of reference. She may also not have
discovered this kind of open, non-delineated self-view because it did not occur in her samples. To her,
the concept of later stages and ego-transcendence belonged to the “stratosphere” (personal
communication 1998).
A) The General Systems Stages
At the first postconventional level adults come to realize that the meaning of things depends on
one’s relative position in regard to them, that is, on one’s personal perspective and interpretation of
them. Although the objects themselves are seen as permanent, their meaning is seen as context-
dependent. “Variables are now seen as interdependent, causality experienced as cyclical and
boundaries of objects as open and flexible” (Koplowitz, 1984). It always depends on one’s definition of
what is to be considered within a system or and what is outside. This view of reality is called the
systems view because it allows individuals to look and compare whole systems of thought or
organizations with increasing distance. Postconventional adults can become aware of their own
unexamined beliefs. Interest in laying bare one’s underlying assumptions as well as those of the society
is an important new capacity at these two new stages.
The Individualist –Pluralist Stage 4/5 represents systematic operations in Commons’ General
Stage Model as a person can now look back at the previous belief system as a system. The
Autonomous Stage 5 expands cognition to metasystematic operations as people at this stage are now
able to integrate different frameworks of the self into a coherent new theory of who they are, that is, into
a complex, coherent self-identity.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 72
The Individualist
Pluralist Stage 4/5:
The Individualist – Pluralist Stage 4/5 describes what a person can “see” with a fourth person
perspective. People now realize that things are not necessarily what they seemed at earlier stages
because the interpretation of reality always depends on the position of the observer. Thus the idea of
myself as a participant observer as well as having multiple perspectives becomes fascinating to explore.
Once we realize that as observers we inevitably influence what we observe, pure, detached, that is,
“objective” judgment becomes impossible. This individual discovery is supported by more recent
challenges to the rational/scientific assumptions of the Newtonian world view in both the subatomic and
the astrophysical sciences. We cannot help but filter our observations through our personal and
subjective lenses. Simultaneously, once we also allow for the validity of others’ personal views and
perspectives, we can no longer disregard the enormous diversity of people and their beliefs, values and
preferences. They are all seem equally valid and worthy of consideration.
The 4th person perspective represents the next differentiation stage in the sequence of the stage by
stage differentiation-integration pattern. It is considered a major watershed in EGO DEVELOPMENT
THEORY as it signifies the move from conventional to postconventional meaning making. Several of the
other developmental theories consider the next, the Strategist stage, as a more crucial transformation.
From a meaning making point of view, what is deemed most important is simply a matter of emphasis
and choice. Overall, each new stage represents a new reality for the subject, a new way of identifying as
a self and of understanding und relating to the world.
The fourth person perspective
Cognition: recognition of multiple perspectives,
beginning awareness of the complexity of systems
and cultural conditioning
Relativism: discovery of non-objectivity as
participant-observer, and of the potential for
defensive self-deception
Positive expression: vivid individualism. Focus on
and relishing experience in the present, listen to
every voice, honor all ideas equally
Truth: can never be found; everything is relative;
there is no place to evaluate anything with
certainty (postmodernism).
Fear of being sucked back into the conventional
mindset and constrained by its demands
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 73
The 4th person perspective allows individuals to stand outside the system they grew up in and
observe themselves and their cultural surround from a new altitude. From there one gets a better view
of the whole valley or plane below. One can look at the familiar (status quo) through a new lens and
query many of its tacit assumptions, values, and beliefs.
The 4th person perspective allows individuals to focus on epistemology, that is, to examine how
they came to believe what they believe and feel and how one knows and proves things. The transition to
the first postconventional stage is a watershed in so far as it is the first time that the vertical move and
the questioning of previously unexamined ideas is no longer supported by society and its chief
conventional representatives. Postconventional thinking and questioning assumptions may be taught
and encouraged in college courses, but then challenged and or dismissed at work and at home.
At this stage of differentiation, individuals realize that all groups and societies see it as their
mandate to mold the minds and hearts of their members. What’s novel is that they can now perceive
how much their values and worldviews have been influenced by the environments into which they were
born, in which they were raised, and in which they currently operate. Who we think we are depends on
the historical context, geographic place, economic circumstances, education, the overall structure of the
society, and many other factors that are part of shaping us. We have far less control over being
“molded” than we previously understood. Socialization, it turns out, is relentless and ongoing from the
day we enter the world. It begins with the earliest inculcation of what are considered desirable thoughts,
feelings, values, and behavior and what is not. It continues through schooling and is reinforced at every
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 74
moment via the media, commerce, and, most subtly, by the very nature of one’s native language and
communication patterns. While the discursive habit is essential for learning and vertical development, it
also poses an invisible danger by its deep and unconscious place in most people’s consciousness.
For many the recognition that one’s own view of life is not the only possible one happens when
traveling abroad and encountering other peoples and languages. Nowadays, access via television and
internet to different ways of life and other mores can open ordinary people’s eyes to diverse
perspectives even in the remotest corners of the world. This is in striking contrast to earlier historical
periods when only adventurers dared to hazard abroad and often never came back to tell their stories
while most ordinary denizens had no access to knowledge beyond their immediate local communities.
Today’s ubiquity and profusion of information, however, cuts both ways. English as the dominant
language of international exchange also acts as powerful indoctrination into Western definitions of what
adults should strive for, what personal attributes will favor success in the world, in short what it means to
live the good life.
With the turn away from the achievement-orientation and the external world towards inner
experience -- Individualists and Pluralists alike discover how subjective one’s perspective is and how
much of what seemed objective is in the eye of the beholder. The move from being unconsciously
embedded in a cultural surround to having a perspective on it can be both liberating and confusing.
Liberating because now I am even more able to explore and recognize my own unique way of being a
human being with new choices and more capacity to understand many fascinating aspects of the world.
Confusing because now there are unlimited ways of perceiving the world without any one view better
than another. The same object/event can have different meanings for different observers, for the same
observer in different contexts or at different times.
Stage 4/5 persons become interested in watching themselves trying to make sense of themselves.
This constitutes an important change in thought mode. Individualists-Pluralists abandon purely rational
analysis in favor of a more holistic, organismic approach in which feelings, body sensations and context
are taken into account. The 4th person perspectives allows people to move from merely logical thinking
to a more subtle, psycho-logical approach. The need to reason and to explain everything by rational
means lessens. Experience itself becomes the new attraction. Thus the process (or journey) of
discovery is now as more intriguing than reaching a goal or creating a product.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 75
Individualists and Pluralists tend to distrust conventional wisdom and the hyper-rational tenets of
the Conscientious stage. At least initially, they may reject the Achiever mindset wholesale. They may try
to distance themselves from all that went before and reject the strive-drive values of the prior stage. This
demands that they reevaluate the soundness of the prefixed role identities that society offers and
sanctions. One must redefine themselves uniquely and independently of these givens based on their
own experience, values, and conclusions.
When one fully realizes that most prior meaning making was socially and culturally conditioned,
scientific certainty and the judgmental frame of mind break down. Moreover, Individualists can learn to
consciously scrutinize their beliefs in order to test their assumptions or to relish the novel mental
freedom such a maneuver opens up. A big discovery for this stage is the relativity of points of view.
When people first become aware of this, they may see everything as relative and reject any prior
certainties including scientific knowledge as absolute and therefore “false.” It takes experience at this
stage to realize that successful living likely requires some of the earlier values. Most individuals need to
make a living to survive. Sticking with a job one may not totally like and getting along with others who
do not appreciate constant questioning is thus a requirement for most adults no matter how creative and
postconventional one may be.
As Stage 4/5 individuals explore their feelings and motivations, they can also begin to become
aware of how easily we can fool ourselves. The possibility of defensive self-deception and culturally-
biased distortion are now starting to be experienced as ever-present dangers. Given the increasing
awareness of one’s own vulnerabilities, persons at the 4th person perspective can exhibit a new, non-
hostile type of humor that is directed towards the self. It is based on an the beginning sense of the futility
of framing things in terms of right and wrong, provable or disprovable. It also recognizes how easily we
can fool ourselves about our motives and intentions.
Cognition: With the 4th person perspective, individuals realize that things are rarely what they
seem. Rather than problems to solve, one must figure out what to define as “the” problem (a double
loop move). Many things that appear as problems can now be seen as polarities to be managed since
most values come in pairs.
Thus, In the positive, liberated version of this stage, individuals may enjoy
paradoxes and contradictions and no longer try to explain them away. “To heck with it! Everything is
relative.” Linear, intellectual logic gives way to a more holistic understanding of things. It is not always
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 76
necessary to prove everything in order to embrace it. There is a perception that sudden insights and
breakthroughs are possible. Playful exploration and imagination are set free. Life is fresh and enticing.
Rather than trying isolate aspects of experience into different to categories and analyze them
separately as independent variables, Stage 4/5 individuals are looking for connections and subtler clues
to what is going on. Useful information can come from many sources that were previously considered
outside the realm of scientific inquiry and viewed with skepticism, such as body sensations, intuition,
dreams, reflection, and meditation. Therefore, the shift from conventional to postconventional stages
also reflects a qualitative shift from a more linear, rational, intellectual to a more organismic and
embodied awareness. In addition, this new way of perceiving can foster the realization that the whole
(the Gestalt) is more than its separate parts. Therefore attempting to see the whole picture with its parts
rather than merely parts and the details becomes an ever more important consideration with further
vertical development.
Individualist expression of the 4th person perspective:
Rather than trying to analyze everything, Individualists want to enjoy their own subjective
experience. What can be trusted is one’s personal experience, sensations, thoughts and feelings in the
here and now. Thus, there is a major shift from the Conscientious person’s preference for “doing” to
focusing on “being and feeling.” Instead of marching into the future, Individualists become now-oriented.
They begin to notice how feelings are diffused throughout the body. They can come to realize how
feelings, thoughts and body sensations affect each other. There is a new sense of body/mind
connection and a beginning understanding of the interwoven, systemic nature of experience.
Individualists often replace the focus on causality (past) and goals (future) of the Conscientious
person with a fascination with the immediate present. They need to understand and watch how things
unfold. Their attention turns from outcomes and deliverables to an interest in the processes, the
relationships and the complex, non-linear influences among variables.
Individualists watch how they
themselves and other people change and behave differently in different contexts. They have an
existential appreciation for how each moment differs from the next. Therefore the present is newly
infused with salience and poignancy. Individualists often express hope and enthusiasm for their lives
and their unique experience that others find inspiring. At the same time, they may be so idealistic and
enamored with their discoveries, they ignore potential difficulties or downsides. In that case, others may
find them too unrealistic, “too intense,” or simply “too much.”
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 77
Individualists are often concerned with making a unique and personal contribution to the world
independent of any socially approved roles or tasks. But part of the work as a postconventional adult is
to discover what that unique purpose may be. They can therefore become enthralled with watching
themselves trying to make sense of themselves.
They often withdraw from external affairs and company life, or from ordinary daily routines. Instead,
they turn inward in search of their unique gifts or answers to their own burning questions. If they are
given room to be themselves and time to experiment freely, they can provide valuable input to the work-
place. They find novel ways of looking at problems, or inspire others with their enthusiasm in pursuing
their own interests and questions. If working independently, they are likely to fashion schedules and
work contexts to optimize their flourishing. Sometimes, they are content to simply live day by day
following “their own drummer.” Today’s hippy culture still embodies some of that sense of freedom and
self-expression in the company of like-minded others symptomatic of the Individualist mindset.
We have found in our data that Individualists may or may not have a communal bend. Some folks
turn towards away from society and focus on their own meaning making. They explore their own minds
and hearts and are less preoccupied with issues of equality and making sure that all voices are being
heard. While they would not discourage such endeavors for those who are into this, it is not where their
own interests and energies reside. Unlike Experts, they do appreciate that others have their own unique
ways of doing things and being themselves. They recognize that different people have different needs
and preferences. That includes their personal need for now exploring their interiors. They are therefore
less apt to judge others. Indeed they may at times appear almost “amoral” in their demand to be who
they are and do what they want.
In the extreme, when Individualists overfocus on their inner world and the experience of having
multiple – often seemingly incompatible -- selves they may express frustration with development and
ever expanding self-knowledge. The more one explores, the more confused one may get. When the
overriding feeling becomes “everything is relative,” and “there is nothing to hold on to,” cynicism and
nihilism can become a way to defend against the feeling of being adrift on a vast unknown sea
unmoored and rudderless.
Identity: While some people at Stage 4/5 relish inconsistencies as proof of the illogical nature of
conventional beliefs
, others at this stage may become confused by observing the many contradictions.
They often describe themselves as having subpersonalities, many voices, or as an “inner tribe.” These
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 78
voices cannot be readily synthesized into a coherent self-identity. “Sometimes I act, feel and think one
way, other times in another depending on all sorts of conditions: my mood, how well I have slept, what
context I was in. There is a struggle within myself, different voices competing for attention. And all seem
real and important parts of me. Who am I? What is going on? How can anyone tell with certainty who
they really are as they are changing and growing?” Thus, the prevalent anxiety of Stage 4/5 is around
integrating different parts of oneself. “I can be both my old rational self, and a new, different kind of
person; I am afraid I have multiple personalities. I feel confused, split, ambivalent.”
Instead of the imagined greater integration and harmony, the 4th person perspective and
experience may feel like a cacophony rather than a symphony. Depression at this level has several
facets: a) The realistic fear of being reabsorbed, that is sucked back into the “rat race” of the Achiever
mindset by the demands of society; b) The dread of a routine work life that does rarely allows for
individual self-expression and creativity; c) The concern that one will never find a clear self-definition
from which to consistently operate and generate a coherent self sense; d) The deep experience of worry
and tensions that come from growing beyond the conventional mindset especially when it comes to
intimate relationships.
The experience of looking at the world with different eyes than those that used to be one’s closest
allies, such as a spouse or a long-term friend, can create great distress for both parties. While the
conventional partner is confused about the new way of behaving of the person with the 4th person
perspective, those who are postconventional feel misunderstood and un-appreciated for what they now
feel they have to offer. The latter also often wish for the significant other to become more like
themselves. This, in turn, can make the person “left behind” feel disrespected and misunderstood. In
this sense, the move of one partner from conventional to postconventional meaning making poses a
particular challenge to couples and long-term relationships. Unlike later stages, early postconventional
individuals cannot yet fully appreciate the gifts of the earlier levels. They genuinely feel that if only
others -- including their loved ones -- would become more like themselves, then everybody would be
happier and the whole world would be better place.
Pluralist expression of 4th person perspective
Pluralists, on the other hand, tend to focus on the multiplicity of voices and contexts. Aware of their
own views as interpretations, they do not want to impose these on others. They seek instead to respect
and understand all positions. Individual differences are celebrated and paid attention to in a way that
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 79
Achievers cannot yet appreciate. The very differences become the center of attention now rather than
being bracketed out in order to “manage” the differences in order to reach an agreed upon goal. When a
group of mostly Pluralists get together, they often make room for everybody to express their positions
and opinions as each person’s view is considered equally genuine and valid from their own point of view
as well as a crucial aspect of the overall diversity in the room.
The tendency, to treat every opinion with the same regard can be driven to an extreme. In
societies, organizations or teams where everybody’s voice is given equal opportunity for expression,
meetings can run on forever and little gets resolved or accomplished. The over-focus on fairness and
voice, can lead to “decision paralysis” as no one dares to take a lead role, assert a position, or make an
executive decision for fear to be seen as unilateral, uncooperative, or oppressive. Indeed, it is one of the
more problematic attributes of many proponents of radical pluralism that they judge all hierarchies as
oppressive. They cannot recognize that decision paralysis is its own form of oppression and constraint.
On the positive side, especially those individuals who were or felt marginalized in the past may feel
acknowledged and heard for the first time.
Above all, an awareness of human diversity and multiple perspectives is the powerful and
progressive contribution that this stage has brought to human affairs. Moreover, the egalitarian
emphasis of the Pluralist worldview is an important step towards further differentiation and integration.
Although it is difficult for Stage 3/4 and Stage 4 people to tolerate committed Pluralists with their
egalitarian fervor, Pluralists have prepared the way for an even deeper appreciation and tolerance of
difference, one that allows for making qualitative distinctions as well as for cherishing human diversity.
This more discerning and flexible view becomes possible at the next, the Strategist stage. To
differentiate this capacity from the Pluralist perspective, an individual at the next level can prioritize
among voices because they recognize that some views are based on better evidence and take more
aspects of a situation into account.
When Loevinger created her original theory in the sixties and seventies, a focus on diversity and
equality of perspectives was at the forefront of social thought. People who dedicated themselves to
bringing diversity issues into the public discourse were therefore deemed postconventional. In the
meantime, diversity and equality concerns are mentioned at all levels of development because they
have become anchored in the law. Therefore mere mentioning of diversity and gender equality no
longer indicates postconventional development. Especially when Achievers and Experts execute
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 80
diversity trainings, even with the best of intentions, they may focus so much on the differences to be
valued that the bonds of our common humanity can get overlooked in the process.
A special case of pluralism is the academic discipline of deconstructive postmodernism. It beliefs
that it is impossible to defend any belief by proclaiming that all views are subjective and therefore
legitimate since everything is relative. When relativism is carried to its logical extreme no view or
interpretation is better than any other. All are equal. Postmodernists believe that any metanarrative
succumbs to the same subjective arbitrariness. They deny the legitimacy of all hierarchies and all
hierarchical ordering. When Pluralists adopt this belief, they may be hypersensitive to perceived
instances of judgment as “better” or “valuable” in human terms. According to Wilber, radical
postmodernism leads to what he calls “Boomeritis (2003).” In the extreme case, postmodernists assert
with absolute certainty that there is no position from which to judge anything. They do not yet recognize
the inherent self-contradiction in their assertion. It is, of course, a form of judgment and hierarchical
ordering of values as those who disagree clearly have a less evolved view from theirs.
Social: The very heightened capacity to contact the self and to introspect leads to a greater
capacity to empathize with others and to tolerate different ideas, behaviors and reactions. Stage 4/5
individuals are often admired by others, especially by other postconventional persons, for their
unconcerned, energetic self-expression, their spontaneity, and their ability to live a life according to their
own unique style free from restrictive conventions. At the same time, they may be feared as
unpredictable or dismissed as dreamers and non-doers, especially in an strive-drive Achiever context.
Their relationships with others are intense and mutually rewarding when there is synergy and choice.
When they have to manage others as part of a job, they can be autocratic or idiosyncratic to such a
degree, that others find them “impossible to nail down”, “aloof and unapproachable ” or simply “wishy-
washy.” One never knows where one stands with such a leader.
Internal dimension: Individuals are deeply concerned with their interiors, with feelings and motiva-
tions. They show a beginning awareness of inner conflict and ambivalence as natural aspects of reality
and of the potential for defensive self-deception and culturally biased distortion.
Cognitive level: Things are not always what they seem. One’s interpretation of the world depends
largely on one’s position as an observer. One is always a participant observer. One can never be totally
detached or “objective.” The same object has a different meaning for different observers. Individuals
abandon purely rational analysis in favor of a more holistic, organismic approach in which multiple
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 81
perspectives and interpretations as well as the context are taken into account. Mature Individualists-
Pluralists can integrate and bridge rational thought with non-linear approaches to getting information.
Prevalent anxiety: “I can be both my old rational self, and a new, different kind of person; I am
afraid I can’t figure out who I really am. I feel confused, split, ambivalent.”
Depressive style: Inner conflict and despair about ever finding one’s true self.
Preoccupation: Rather than trying to analyze everything, State 4/5 individuals want to enjoy the
subjective experience, their unique way of making sense of things. It is all that can be trusted. They are
newly focused with being and feeling rather than with doing and achieving. Instead of marching into the
future, individuals become now-oriented as they infuse experience in the present with importance. The
past is gone and the future cannot really be known. Meaning making has shifted from an analytical -
intellectual to a more organismic, somatic and holistic mode of understanding.
Personality types: Individualists often prefer to live at the fringe of society, to live exactly the way
they want to be. Admired by postconventional people for their spontaneity and unique self-expression,
conventional persons may distrust them for being non-conformist and impossible to understand and
predict. Avowed Pluralists can be powerful advocates for tolerance and equality, but also get hung up in
endless discussions and overprivileging diversity to the neglect of our common humanity
Language clues: The Syntax of the 4th person perspective contains many contingencies, non-banal
qualifications, and several contrasting ideas. “Even though, despite, nonetheless, ,” signal beginning
greater cognitive complexity and replace “but” and “or.” Individuals can now entertain contradicting ideas
and join them by “both/and” and “while.” The writings contain vivid personal information (often
punctuated with exclamation marks) and more nuanced psychological vocabulary and comments on
their own responses to the MAP. MAP protocols show a distinct emphasis and “need” for unique self-
expression, a vivid sense of released energy and individuality. The verbal rejection of gender items and
other prompts in sentence completions such as ,“How can I generalize?” or “it all depends” indicate
beginning awareness of relativity of point of view and the nature of generalization.
The Autonomous Stage 5: (Strategist)
The Autonomous stage represents an enlarged fourth person perspective which places the
individual’s experience into the context of multiple worldviews and within people’s whole lifetime.
Cognitively Autonomous persons have a general systems view of reality, that is, they can comprehend
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 82
multiple interconnected systems of relationships and processes both internally and externally as these
are experienced as connected.
Expanded 4th person perspective:
The self as in embedded in history and multiple
cultural contexts
Embrace: like-principled others and a broad range of
human beings and their many ways.
Time frame: “historical perspective, lifetime view”
Cognition: general systems view internalized,
metasystematic = able to compare and coordinate
multiple systems
Chief concern: development of self and others, self-
actualization, integration, beginning to own shadow
Positive expression: Well balanced, tolerant, insightful,
growth-oriented; committed to improving the lot of all
Truth: can be approximated; higher is better since not
all arguments and positions are of equal quality.
Higher is more flexible and thus more adequate to deal
with complexities of all kinds.
The expanded 4th person perspective is now truly world-centric. While earlier stages may express
world-centric values and goals, Strategists embrace the tenets of a global worldview and can embody
them. They have internalized systems thinking. They not only see the interconnected aspects of the
external world, but also that of their own meaning making. With the expanded time frame and wider
social networks, Autonomous persons can perceive systemic patterns or long-term trends and are often
valued for that “strategic” capacity and vision.
Because of its global understanding and the long-term sense of oneself as part of ongoing history,
this stage parallels the “integral” or yellow stage in Wilber’s AQAL theory. As mentioned earlier, the LMF
emphasizes the cognitive move from linear to systems thinking as a watershed in meaning making while
Integral theory focuses on the qualitatively new capacity to see the world and oneself through an
evolutionary lens. The Autonomous stage is the first level that fully recognizes the need and value for
the existence of all stages both in terms of diversity in society as well as in terms of one’s own
development. At least, in the ideal. The human tendency to want to be among similar people and to
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 83
affirm one’s own worldview can easily lead to new forms of feeling superior and pride as a member of a
chosen or special “tribe.”
Autonomous persons realize that they may notice different conflicting aspects in themselves at
different times and in different contexts. However, -- unlike Individualists, who may despair about ever
knowing who they really are -- they are capable of “owning” and integrating many disparate parts of
themselves. This includes integrating previously compartmentalized sub-identities, and rejected or
marginalized parts of themselves. The experience of being part of interlocking systems rather than a
bunch of separate agents changes one’s sense of responsibility in conflict situations. One sees how one
inevitably is part of and contributes consciously or unconsciously to them. The self and the other can be
seen as both perpetrator and victim, giver and taker, product and process as actions, thoughts and
feelings can no longer be isolated as was the preferred way of dealing with difficulties at the Achiever
level. Instead they form a dynamic interplay.
Loevinger called this stage “autonomous” because individuals can now make meaning
autonomously, independent of conventional ideas. While one cannot change reality, one has the
freedom to interpret it to serve one’s own preferences and to make choices about life and who one
wants to be. This is possible now precisely because one fully understands that interpreting and
evaluating is what human beings do to make sense of experience. We all tell stories about what is
happening, who does what to whom, how we see life overall, and why we believe that we matter.
Autonomous persons consciously commit to create a meaningful life for themselves and for others in the
world through self-determination and self-actualization. They realize that the way they tell their life
stories changes with additional experiences and insights.
The crucial new capacity is to realize one’s power to generate meaning and to tell a coherent self-
story by creating it. Unlike people at Stage 4/5 who are not able to integrate various parts of themselves,
Stage 5 representatives feel empowered to do so. Thus, Strategist possess a relatively strong,
autonomous self sense that is both differentiated and well integrated. It is different from the Achiever
sense of authorship because it is much more aware of the limits of one’s control. At the same time,
Strategists embrace the options for self-realization they have and see the limits to their power as part of
what it means to be alive. With their sense of transformational mission comes set of broader, human
principles one must uphold such as the right of all human beings to be treated with justice and mercy.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 84
Autonomous persons worry most about having failed to observe those universal principles they value
deeply such as the right of all people to self-determination and for being treated with dignity and respect.
With their expanded awareness, Strategist use even more channels of information to make their
moves. They are often conscious of energy dynamics (physical and otherwise), and notice underlying
patterns that only emerge over longer period of time. They also have a deeper appreciation than any
prior stage of how challenging it is to be a mature, responsible adult and how rare their own capacities
are compared with most other people they are in contact with. Thus, they may pride themselves of being
in the know about themselves and about the larger issues facing the world. Whatever their personal
expertise, it is likely enhanced by interpersonal skills and worldly savvy based on having learned from
Strategist are often motivated and infused with a grand purpose and a vision of what could be.
Unlike Pluralists and Individualists, however, their enthusiasm is based on high ideals as well as on a
more realistic view of what it takes to change old patterns in self, in organizations, and in society.
Strategists want to hone themselves therefore as instruments of change. They realize that they need to
be the most they can in order to be of most service to others. Both servant and steward leadership are
part of one’s care for the larger system and future generations.
Wanting to help others evolve is one of the strongest motivators for Autonomous persons.
Humanists, developmental psychologists, coaches and consultants often inhabit this stage. So do
Strategist executives and leaders who see human beings as precious capital and who take multiple
bottom lines into account in measuring their organizations’ success. In the best work place scenario,
tangible as well as intangible outcomes are taking into consideration by paying attention to the physical
and mental health of the staff, to an aesthetic work environment, to a good work-life balance, as well as
to serving the wider community.
Strategists conceive of developing people as a valuable contribution to the individuals themselves
as well as to society. When this need to have others “become the most they can be” encounters
resistance, Autonomous persons may feel impatient with others’ pace of development and frustrated
with their “unwillingness” to grow despite their efforts and support. This need to have others transform is
one of the central flaws of this stage along with an attachment to knowing and being coherent.
They also tend to be among those who are most convinced that higher development is “always”
better and should be fostered at all cost. Higher is believed to be better because the more autonomous
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 85
and insightful about their inner dynamics individuals become, the more they can claim that they have an
objective (non-distorted) and realistic self-identity (Kegan, 1982). This is the case even though this is
also the first stage that can see how all people have had to move along the developmental trajectory
through the various stages to be where they are now. Autonomous individuals also understand, at least
theoretically, that this happens at a different pace and to a different degree for different people
depending on life circumstances and appropriate challenge and support. Developmental thinking is now
an aspect of cognition, of being able to look back and see how one evolved from a totally ego-centric
and self-protective, to an ethnocentric, to a global or world-centric perspective.
Many Autonomous persons see life as an open-ended journey. They believe that there is no
predetermined way to follow for all human beings. Each individual has to find and create his/her own life
style and is responsible for his or her own self-fulfillment. Autonomous individuals are interested in
psychological questions and how to come to terms with inner conflict. Unlike individuals at the
conventional stages, seeking therapy, advice, or consulting from others, is not seen as a weakness, but
as a necessity and an actual strength. Autonomous persons have faith in their own and other people’s
capacity to make meaning out of challenges and difficulties. They can construe their own personal
sense without having to impose it on all others. They may also invite others’ solutions to conflict and
respect their needs for autonomy.
Sometimes Autonomous persons find ordinary constraints of life stultifying such as making a living
and working an eight-hour day. They see themselves as being destined for bigger tasks with a far-
reaching impact different from ordinary folks. They would prefer to enjoy their passions for influence and
power on their own terms with maximal freedom or a mandate to do so for the benefit of all. If leading an
organization to greatness is one of those passions, it may be a fortuitous match.
Cognitive: With the expansion of the 4th person perspective in time (historical) and space (global)
Strategists are able to operate from multiple levels and perspectives. They have fully shifted to a
systems awareness while appreciating the benefits of a traditional scientific linear view of reality. They
can value and apply both conventional and postconventional practices without having to reject the
former in order to feel like themselves. They also recognize natural hierarchies in life. They are no
longer afraid of acknowledging that some members of society are better equipped for certain tasks, or
more cognitively differentiated than others. The Strategist embraces the notion that all human beings
deserve respect, but also knows that not all opinions and all perspectives deserve the same attention.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 86
Unlike Pluralists, Strategists can now prioritize among multitude of voices because they recognize that
some views are based on better evidence as well as being more comprehensive and fruitful than others.
Making informed strategic decisions is part of the Strategist leader’s power. She chooses who of
the pivotal stake holders to involve when decisions have to be made on an issue that requires others’
input. Society sometimes recognizes as valuable the capacity of the Strategist to make difficult
decisions and to compare and integrate multiple perspectives. Furthermore, Autonomous persons have
become aware of the performative contradiction of the postmodernist’s position and assertion that there
is no position from which to judge anything. They realize that assessing, evaluating and choosing are
vital aspects of functioning and making sense of life. They distinguish between biased judging and wise
discernment. Whereas one has to be on the alert to avoid bias and notice one’s evaluative preferences,
judging itself is crucial in human affairs.
It is at the Strategist stage, that individuals begin to see paradox and ambiguity as an inevitable
dimension of living and to increasingly tolerate these. Autonomous persons become aware and fluent in
using polarity thinking in order to examine issues and tensions. Complex and sustainable solutions often
require that one pays attention to opposing but interdependent values. The most effective and healthy
designs foster the wisdom aspects of both poles and the minimize their downsides.
However, the belief that one can at least approximate an accurate picture of the territory with
diligence and through dialogue and collaboration is still prevalent. Autonomous individuals are aware of
multiple interrelated systems and how influences are circular, cyclical and often tapestry -like. They
have beginning access to an understanding of life that can integrate psycho-logically paradoxical
elements. Therefore, less energy needs to be spent on “defending.” This then allows Strategists to be
more accepting and spontaneous than adults at earlier stages.
Emotional: For the Autonomous person inner processes are fascinating, complex and demanding
to explore. As much as they need others, they also need privacy and time for self-reflection. The self is
experienced as in transformation and constantly reappraised. Watching this “unfolding” of things is one
of the main satisfactions at this stage. One’s precious life work consists in trying “to become the most
one can become” in contrast to the goal of Achievers hoping to be the best one can be. In the
Strategist’s eyes, good company, good questions, intimate relationships, and a meaningful occupation
as well as chances for self-actualization and self-fulfillment are essential for a meaningful existence.
Others are valued as ongoing, vital co-actors in one’s own fascinating life drama.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 87
Autonomous persons become fine-tuned to their own psychological well-being and inner workings.
They take responsibility for regulating their thoughts, feelings and behavior. They are responsive and
adjust when required as part of different life contexts and career phases. Deeper life purpose and
legacy issues become an important topics of concern. How does my life and my contribution matter
beyond my life time and my immediate realm of influence?
Relativism changes into personal commitment and responsibility for creating one’s own personal
meaning. Individuals are now capable of rediscovering and owning parts of the self which have
previously been disowned for being too confusing or too threatening. The shadow side of the self can be
acknowledged to a greater degree and therefore a new integration and wholeness is possible. Although
Autonomous folks experience role conflicts and dilemmas strongly, they recognize that these are
inescapable and that ambivalent feelings are natural. Based on this capacity to integrate and take a
metasystematic view of different parts of experience, they tend to be quite certain of themselves and
their cognitive and emotional capacity for synthesis and integration.
Unlike individuals at the later, the postautonomous stages of meaning making, Autonomous
persons try very hard to keep their act together and to come across as reasonable, mature, and
knowing themselves well. They feel responsible for being able to orchestrate conflicting needs and
different subidentities and generally appear more balanced than earlier stages.
Strategists sometimes present themselves as exemplars of humanity giving off a whiff of
superiority. Now even failures and missteps are presented as positive aspects of learning. While
reframing and retelling one’s story in a more positive, self-sustaining light is a great strength of this
stage, the capacity of owning some of one’s failures and foibles, can be used by the ego to bolster its
sense of achievement and importance.
We call this the whitewashing tendency of the Strategist. “Look
how well I know myself. I am not afraid to share even my less than stellar sides so you can learn
Although not inevitable, feeling powerful and insightful because one understands so much about human
nature and the world can lead to self-inflation. The focus on “humility” that several leadership studies
mention as an important aspect of good stewardship is likely a response to this observation. On the
other hand, it is a great triumph over earlier stages, that at this level one can recognize that flaws are
part of being human. Getting a perspective on them is a life-long invitation to deepening one’s self-
awareness and connection to others.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 88
Interpersonal: Even more than at the Individualist stage, experiences of all kinds can be welcomed
and accepted for their immediate qualities. Distressing emotions become more tolerable and offer
insights that can be heeded. Strong positive and negative feelings can be acknowledged within oneself
and shared with others.
Self and others are accepted as complex human beings with both positive and problematic traits
and dispositions. There is an infinite variety of unique expressions of being a self. Only the dynamic and
intimate exchange with others makes it possible to get in touch with aspects of one’s behavior one
would otherwise tend to overlook. Good feedback makes one aware of what one is defending or blind
to. Feedback is vital for continuing development and for gaining ever deeper self-knowledge and
wisdom. One needs both the caring and the critical presence of others to optimize oneself as an
instrument of change. The deep sense of interdependence creates a need to be mutually supportive
and challenging. Strategists may feel responsible to help others transform in order to fulfill what they
intuit as other’s potential.
The “transformational” or “evolutionary” fervor of this level is occasionally blind to the transformer’s
own identification with and self-importance in being a “transformer.” Many well-meaning change agents
are not aware of the potential disregard for the needs and capacity of the recipients in their efforts to
help others grow. Strategists can sometimes show impatience with others’ slow development, and
frustration with their perceived resistance to grow.
Notwithstanding, many seasoned Autonomous persons are ever more capable of expressing
tolerance and non-possessive love (or being love) because of their profound appreciation of other
people in their own right as unique individuals and as adults with a growing consciousness as well as
fellow human beings with whom one shares the human plight. Others are seen as actors in their own life
dramas, which are deeply moving and fascinating to participate in. Beginning with this stage,
benevolence towards others and increasing compassion for oneself can become an abiding attitude.
Emotional: Autonomous persons have now access to a wide range of different emotions and
different states of awareness. Their emotional tone is different from that of Individualists. It is often less
cynical and distrusting, more upbeat and also again more certain about oneself and knowing. Feeling
into various sensations and emotions is one of the ways one approaches any experience. Rational
deliberation and objective analysis are fully integrated into a comprehensive approach to problem
definition and solving. Strategists can also recognize subtle distinctions among similar feelings. Thus,
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 89
they would likely distinguish between various kinds of sorrow, grief, regret, disappointment etc. Overall,
they seek to claim an authentic, truthful and adaptive self. Authenticity, is therefore an important value in
the Strategist’s value repertoire.
The greater awareness of their inner depth also allows Autonomous persons to use dreams,
fantasy, and imagination much more freely than earlier stages. Their thoughts are allowed to take off.
Strategist seek creative, integrated solutions to large-scale and long-term problems. More even than
Individualists, they can think outside the box. Their imagination is no longer constrained by conventional
approaches while these are taken into account and not ignored or resisted as at the previous stage.
Strong feelings are becoming of interest as indicators of something important to observe in oneself
and others. Autonomous persons can see difficulties as a natural part of the human condition -- inherent
in the dynamic interplay of multiple systems and of complex human interactions. Thus they are often
more skilled at negotiating impasses and conflicts because they are not as likely as all earlier stages to
use blaming as a defense. They can identify with others and appreciate their vulnerabilities as well as
their unique strengths. Because they are aware of their own many shortcomings, hang-ups, preferences
and less than ideal habits, they can express light-hearted humor directed at our general folly as human
Moral: Strategists genuinely feel principled anger and righteous indignation towards the injustices
of the world. They will stand up against society to express their personal convictions or to uphold their
higher, overarching principles regarding human rights and well- being. They are willing to go on the
barricades and risk their lives and reputations in order to fulfill the aims of their convictions. Their anger
does not usually seek a victim but is geared towards rectifying perceived ills. Because of their capacity
for the long-term view and they often express a deep concern for the well-fare of future generations.
They feel a challenge and the obligation to make wise decisions that will serve beyond their own time
and region. Self-less sacrifice for the greater good can thus be part of an Autonomous person’s positive
A Strategist’s standards for living a meaningful life are elf-evaluated and internalize. “To walk the
talk” becomes an expression of one’s moral character and authenticity. One’s behavior becomes an
expression of one’s moral principles and convictions. When irreconcilable role conflicts are discovered,
there may be a deep unease and yet also a greater tolerance for feeling dissatisfied, ambivalent or
confused than at earlier levels.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 90
One must qualify this statement because total acceptance of what is, is not yet part of the
Strategist mindset. A serious effort towards even greater self-knowledge and self-management skills
remains a facet of an Autonomous person’s ideal self-image and drive towards human perfection. When
they seek to become enlightened, they may make an enduring effort to “achieve” that goal with great
seriousness and diligence. They may spend years in regular meditation practice, attending retreats, and
following a particular spiritual leader or contemplative school. They may not fully realize that their very
efforting is in contradiction with accepting what is. The tension between effort towards achieving a goal,
even a spiritual one, and acceptance of what is may intensify at the next level of development.
Some Autonomous persons become charismatic moral leaders who inspire others to follow their
great vision of an ideal world order and a world fit for generations to come. When they defend what they
believe to be a worthy cause, they can be courageous and disregard negative consequences for
themselves. But they may also be overly forceful with their convictions especially when they are fueled
by principled anger. The combination of charisma, moral conviction and interpersonal skills can be a
dangerous combination if not kept in check. Followers often do not have the wherewithal to see the
limitations and possible self-serving aspects of such a leader and his or her inspiring ideas.
Depression: Autonomous individuals become dissatisfied with their lives when they feel they have
not fulfilled their unique human promise or when they have not lived up to the greatness they expect of
themselves. Loss of courage as well as loss of a sense of self-agency and power can become great
stressors. When using defenses, healthy Autonomous persons use mostly mature ones such as
suppression, altruism, humor, and reframing. When they use less mature defenses, they may realize it
as momentary fallback. They may therefore be able to see this behavior as context-dependent and are
able to forgive themselves and move on. However, when they think they have failed in their precious life
work and mission, they can despair and feel a deep sense loss of self.
This shift from feeling in one’s full power to feeling no longer needed is especially common when
Strategists approach retirement. There has been much ongoing gratification in being successful in their
métier, in having raised a family (whether as a personal one, as a thought leader, or as a leader of an
enterprise), and in feeling one has made a difference in the world. The question of one’s worth in one’s
older, less engaged years looms large. Did one get the rewards and appreciation one was hoping for
and if so, will it remain? How does one relax and trust that the next generation will reign as well and as
consciously and learn from their mistakes along the way? One way of dealing with these questions is to
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 91
take on the role of mentor or steward of younger leaders or an organization. When less well navigated,
the perceived lack of engagement with others and/or the lack of a sense of being as loved and admired
as one expected, can lead to sadness or even bitterness. Ideally, the sense of disappointment can be
mitigated with self-compassion and an understanding of life’s whole trajectory – with its inevitable ups
and downs, triumphs and losses, and with its beginning, middle and end.
Interpersonal style: One takes responsibility for relationships while also requiring autonomy and
personal space. Relationships are seen in terms of inevitable mutual interdependence. One can tolerate
and appreciate others’ autonomy and their different solutions to conflict. Non-hostile, existential humor is
beginning to be available in tense situations.
Cognitive level: The time frame and social context are expanded to include multiple systems and
complex relationships among self, others, systems and global contingencies. These often contradict
each other. As a result, Strategists develop a new capacity and strength to see and embrace paradox
and insolvable issues as part of a realistic appraisal of situations.
Internal dimension: One can now make sense of oneself in terms of inner conflict and “polarities”.
Strategists try to integrate into a coherent whole what they see as their different selves at different times
in different circumstances. Self-identity is a creative act of integration based on a new sense of being
embedded in a global context and a life-time sense of unfolding.
Conscious preoccupation: Strategists are concerned with self-actualization, self-fulfillment, and
legacy issues. They are interested in the psychology of self and coming to terms with their preferences
and conflicting needs .
Chief anxiety: a) not to fulfill one’s personal potential, b) not to self-actualize, c) not to live up to or
neglect those global principles of justice, tolerance etc. one holds dear above any others, and d) loss of
Defenses: Mostly mature ones: suppression, positive reframing, altruism, and non hostile humor
When using less mature defenses, one can be forgiving and understanding towards the ego
Representatives: Charismatic individuals who are ready for personal sacrifice in order to defend
through personal example the moral principles they believe in. Visionary leaders with the capacity to see
how systems interrelate and are aware of the long-term implications of their choices.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 92
Language clues: Autonomous persons use a complex, flexible syntax; with a wide array of topics
and concerns. They try to do justice to the complexity of life in their verbal expressions. They try to
present a coherent exposition of their thinking and themselves. They use differentiated psychological
vocabulary and understand circular causality in human relations. “Authenticity, evolution, transformation,
higher principles, life purpose, authenticity and self-fulfillment” are among favored concepts. “Both/and”
as well as “either/or” thinking is used in combination or alone depending on the context.
B) The Postautonomous Stages
The next two stages in the sequence represent the final steps in the ongoing movement of
differentiation and integration from stage to stage that I observed in my studies of the evolution of the
self through sentence completions. These last two stages are based on the sparse but telling evidence
from these as well as on personal encounters with individuals at these levels. Few people develop a fifth
person perspective and even fewer gain an ego transcendent or a Unitive view as a permanent place
from which to metabolize experience and witness the process of meaning making itself.
These two advanced stages represent qualitatively new ways of seeing reality and experiencing life
and the self. They replace Loevinger’s vague Integrated stage (I-6, E9). Her theory of identity formation
describes an ever more clearly defined and delineated self-identity. She held a view of ego integration
that could not conceive of the possibility of the transcendence of both self-boundaries and the need for a
permanent self-identity. Cognitively, the last differentiation represents cross-paradigmatic capacity
operations. Any further differentiation within the same paradigm of increasing hierarchical complexity is
reaching is manifest limits. Only the creation of a new way of knowing can hierarchically supersede and
integrate all previous knowledge and ways of knowing in the symbol-mediated, personal world of
meaning making.
The two postautonomous stages are called Construct-aware or Ego-aware, and Unitive
Now people come to realize that all objects are human-made constructs, including for
instance such abstract constructs as purpose, linear time and the ego. All are based on layers upon
layers of symbolic abstraction. Even such an everyday concept as a “bed” is an enormous simplification.
No two people’s mental picture of a bed is alike and no two beds in the world are identical. And yet we
all use the term “bed” and it works well for most purposes of communication. To become cognizant of
the pitfalls of the language habit as well as its tremendous gift to humanity, is a unique feature of the the
most advanced ego stages.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 93
At the first postautonomous stage, the conventional belief into a permanent object world and the
idea of a clearly delineated and achievable self-identification begins to be questioned and investigated.
The arbitrariness of labeling reality is recognized as crucial to any knowledge endeavor including the
seeking of self-knowledge. At the next level of integration, the Unitive perspective, reality is understood
as the undifferentiated phenomenological continuum or chaos, the creative ground, “das All,” or
whatever other terms human beings have created to express this awareness of an underlying unity.
In summary, one of the main existential concerns of men and women at these two most mature
stages of ego development is to deal with the fundamental assumptions about human nature and one’s
need to make order out of the chaos as well as the need of the ego to create a story about what it
means to be alive and why one’s existence matters.
Four reminders of how Ego Development Theory frames reality in its own Western-
flavored way.
First, because of the statistical rarity of these two stages and the method of creating ED theory
based on the evidence from sentence completions, their formulation and descriptions are more tentative
than those up to the Strategist stage. On the other hand, their likelihood has been confirmed in several
dissertation studies.
Second, in observing and dialoguing with individuals who tested at these rarer, most developed
ego stages, we found that there are many more ways to embody them than earlier worldviews. This
makes culling the essential features of these stages much more challenging. It is also harder to identify
who should be considered fully functioning from these later perspectives and who shows occasional
signs of them but has not yet made them their meaning making home base.
Third, the whole theory was developed based on a Western cultural premise. It was verbally tested
with individuals for whom English is either a first or a very fluent second language. Where feasible,
translators who were highly sensitive to nuances in both the first and the second language were
employed. Nonetheless, there are forms of meaning making especially in remote areas of the world and
in languages that are less linear than English that fall outside this framework and cannot be readily
examined by duplicating the sentence completion method.
Finally, I like to restate the conclusion of my dissertation (1999) that the Unitive stage is a catch-all
stage for the ego transcendent realm of human development. Further study and using different methods
of exploration will likely lead to further differentiations and insights into the nature of unitive
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 94
understanding. Clearly such subtle distinctions already exist both in Ancient Eastern texts as well as in
the eyes of Western observers (Brown and Engler, 1978). It is regrettable that the inherent limitations of
the radical empirical method I adopted from Loevinger does not render such information. Terri O’Fallon
(2010) has recently attempted to refine and extend the conception of the postautonomous stages by
Wilber’s AQAL model as a scaffold and reinterpreting the distinction between stages and states of
consciousness based on her research and experience.
Few earlier explorers of meaning making have tried to conceptualize the frame of mind of
individuals who go beyond a systems view, most notably H. Koplowitz (1984).
Koplowitz defined reality as an undivided unity, or undifferentiated phenomenological continuum,
without boundaries and time-space distinctions. It is this same cohesive reality that A. Korzybski (1948)
referred to as the overall “territory” existing prior to human mapping. He warned generations of scholars
not to confuse the territory with the maps we are making of it. To be able to think about reality as an
undifferentiated whole – even if only as a thought experiment – is important for understanding the
phenomenon of late stage development.
Genesis in the Old Testament provides a telling example of the general mechanism of the progres-
sive segmentation and differentiation of the undivided whole. The creation myth identifies some basic
categories of human experience in order of their appearance: From heaven and earth (above and
below), to day and night (light and dark) to animate and inanimate (alive and not-alive; moving and
stationary) etc., to the final arrival of humans and with them more abstract, non sensory-based
concepts, such as the “naming” of the animals, and the prohibition to eat from the tree of “knowledge of
good and evil.”
Overall language can be conjectured to have evolved via progressive elaboration throughout
history and repeatedly in different cultures. The creation story is but one example of how new
segmentations and differentiations are made as the need arises. It is by naming the distinctions we
make, that we eventually create the complex world of our lives full of things, events and ideas.
Understanding this process, allows people to see through their tendency to reify reality and the self
and to feel most alive and genuine in an indeterminate process of witnessing, and ultimately of being
without the need to defend any particular kind of experience. Certainty and uncertainty merge as one
feels at home in not knowing and yet open to fully experiencing whatever enters consciousness.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 95
The Construct-aware and Ego-aware Stage 5/6 (Magician, Alchemist)
Time frame + Embrace: Beyond own lifetime; global- historical perspective; multicultural awareness and
appreciation of completely different ways of living and making sense of life.
Cognition: Complex interaction of nested systems; cross-paradigmatic; understanding of evolutionary
movement, unitary concepts are perceived but not yet fully embodied.
Preoccupation: Inner conflict around existential paradoxes, the habits of the mind and heart & intrinsic
problems with language and meaning making in the discursive mode.
Positive expression: Accepting paradox and ambiguity, committed to serving self and others with
humility in the face of our existential predicament as mortals needing maps and yearning to matter and
make a difference.
Truth: In the personal, rational, symbol-mediated realm of meaning making one is always separated
from non-duality, no matter what level of abstraction and of insight one gains. Truth via representational
understanding is always partial, perspectival, geo- and anthropocentric.
The Construct-aware and the Ego-aware Stage 5/6 is the final observed differentiation in the
sequence of overall differentiation or separation from a previous worldview on the path to an ever
greater integration or union. Unfortunately, the
“professional” labels that have been used or suggested for
this stage -- Magician, Alchemist, Crone, Jester etc. -- are
all inadequate to express the varieties and depth of
understanding, this level is able to gain. The professional
labels tend to reflect behavioral aspects of this stage that
are not shared by all of its representatives.
As a stage of differentiation, the 5th person
perspective again questions everything that seemed to
hold true and be certain up to this point. Indeed, an all-
pervasive uncertainty is one of the characteristics of this
stage. The suffering that can accompany this feeling of
groundlessness is sometimes described as the dark night of the soul or in the existentialist French
literature as “no way out.” This level, like others, becomes the home base for some individuals and its
very fluidity and uncertainty can become a source of élan vital and relish. It is precisely in the tension
between polar opposites that the most active engagement with life is experienced. Overall the first
postautonomous stage reflects taking a further perspective on what went on before. Magicians are
stepping back and observing meaning making from an even higher altitude and from a broader purview
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 96
of what it is to be a human being than prior levels. This includes comparing and integrating multiple
systems and paradigms. It also includes realizing our human need for map making and trying to
organize experience and knowledge into ever more complex matrices and metatheories.
Evidence from the SCT indicates that for some adults the search for an integrated, enduring self-
identity is superseded by a more immediate, fluid and process-oriented self-view. It seems that the
systems view of reality can give way to a more flexible, continuously deconstructing, non-reified notion
of self in a rare transformation beyond it. In his current interpretation of the fifth order of consciousness,
Kegan (1994), for instance, describes adults at his interindividual or self-transforming order of
consciousness as having such a process-oriented experience of the self. As soon as one becomes
aware of one’s need to reify experience and tell a good self-story with a permanent self as its main
actor, one deconstructs any such identification.
We have found it useful to distinguish between two forms of embodying this stage: a) The
Construct-aware and b) the Ego-aware. Both are expressions of meaning making in the personal,
rational and symbolically mediated realm of awareness. I originally named the 5th person perspective as
the Construct-aware stage because becoming aware of the constructed nature of reality it is one of the
most salient characteristics of this stage distinguishing it from prior stages. However, given new data
and my observations of people over 30 years, I find that overall more people fit into the Ego-aware
perspective than into the Construct-aware one. I thus now prefer to call the stage itself Ego-aware, and
to distinguish more clearly between the two expressions. Some individuals seem to be more alert to the
experience of living life in a fundamental quandary of questioning their own questioning and seeking
while others focus more on the construction of meaning and the language conundrum.
My theoretical hunch is that construct-awareness comes somewhat earlier on board in meaning
making than ego awareness. A tenet of constructive developmental theory itself, namely that a certain
level of cognition is necessary but not sufficient for stage development, seems to confirm this
sequencing. In addition, if the hypothesis is valid that the ego is valiantly trying to create a coherent
narrative about our existence and about the world, a last ditch attempt to create the most
comprehensive maps possible would be one expression of this need at the Construct-aware level. On
the one hand, it looks like becoming aware of the construction of meaning comes earlier than being
aware of the ego’s fundamental needs and efforts at meaning creation. Personality differences as well
as prior training may play a role in this distinction. Thus I have even wondered whether construct-
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 97
awareness as a rational approach to meaning making can be skipped in favor of going straight for ego-
awareness and towards ego-transcendence. Based on this more recent hypothesis, I first describe the
Construct-aware form of this level. Additional studies may help to confirm or disconfirm the sequence.
a) the Construct-aware expression of this stage:
The Construct-aware stage represents folks who are aware that meaning is constructed, invented,
generated rather than inherent in things, events and concepts. At the same time, Construct–aware
people try with great ingenuity and dedication to create super theories or multidimensional maps or
tapestries of reality. They attempt to integrate whatever other theories they are aware of into an ever
more complex and comprehensive theory of everything.
Thus some Construct-aware individuals
spend a lifetime creating such theories in order to provide the meta-perspectives or supermaps they feel
are going to help themselves and others to better understand the complexity of human affairs. A chief
indicator that we deal with such an endeavour is the extreme complexity of such theories.
Still others with the 5th person perspective begin to fathom the cognitive dimension of meaning
making itself. They start to wonder about the meaningfulness of more and more complex thought
structures and integrations such as can be imagined with a fifth or nth person perspective. Playing the
complex numeric abstractions and formulas game is one way the ego can increase its sense of control
and meaning. It also seems to please some individuals to demonstrate their capacity for mental
gymnastics. Making the most of this talent and sharing it is a perfectly valuable contribution to the
knowledge quest. But for those more interested in the quest for meaning, the simple question arises in
the face of hypermentalism “so what?” How does ever more cognitive complexity serve our daily living
and our understanding of the human condition? Some Construct-aware individuals therefore may also
begin to realize the absurdity or automatic limits of human map making in the discursive, represen-
tational domain.
Becoming conscious of the futility of describing reality by ever more complex maps and
approximations can lead individuals to suffer greatly as they experience the limits, but have no way to
transcend them with the same rational means that have brought them to grasping this state of affairs.
An altogether different relationship to knowing is necessary, one people often glimpse during meditation
or other altered state experiences.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 98
b) The Ego-aware expression of the 5th person perspective
In contrast to the Construct-aware insights, Ego-aware individuals tend to be people who have
become aware of the pattern of development that encompasses an ever broader realm of experience,
action, feelings and thought. Above all they may viscerally get the absurdity of trying to understand
reality with the mind and via representational means alone. The 5th person perspective enables them to
analyze both their own becoming and the evolving theories about their own becoming as well as to
begin to notice the fundamental need for orienting frameworks or stories that are at the heart of all
human meaning making across the globe regardless of culture.
They realize that the “ego” has functioned both as a central processing unit for all incoming stimuli
(ego as process) and as a central point of reference for self-identity formation (ego as representation) a
distinction first introduced by Funk (1994). In light of the importance of this distinction, let me
recapitulate the two distinct uses of the term “ego” in ego development. While the process of
differentiation and integration is likely to continue all the way to a non-dual identity with the “ground of
being,” ED Theory chronicles the nine transformations in self-identity that were deduced from analyzing
sentence completions. In general, the self-identifications described by ego stages follow a pattern of
increasing flexibility, choice and non-defensiveness as individuals mature.
Once human beings realize the fundamental function of the ego to create a sense of permanence
and saliency, they may experience their full and inevitable ego-centricity. As long as one operates in the
rational, language mediated realm, there is no escape from this insight. Having an ego which craves
clear boundaries and significance and unceasingly tries to create them is now often felt as a constraint
to further growth and understanding. When the ego becomes transparent to itself, it may well desire ego
transcendence, but the very attachment to detachment creates the paradoxical situation of exacerbating
the attachment. The more one tries to move beyond with greater effort, the more one gets stuck.
Noticing and experiencing such existential dilemmas is common at this stage.
Unlike the more cognitively-oriented people with the 5th person perspective, Ego-aware individuals
focus more on the ego’s clever and vigilant machinations at self-preservation by creating the illusion of a
permanent self-identity. Final knowledge about the self or anything else is seen as illusive and
unattainable through effort and reason because all conscious thought, all cognition is recognized as
constructed and, therefore, split off from the underlying, cohesive, non-dual territory. Even such a
concept as “ego” or “feelings” become now questionable. What is the ego other than a term we have
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 99
created in order to explore and communicate a kind of experience in the West that is shared and utterly
human. To what degree is this concept necessary and useful and in which way is it reifying experience
to a degree that prevents us from fully being alive and open to experience without linguistic filters?
By turning further inward, Ego-aware persons start to see through their own attempts at meaning
making. They become aware of the profound splits and paradoxes inherent in discursive thought. In
many ways, they individually rediscover the Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory.” Only
this time, this realization is not just an interesting piece of received knowledge, it constitutes a vital and
often temporarily painful aspect of consciousness.
Many find it fascinating to explore the linguistic process of naming aspects of reality by splitting
experience into polar opposites as vividly portrayed in Genesis. The splitting is accompanied by
automatic and socially supported value judgments about what is desirable and what is not.
In the last half century, constructive developmental theory has contributed much to refine this
observation. What is considered to be desirable and what is not depends on the cultural context as well
as on the level of consciousness. The interconnected nature of concepts only becomes obvious at the
postconventional stages and then with increasing sharpness and clarity. Concepts makes sense only in
conjunction with their surround and their polar opposite. Good and evil, life and death, beauty and
ugliness are now recognized as two sides of the same coin. They mutually necessitate and define each
other. While polarities as used in polarity dynamics can be understood as pairs of interdependent values
at earlier levels, here, a deeper understanding of the discursive conceptualizations and abstractions is
sinking in, namely how these are created in the first place. Moreover, some Ego-aware individuals can
become aware how the constant and automatic judging habit of what is good and what is not creates
much of the unhappiness and striving for betterment so prevalent in ordinary waking consciousness.
In general, Ego-aware individuals have a dynamic and multi-faceted understanding of human
nature and the complexities of human interaction. They want to face their own profound need for
theories and explanations. They hope to unearth the limits of the rational mind, and to unlearn their
automatic, conditioned responses based on memory, acquired distinctions of what is good and bad
through continuous, everyday cultural reinforcement. They are also aware of the habits of the heart, of
our seeking for self-understanding and compassion for others.
Ego-aware individuals start to pay attention to their own emotional and rational processing
patterns. To watch oneself trying to make sense is intriguing and absorbing and can become all-
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 100
consuming. Living at the edge of meaning and meaninglessness can be exhilarating at times and
frustrating at others. Whether individuals at this level focus more on the liberating aspects of their
awareness or more on the disillusionment and sense of loss that come with this mindset probably
depends on many factors: among them personality type, the company of understanding others, and
general life circumstances. Ego-aware individuals begin to notice how fleeting and recursive thoughts
and feelings can be. They may observe how these follow ingrained patterns of repetition that are not
amenable to conscious effort at overcoming them. “Here my ego goes again despite knowing better” is
the refrain often mentioned in Ego-aware sentence completions.
Needless to say, this new level of insight can be quite disconcerting and confusing. It’s like the
bottom of the barrel has fallen out. Now there is truly no place to stand on. One must learn to live in the
tension of the paradox that as a human being one must embrace one’s need for meaning while,
simultaneously, understanding the futility of such an endeavour.
Ego-aware folks may come to feel that the automatic judgment habit that constitutes much of
ordinary functioning as a major barrier to deeper self-acceptance and embrace of others. They observe
the habits of mind such as the tendency to endlessly analyze and reflect in order to create ever more
accurate theories of life and nature. All of these endeavors can now be understood as partial defenses
against knowing the impermanence of the embodied self. Thus, at the Ego-aware stage not just cultural
conditioning is seen through, but the predicament of living in language.
When people see through the filter of the symbolic construction and mapping of reality, their
disposition towards the language habit can change profoundly. In general, Ego-aware individuals try to
remain aware of the pseudo-reality created by words. They realize that the pursuit of objective self-
identification and rational, objective explanations of the universe are futile--artifacts of our need to make
permanent and substantive that which is in flux, immaterial, and impermanent. To reiterate a crucial
point, the language habit works to support the ego’s supremacy whenever we make meaning through
representations regardless of the specific tongue, power base, or cultural or personal context. At the
same time, Ego-aware adults appreciate the vital function language plays in human affairs and growth.
As the process of self-awareness deepens and reasoning becomes further differentiated for
individuals at the 5th person perspective, access to intuition, bodily states, feelings, dreams, archetypal
and other transpersonal material increases. More than that, these sources of knowledge can become as
important as rational deliberation for making sense of experience and for finding meaning in life. Indeed,
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 101
the capacity to draw from and appreciate insights from non-rational sources of information increases
throughout postconventional development.
Most importantly, the more regular practice of turning inward and observing one’s own mental
processes also often leads to the spontaneous experience of a direct mode of being in which knower
and known momentarily merge, and the personal self-sense disappears. These states are variously
called peak moments, flow states, or bliss experiences. A. Maslow (1971) and M. Czikszentmihalyi
(1990) give excellent profiles of the nature and consistently positive qualities of these states. I am not
saying here that all contact with the numinous is blissful, only that flow states tend to be so, and thus,
beckon the traveler to yearn for more such experiences. The process of dismantling the vestiges of the
conditional self can also be harrowing as described in alternative states of consciousness entered
through other means such as drugs or devoted meditation practices. Best known text in the West for
that elucidates the confrontation with one’s demons is the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The conscious
experience of non-ordinary states of consciousness in peak experiences -- where one loses track of self
and time -- helps to put in perspective the self’s temptation for an exaggerated sense of power and
agency and offers an alternative way of experiencing.
Ego-aware individuals report more often than people at earlier stages that they are watching or
witnessing the parades of thoughts and feelings come and go without trying to direct them. Thus, they
experience moments of freedom from the ego’s constant efforts at control and self-affirmation. Yet, at
this stage, such experiences are short-lived. As soon as one evaluates and judges them, the magic is
We are naturally reluctant to relinquish our familiar mode of functioning. We do not want to give up
the illusion of our enduring separate identity, which we so laboriously learned to define, cultivate, and
rely on for most of our conscious lives. Even if we understand that letting go of our attachment to the
known will bring freedom from familiar kinds of suffering, attempts at doing so are ineffective and often
lead to intractable paradoxes. The more one becomes attached to the idea of non-attachment, the more
firmly one remains fettered. The more one is conscious and proud of one’s psychic powers and ego-
transcending quest, the more clearly one’s ego is still enthroned. C. Trungpa (1987) in Cutting Through
Spiritual Materialism has perhaps given the most cogent and concise analysis of how the ego can usurp
transpersonal episodes for its own self-perpetuation and glorification.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 102
It is a fact of life for persons at the 5th person perspective that there are few other people like them.
They may fear that almost nobody understands them in their complexity and can sympathize with their
experience. Fearing this, they wonder whether they are culpable of hubris, of feeling “better” than
others. They also observe their own self-attachment and their need for a permanent self-identity by
means of ever more comprehensive self-theories. On the other hand, they truly appreciate others’ need
to make sense of their lives within their own means, values and mindsets. They therefore have a much
deeper toleration for others’ solution to life without being blind to the possible shortcomings and
limitations of such solutions. Sometimes Ego-aware folks express a sense of envy at the simplicity of
earlier periods because their own world is experienced as so complex. However, given their ego
maturity, most are capable of arriving at a dynamic and hopeful balance within these fundamental
conflicts: They fulfill their perceived or chosen destiny independently and courageously in full realization
of their basic despair and aloneness. When they cannot integrate this awareness, their depression is
about man’s essential aloneness and inability to create lasting meaning through the rational enterprise.
Ego-aware individuals represent the first stage that looks at all experience fully in terms of ongoing
fluctuations. In terms of theory, one builds edifices of knowledge and dismantles them as soon as they
are erected. In terms of the heart, one may feel any emotion and then question its very validity and
appropriateness as soon as it is felt or expressed. Ego-aware people are therefore even more sensitive
than Autonomous persons regarding the well-being of others and capable of understanding them in
compassionately in developmental as well as in psycho-dynamic terms.
When people with a postautonomous perspective choose to work in the public, they often rely on
their fine-tuned interpersonal skills and insight into others’ complex and dynamic personalities. As
leaders, they tend to build their own novel organizations or work alone doing what they perceive to be
their best contribution to humanity. Some like to take on the roles of catalysts or transformers in
organizations, but readily leave these when they feel their transformational work is done. They feel
successful when they have made themselves dispensable, that is, if the organization itself has become
transformative and self-organizing. In groups and organizations, they may notice archetypal and group
process patterns that elude other observers. They may understand larger group forces and castings of
individuals in the human drama, that the lead actors themselves are not aware of. As consultants and
mentors, they can optimally adjust their engagement style to their clients’ personality and developmental
needs: They can let them find their own way within their own means through empathetic listening,
skillfully challenging set ideas, and helping them reframe their experience. They can support people in
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 103
telling new self-stories, and gain courage to experiment with the boundaries of their current way of
meaning making.
As therapists and coaches, they can listen to others’ listening and meaning making and be with
them in an deeply empathic manner. They often offer transformational, non-distorted and creative
feedback and practices to support their clients. They have access to their own earlier ways of meaning
making in a much deeper and more effective way than people at the other postconventional stages. This
allows them to freely tailor their interactions to the needs of those they interact with. Thus, Ego-aware
individuals may have access to supporting Self-protective persons by dealing with them on their own
level, unilaterally asserting their superiority and power.
Unlike earlier levels, they are less concerned
with success and rewards for their efforts. Sowing seeds that may take a long time to germinate if at all,
is part of what one does because om can do no other.
As coaches and therapists, they do not presume that they can fully understand the experience of
other people in their uniqueness while they feel an affinity with them on a human level. The 5th person
frame of mind with its deep questioning of meaning making is open to not-knowing that no previous
stage can fathom. It provides a constant level of awe and wonder about being a human being and the
mystery of consciousness development. In light of this, a good indicator that someone is able to look at
himself and others’ from this altitude is a profound humility about the limits of knowing.
Some Ego-aware individuals may, on the other hand, resent the very self-importance and sense of
knowing exhibited by many Strategists with their air of certainty, subtle expression of self-satisfaction,
and their burning desire to help others to self-actualize and become more integral and enlightened.
They see the temptation to view oneself as the summit of human understanding and/or as a valid
measure of what is possible and the desire for others to be different than they are as a basic shadow in
change agents at earlier stages. In many ways, Blaire Pascal answered his question of “what is man?”
in his essay Pensées (~1661) in a way that described the experience of the ego-aware person
cogently. He said, and I paraphrase, “Man is nothing compared to infinity, and an infinity compared to
nothingness.” While Strategists hang out on the infinity side of this equation and relish the sense of
power and knowledge they have gained, Ego–aware individuals may sit in the tension of the two
opposing perspectives, and vacillate between them. Some find most affirmation in knowing that so little
of substance is knowable, and relish the mystery of being.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 104
As highly differentiated individuals, some may be over-critical of themselves when they first
become aware of their ego-attachment. With practice of experiencing one’s attachment to having an ego
with ego needs and letting it go, Ego-aware individuals can become tolerant of themselves in their
vacillating complexity. They generally use mature defenses (sublimation, non-hostile humor, bracketing
out) as they become aware and insightful about their own foibles and defense styles. No longer do
strong emotions need to be recast as positive aspects of the self. They can now be spontaneously
expressed in their unmitigated form because the need to defend and look good has lifted. One is much
more free to be who one is including revealing one’s emotions, vulnerabilities, and confusions. In the
best scenario, this self-revealing openness can model to others that being vulnerable connects one to
the very humanity of others. There is no pride in one’s actions, only the compassionate offering of the
wounded healer.
To summarize, Postautonomous meaning seekers are capable of perceiving the structure of their
own thinking and feeling habits, comparing them to that of others and discovering the fundamental
limitations of all rational thought and the limits of language. Usually they come across as very bright, but
often impatient with their own cleverness as they see it as just that. They are intrigued by the human
need for meaning making and its ubiquitous expression across time and the known world. They
understand for the first time the underlying process of how such meaning is constructed through the
invention-construction of ever more complex theories. These are based on the segmentation and
reification of the underlying flux of phenomena. Thus they are often preoccupied with the limits of
discursive meaning making and with learning how to live with the existential paradox of being a mortal
yearning for significance and immortality.
Conscious preoccupation: The limits of rational thought and language, and living in the tension of
the consciously insolvable problem of existence and non-existence, life and death.
Counseling style: Ability to adjust style to clients: mentoring, letting others find their own way within
their own means through empathetic listening, challenging ideas, helping them reframe their experience
depending on where they are in their development.
Depression: Despair about man’s essential aloneness and inability to create lasting meaning
through the rational enterprise.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 105
Chief anxiety: Fearing that almost nobody understands them in their complexity and sympathizes
with their experience, and that by fearing this, they are culpable of hubris. Concomitant with feeling not
appreciated or understood can be a deep sense of loneliness.
Language clues: The language of Construct-aware people is often complex, vivid, authentic and
playful. It is more direct, sometimes rawer than that of Autonomous persons’ because there is far less
need to show one’s best side, to impress as at previous stages. Construct-aware people express a vast
matrix of topics, concerns, questions, insights and commentary cleverly united into a complex sentence
structure. Responses that have a stream-of-consciousness quality, or thought-in-progress mode belong
here as do expressions of one’s attempt to let go of conscious structuring. Vivid expressions about the
constructed nature of reality occur at this stage as well as fundamental questions about meaning
making as a defense, concern with issues of definition, and epistemology.
The Unitive stage 6 The cosmic, ego-transcendent or witnessing perspective
In the sequence of ego development and the growth of self-awareness, this is the last step in the
sequence of differentiation and integration we were able to discern. From the ancient wisdom literature
to recent research in higher stages of consciousness, there is evidence of many more stages beyond
the rational, symbolically-mediated personal realm of meaning making. How many such stages exists
depends on the literature consulted and the criteria by which stages are defined. The scarcity of data
collected with the MAP testing method did not allow me to make any finer distinctions in the ego-
transcendent realm. Consequently, my description of the Unitive stage likely confounds several distinct
higher levels of consciousness into one catch-all level. Still, the characteristics were carefully taken from
actual utterances from individuals who expressed a novel perspective only possible from a paradigm
shift from a personal to a trans-personal or immediate witnessing capacity.
It seems that the Unitive stage presents an entirely new way of perceiving human existence and
experience of consciousness. The term witnessing (rather than observing) can be used here to describe
the capacity of people at this stage to metabolize experience without the conscious, willed focus and
preoccupations of other adult stages. The Truth is imminent in the universe and can be apprehended in
this ready, open-process stance, but it cannot be grasped by rational means and by making an effort.
Unitive individuals therefore seem to transcend narrow ego-boundaries. They have open boundaries
and are attuned to rather than preoccupied with whatever enters awareness.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 106
Individuals at this level are now able to witness the whole song and dance of prior ways of
understanding and meaning making with compassion and equanimity. They understand the need of the
personal ego to ensure a sense of permanence and substantiality while at the same time recognizing
the illusion of this desire for permanence. The previous way of viewing reality solely from the self’s
perspective and through the medium of language is transformed. The new paradigm has a universal or
cosmic perspective as an organizing principle and as a steady place from which meaning is derived. It is
non-centered in the ego although the ego is available as a perspective when useful. Unlike state
experiences that gave people glimpses of mystical or unitive experiences, now these are steadily
available in the witnessing stance.
Unitive individuals experience themselves and others as part of ongoing humanity, embedded in
the creative ground, fulfilling the destiny of evolution. The two sides of the Pascalian paradox are
integrated: feelings of belongingness and feelings of one’s separateness and uniqueness are
experienced without undue tension. They are simply changing perceptions of the unending possibilities
of being. At this level of integration, adults can look at themselves and at other beings in terms of the
passing of ages, of near and far in geographical, social, cultural, historical, intellectual and
developmental dimensions. They can take multiple points of view and shift focus effortlessly among
many states of awareness. They feel embedded in nature - birth, growth and death, joy and pain - are
seen as natural occurrences - patterns of change in the flux of time.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 107
Consciousness or rational awareness is no longer perceived as a shackle, but as just another
phenomenon that assumes foreground or background status depending on one’s momentary attention.
Persons at the Unitive stage can see a world in a grain of sand, that is, they can perceive the concrete,
limited, and temporal aspects of an entity simultaneously with its eternal and symbolic meaning.
Because of this unitive ability (Maslow, 1971, p. 111) they can cherish the humanness in the seemingly
most undifferentiated beings and feel at one with them. They respect the essence in others and
therefore do not need them to be different than they are. It is important to realize that from a unitive
point of view, later stages are not better than earlier ones because all are necessary parts of
interconnected reality and the overall evolutionary process. Unitive thinkers also accept themselves “as
is” in a non-controlling way. No matter how great their achievements may be, they are aware that these
are only a drop in the pool of ongoing human endeavors. Sensitive others are often struck by the
humility and grace that they experience in the presence of Unitive individuals. Being down-to-earth
(simplicity on the other side of complexity) can be one of the most salient differences between
postconventional ego stages and transpersonal ways of meaning making.
On the other hand, Individuals at this most mature ego stage may be perceived as “aloof,” as not
enough engaged in the goals, pursuits, concerns of common humanity especially from the perspective
of individuals at the Self-conscious and Conscientious stages 3/4 and 4. Even early postconventional
people may be suspicious of this kind of “togetherness or groundedness.” What is not evident to these
critics is that Unitive adults often act as catalysts in shaping others’ lives. In being what they are without
excuses, they challenge others’ perspectives, and demonstrate a way of being human that is different
from the evaluative, conventional ideas about what it means to be an adult. They manifest a deeper
security about being than is possible with a rationally generated self-identity. In contrast to all other
stages, Unitive individuals seems to have intense, non-demanding relationships with people regardless
of their development, age, gender, or any other identifications. Because they see the dignity in all
manifestations of life, others feel worthy and whole in their presence.
Unitive persons have a completely internalized transpersonal or interindividual morality. Inner
conflicts and conflicting external demands simply are part of being and need not be resolved or denied,
only witnessed. They are no longer driven by desires to be one way or another, to achieve one state or
another. Instead they can let go of the unattainable and rest in the experience of being. They are
concerned with global justice, spontaneity, existence & creativity but create no undue tension around
goal achievement. Rather than being passive, the non-attached, impersonal stance allows for greater
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 108
and more direct and powerful action where action is needed. Non-attachment to outcomes is an
essential and liberating aspect of witnessing and acting out of non-defensive, spontaneous insight.
Reality is now regularly experienced as the undifferentiated phenomenological continuum or the
creative ground of unified consciousness. Every object, word, thought, feeling and sensation, every
theory is understood as a human construct: separating out, creating boundaries where there are none.
The quest for meaning and connection is an essential aspect of the human condition. Giving names to
experience and making distinctions is necessary for human growth, study, interaction and
communication, but at the source there is nothing to distinguish.
Stage 6 individuals feel interconnected with others as all sentient beings struggle to survive and
make sense of their existence. Persons at the Unitive stage feel tolerance, compassion and an affiliation
with all manifestations of life. The simplest flatworm is in some way as close to the truth as the most
sophisticated thinker. Peak experiences no longer have an out-of-this-world quality, they have become a
familiar way of being and experiencing. They form the ground and are no longer “peak.”. From moment
to moment only the present is real. Radical openness releases individuals to be in tune with goodness,
truth and beauty and to relish them wherever they are present which is everywhere. They have visionary
experiences, that is, they comprehend things in a holistic, analog way in addition to apprehending them
through the filter of the personal ego.
Unitive perceivers can shift focus without effort and behold the whole simultaneously with its
constituting variables. They operate within an expanded time frame which includes all of earth’s history
and its future as a part of this moment. Life is seen as a form of temporary and sometimes voluntary
separation (Bodhisattva vow) from the creative ground to which it will always return and of which it is a
unique manifestation. Though adults at the Unitive stage are aware of themselves as separate and
unique embodiments, they also identify with all other living beings. The separation of self from others is
experienced as an illusion, an invention to safeguard the ego’s need for permanence and self-
importance and to defend against the fear of its death.
Unitive adults have an integrated sense of a unique identity as participants in the evolution of the
cosmos. They are in tune with their precious “life’s work” as a simultaneous expression of their unique
selves and as part of one’s shared humanity. They also care about the fundamental dilemma of the
human condition. They work for justice, fairness, and benevolence towards all. Though taking
responsibility for meaning making, they don’t perceive themselves to be the sole and lone masters of
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 109
their souls as envisioned by Autonomous individuals and to some degree Construct-aware people.
Ways of being are infinite. Clues for the variety of possibilities of being are offered by the study of
human history, by our current experience of human diversity and likely with new forms of being human
evolving in the future, in nature, and in alternative, non-waking states of consciousness. Life can appear
as fulfilling a cosmic purpose and therefore it is essentially simple. Doing or thinking are just modes of
existing, but not intrinsically more valuable than feeling, being or non-being. The last is probably the
most difficult idea to grasp by most people who have not developed beyond the personal realm. As a
Buddhist percept warns: Understanding is the ultimate illusion.
To summarize, Unitive adults are more likely to have a balanced, integrated sense of both their
belongingness and separateness as individuals because they feel part of the ongoing evolution of the
universe in all its aspects and cycles of creation, destruction, and recreation.
Language clues: Unitive individuals use a global array of topics and concerns which are sometimes
expressed within one response. They have a vast mental space to roam in because of the unitive ability.
Kaleidoscopic responses bridge different levels and types of contrasts: concrete--practical; theoretical--
philosophical; personal--global; serious--humorous; physical--psychological– metaphysical , mundane
and sublime. Unitive responses to the MAP may have unique and vivid expressions, or creative
metaphors to express the ordinary and non-ordinariness, the bane and joy of existence. Occasionally
one finds very simple responses in Unitive MAP protocols. Although rated at face-value, this is not
counter-indicative as spontaneity and straightforward simplicity is an essential element of wisdom and
ego-transcendence. While Construct-aware meaning makers have the most complex and richly
differentiated view of reality in the personal realm, Unitive adults stand outside the “desperate” need for
meaning making common to all earlier stages seeing as they do the non-necessity to shield and bolster
the non-essential ego identifications.
Above I have outlined one possible path from the unconscious, undifferentiated symbiosis of the
newborn to the conscious experience of embeddedness in the universe of mature adults. I have tried to
chronicle the development of the self from prerational to metarational and from preverbal ignorance (=
not knowing) to beginning postsymbolic wisdom and witnessing. Much freedom is gained when people
realize the essential inter-connectedness of all phenomena and the constructed aspects of boundaries,
objects, our self-identities and our stories about life and nature. Much suffering is alleviated when the
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 110
automatic habits of mind and heart are unlearned and uncoupled from memory (what was) and desires
(what ought to be) and replaced by mindful, non-evaluative attention to what is - now.
Angyal, A. (1965). Neurosis and Treatment: A Holistic Theory. New York; The Viking Press.
Argyris, C. & Schön, D. A. (1977) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bakan, D. (1966). The duality of human experience. Chicago: Rand McNally.
Basseches, M. A. (1984a). Dialectical thinking and adult development. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of Death. New York: The Free Press
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.
Brown, D. P. & Engler, J. (1986). The stages of mindfulness: A validation study. In K. Wilber, J. Engler &
D. P. Brown (Eds.), Transformation of consciousness (pp. 161-217). Boston: Shambhala.
Commons, M. L., & Richards, F. A. (1984). A general model of stage theory. In M. L. Commons, F. A.
Richards & C. Armon (Eds.), Beyond formal operations (pp. 120-140). New York: Praeger.
Cook-Greuter, S. R. (1995). Comprehensive language awareness: A definition of the phenomenon and
a review of its treatment in the postformal adult development literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Graduate School of Education.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York: Harper Perennial
Fingarette, H. (1963). The self in transformation. New York: Harper & Row
Fremantle, F.& Chögyam, T. (1975) The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through
Hearing in the Bardo by Guru Rinpoche according to Karma Lingpa. Boulder: Shambhala
Funk, J. (1994). Unanimity and disagreement among transpersonal psychologists. In M. Miller & S.
Cook-Greuter (Eds.), Mature thought and transcendence in adulthood: The further reaches of adult
development (pp. 3-36). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Book
Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Hy, L. X. & Loevinger, J. (1996). Measuring ego development. Second edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 111
James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York: Henry Holt.
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Koplowitz, H. (1984). A projection beyond Piaget’s formal operations stage: a general system stage and
a unitary stage. In M. L. Commons, F. A. Richards and C. Armon (eds.) Beyond formal operations.
New York: Praeger.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Loevinger J., Wessler R., and Redmore C. (1970). Measuring ego development 2: scoring manual for
women and girls. San Francisco:.Jossey-Bass. (out of print).
Loevinger, J. & Wessler R. (1970). Measuring ego development: Vol 1. Construction and use of a
sentence completion test. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development: conceptions and theories. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Manners, J., Durkin, K., and Nesdale A. Promoting advanced ego development in Journal of Adult
Development, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2004
Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Penguin Books
Merlot, A. (1962). Précis d’histoire de la littérature française. Paderborn, Germany.: Ferdinand
Schoningh. Quelle chimère est-ce donc l’homme? Quel monstre, quel chaos, quel sujet de
contradiction, quel prodige! Juge de toutes choses, imbécile ver de terre: dépositaire du vrai,
cloaque d’incertitude et d’erreur: gloire et rebut de l’univers! (…) Qu’est-ce que l’homme dans la
nature? Un néant à l’égard de l’infini, un tout à l’égard du néant, un milieu entre rien et tout.
(Emphasis mine)
O’Fallon, T. StAGES: Growing up is waking up-- Interpenetrating quadrants, states and structures,
Seattle: Pacific Integral 2010
Piaget, J. (1952). The language and thought of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books
Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: HarperCollins.
Shindin, A. (in press): Integral and Mosaic: Questions of comparative meta-modelling. Paper presented
at the 3rd integral Theory Conference in San Francisco, Aug. 17-21, 2013.
Sullivan, C., Grant, M. Q., & Grant, J. D. (1957). The development of interpersonal maturity:
Applications to delinquency. Psychiatry, 20, 373-385.
Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton & Co.
Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden. Many editions.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 112
Torbert, W. (1987). Managing the corporate dream: Restructuring for long-term success. Homewood IL:
Dow Jones-Irwin.
Torbert, W. (1991). The power of balance: Transforming self, society and scientific inquiry. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Sage.
Torbert, W. (1994). Cultivating postformal adult development: Theory and practice. In M. Miller & S.
Cook-Greuter (Eds.), Transcendence and mature thought in adulthood: The further reaches of adult
development (pp. 181-203). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Torbert, W. & Associates [Cook-Greuter, S., Fischer, D., Foldy, E., Gauthier, A., Keeley, J., Rooke, D.,
Ross, S., Royce, C., Rudolph, J., Taylor, S., and Tran, M.] (2004). Action Inquiry: The Secret of
Timely and Transforming Leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Vaillant, G. E. (1993). The wisdom of the ego. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wilber, K. (1985). No boundaries: Eastern and western approaches to personal growth. Boston:
Shambhala Wilber,
Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology. Cambridge, MA: Shambhala
Wilber, K. (2003). Boomeritis: A novel that will set you free. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 113
Glossary of Terms:
Development Horizontal
Lateral expansion at same stage (developing new skills, adding
information and knowledge, transfer from one area to another): Wilber
calls this “translation”
Development Vertical up
Transformation, growth to new stage, acquiring a new perspective,
reaching a higher altitude
Development Vertical Down
Temporary or permanent regression to earlier levels of meaning
making due to life circumstances, environment, stress, disease, and
natural decline for some at the end of life.
1st, 2nd, 3rd person
In AQAL and Action Inquiry: refers to perspectives: 1st and 2nd person
represent the interior dimensions of individuals and culture, the 3rd
refers to the external world that can be objectively explored.
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th,…nth
In Ego Development theory, these perspectives refer to the increasing
altitudes from which an individual can look at the self and the meaning
making process.
All Quadrants and All Levels in Wilber’s integral theory.
Natural language
The language used by all able members of a group to communicate
with each other verbally or in written form.
Symbolic representations
Here we include all forms of representation: sign language, gestures,
cave paintings, musical notations etc.
Stages: Preconventional
The Impulsive and the Opportunistic/self-protective stage. Stage 1
exists as a precursor of adult development and is not included
Stages, Conventional
Comprises anywhere from 65 to 80 % of modern civilization. It
consists of the Conformist Stage 3 , the Expert Stage 3/4, and the
Conscientious –Achiever Stage 4
Cook-Greuter, S. R. (2010) Postautonomous ego development: A study of its nature and measurement. Harvard
University (1999). 2nd. Edition: Integral Publishers,: Dissertation series. ISBN: 978-1-4507-2515-6
Encarta dictionary definition: a complex = made up of many interrelated parts
The LMF is the name for the framework we use when interfacing with the public and organizations. It stands for the
Leadership Maturity Framework as instituted at VeDA, the Vertical Development Academy..
Loevinger, J. & Wessler R. (1970) Measuring ego development: Vol 1. Construction and use of a sentence completion test. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Table page, table 1 p. 10, and Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development: conceptions and theories.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Table p.
I am familiar with two organizations that deal with groups and systems The Society for Organizational Learning (SOL)
(, and Tavistock conferences ( Some appreciate Hellinger’s
Systemic structural Constellations work ( There are also now a few books that look at how
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 114
organizations develop as well as how organizations themselves can support individual and team development or hinder it by
their processes, and designs.
I can’t actually think of any exception to this. If you, the reader, knows of any other major developmental theories that are
entirely evidence based, please let us know.
Egosyntonic is a psychoanalytical term referring to behaviors, values, and feelings that are in harmony with or
acceptable to the needs and goals of the ego or consistent with one's ideal self-image. Depending on the level of
development, what serves the ego and one’s self-image changes dramatically.
Thus the penchant of cognitive developmentalists to represent their findings in abstract mathematical “equations” is
likely an indication that they equate the abstract formulas for the territory they are trying to capture.
Basseches lists 7 different ways by which we ordinarily reify reality.
This is particularly so for monolingual people. Travel to foreign countries and exposure to other languages can be
an antidote to this blindness.
Of course, we know ever more about how even tiny infants can recognize patterns in the “buzzing confusion
based on innate and complex neurobiological processes.
Lewis Carrol in Through the Looking Glass had Humpty-Dumpty express this idea cogently: “When I use
a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor
The propensity to be conditioned remains active throughout adulthood at all levels of development. There are
many adult contexts which have their own peculiar take on reality which is reflected in the professional jargons
that accompany them. This includes spiritual paths. In the latter case, the “voice of the guru” sometimes rings
through everything a student says. This makes it almost impossible to rate fairly a MAP from such a devotee as
the “canned” elements of the response are assessed as conventional no matter how lofty the content. On the
other hand, when students from the same school express these ideas in their own language, one has greater
confidence in rating their responses according to how well their experience and knowledge seem digested.
We all have been raised as children, and now raise others in various ways. How we tell the story of our relationship to our
parents is an inevitable aspect of living. Thus, we kept some father and mother items. On the other hand we have replaced
up to 10 of the old stems with new ones over the years. We follow psychometric practice and Loevinger’s advice of how to
sequence stems, test new stems for relevance as well as how to create manuals for new stems. The latter perhaps the most
difficult because of the of time it takes to get enough examples across the levels to propose even preliminary manuals, let
alone to publish them. The current selection reflects better than Hy and Loevinger’s manual, actual professional contexts in
contemporary life while still testing for overall ego maturity, not just leadership. Esepecially in organizational contexts, stems
such as “a good” boss garner many text book responses that have little relationship to how a person actually thinks and
Because arranging the quadrants in the fashion Wilber chose to do it with subjective on the left and objective ones
on the right, many in the integral scene use the abbreviations UP (upper left for consciousness) etc. as a
shorthand. Intuitively, however these dimensions would be more accurately represented with the “iceberg model.”
It has the interior dimensions under water, since they are often hidden from awareness. It shows the external
quadrants above water since they are the first that get noticed and described.
Terry O’Fallon has recently postulated that she can discern 2 additional stages beyond the ones I described. I
suggested in my 1999 dissertation that the Ego-aware stage was possibly a refinement of the Construct-aware
stage: a result of turning attention to the ego getting frustrated with its own constant attempt at objectifying and
mapping reality. The logical sequence being Construct-aware, then Ego-aware. I also wondered whether the
different foci might be related more to personality preferences rather than being sequential. I had to concede that
I could not distinguish among probable stages beyond these simply because I did not have enough evidence from
sentence completions to postulate anything beyond other than a “catch-all” stage called Unitive.
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 115
O’Fallon fits ego development theory neatly into Wilber’s AQAL theory, even resurrecting a stage between Stages
2/3 and 3 that Loevinger called Rule-oriented. Loevinger discarded it for practical reasons when she found it to
serve mainly as a theoretical link without enough actual evidence for its usefulness.
Moreover, in a major move away from current conceptions, O’Fallon claims that Stages and States are tightly
intertwined and develop together. Thus she calls her theory StAGES. She uses the terms “subtle” and “causal”
for aspects of the ordinary (or relative) realm of meaning making whereas many consciousness researchers
reserve these terms for the transpersonal realm based on their original use in Eastern wisdom traditions. Since it
took me 15 years to find enough evidence to demonstrate that my late stages were based on evidence also
convincing to others, it remains to be seen how a few examples of very late expressions can give rise to and
sufficiently document even more advanced forms of meaning making above the Unitive.
In my view, many problems are created when researchers try to force one theory upon another. More fascinating is
that Ego Development Theory as we understand it argues that folks at the Construct-aware stage are most
readily tempted to create meta theories in order to find the explanation that explains all, the map of all maps.
Their motivations vary and are complex. Ego development predicts that the desire to capture ever more of the
underlying territory is an aspect of construct-awareness and the cognitive delight in complexity. Based on
observation this genuine desire and curiosity to create comprehensive orientation maps is also often coupled with
subtle forms of ego-gratification and, in academic circles, a batch of importance.
It has always struck me as a most curious phenomenon, that Kegan and Spiral Dynamics define only two unique
stages at the conventional tier even though they assert that the bulk (up to 80%) of people in most modern
societies live and operate from that tier. To accommodate the reality of this, they had to invent in-between stages
but without defining them as separate stages. Spiral Dynamics, for instance, talks about blue-orange as a
transition level. Kegan has a subtle way of describing the progression between his stages, yet all the in between
steps are defined in relation to the earlier or the next stage. Thus, the in between levels of meaning making are
defined by what they are no longer or not yet rather than by their own unique characteristics. By a common
definition, a stage is a perspective that people can hold and from which they can function for long periods of time,
even for a life time. Thus Stage 3/4 (Expert) in Ego Development Theory is a uniquely defined worldview, not a
transitional step between the two adjacent conventional levels. It follows the regular pattern of individual
integration and differentiation along the trajectory of increasing capacity for perspective taking.
Torbert in Fisher D. & Torbert, W. R. (1995). Personal and organizational transformation: The true challenge of continual
quality improvement. London, UK: McGraw-Hill. Torbert in Fisher, D., Rooke, D. & Torbert, W. (2002). Personal and
organizational transformations: through action inquiry. Edge\Work Press. As I understand it, Torbert’s theory was originally
conceived from a compilation of Kegan and Loevinger as well as his own research exploring the characteristics of exemplary
Torbert’s model did not include the IndividualistPluralist stage till 2000 because it didn’t fit his earlier, theoretically
derived matrix of 3X3 levels. Instead the Strategist stage followed the Achiever stage. See the following publications. More
recently, his paper in The postconventional personality (2011) outlines his own career and refers anew to the 3x3 matrix.
Here are the respective valuable books that do not differentiate between Stage 4/5 and 5. 1) Torbert, W. (1987). Managing
the corporate dream: Restructuring for long-term success. Homewood IL: Dow Jones-Irwin. (2) Torbert, W. (1991). The
power of balance: Transforming self, society and scientific inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (3) Torbert, W. (1994).
Cultivating postformal adult development: Theory and practice. In M. Miller & S. Cook-Greuter (Eds.), Transcendence and
mature thought in adulthood: The further reaches of adult development (pp. 181-203). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
I now wonder whether the other differentiation stages (3/4 and 5/6) also display this pattern.
the choice of labels for the various stages has long been one of the hardest tasks for all who work in the field of constructive
developmental psychology. I do not find the term “Ironist” especially fruitful in characterizing individuals who have the frame
of mind that seems to come after the Ego-aware stage. Torbert chose Ironist for its “ironic” quality, I believe. In contrast, we
do not see irony as a prominent feature of the Unitive stage. It seems that he has relied primarily on historic exemplars and
himself in naming this level. Our understanding is based on the rigorous collection and study of responses that indicate a
self-view and characteristic new qualities of perception different from Torbert’s approach. In many other regards, the two
descriptions of the stage sequence are also similar.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 116
Loevinger called this stage Self-aware although the just emerging separate self cannot be said to have either a capacity to
self-reflect or, as a consequence, to be very self-aware. On the other hand, the just emerging capacity to judge and to want
to be seen (respected) makes folks at this stage highly self-conscious and easily hurt. It is for this reason that we prefer the
term “aware” for a much more refined capacity for insight into one’s inner life.
Paying attention to metaphors embedded in our language has greatly added to our understanding of how we make sense of
experience. Many are so deeply embodied we barely realize how they frame reality. To name a few basic ones with strong
associations: right and left (handedness and politics), up and down (thumbs up = good, thumbs down = bad), forward and
backward (kinds of people). The seminal work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980), and many newer authors have done much to
bring metaphors into contemporary awareness. Many practices, and especially now Clean Language explore metaphors for the mind of information they provide about the meaning making of
one’s clients.
This is in sharp contrast to a Kegan Subject/Object interview where the interviewer’s questioning can elicit more evolved
responses than the interviewees could produce on their own. Indeed a S/O interview can be a growth intervention in itself
when well done. The MAP is a semi-projective task and therefore aims to elicit the client’s current capacity
We consciously exclude spiritual growth in this essay because that concept has become diluted and overused to such a
degree that it confounds the issue of the growth of ego maturity and wisdom. Spirit and soul as content do show up more and
more often on the MAP-test at all levels of development as “spirit at work” has become a much promoted theme in our
culture. We do, on the other hand, list references to God, spirit, life purpose the MAP scoring manuals as they reflect
the changing relationship to these concepts at different stages.
Given the common negative use of the term ego, many of my coaching clients suffer from confusing self-centeredness and
self-care. Making that distinction palpable can often greatly support development.
Aboutism has become an issue in many specialized disciplines. On the surface, they deal with postconventional topics from
strategic planning to systems theory. However, such knowledge can be acquired as objects of knowledge from a
conventional mindset. One can know all about the topic without ever integrating it into one’s own personal meaning making.
This is why we call it “aboutism.” This confusion between knowing about something versus embodying it has become an
issue in the integral community where one can learn everything about the elegant and complex AQAL theory and then get
tested on one’s knowledge. A high score on the test does not guarantee that one has integrated this knowledge into one’s
being. Nonetheless, thinking about and learning new distinctions is one of the levers, we believe, in ongoing development. Its
power must not be underestimated. Fake it till you makeit is a common adage in the developmental context. Being
exposed to people and meaning making beyond one’s own does seem to stimulate and support growth.
The term “action logic” we use as an alternative for stage includes the three major dimensions despite the reference to logic
which may suggest an emphasis on cognition. We are unsure whether Torbert sees it the same way or whether he too
emphasizes cognition over other aspects of development.
Koplowitz (1984, page 289)
This is just a small sample of the many and complex language clues that a certified scorer uses to zero in on the likely center
of gravity from which a person operates. These are in hints only and in no way sufficient to judge someone’s ego stage.
We include a reference to Commons and Richards stages of hierarchical complexity which extend Piaget’s
cognitive model into the postconventional tier. However Commonsis purely a cognitive model that privileges
intellectual prowess and cognitive agility over other dimensions of being a human being.
They tetra-arise in Integral jargon.
Loevinger and Wessler, Measuring ego development, vol. 1, Jossey-Bass, p.4 or in Hy and Loevinger, Erlbaum,
Measuring ego development,1996
This example is adapted from Bill Harris’s blog It contains one of the most
readable and insightful summaries of ego development theory and stages I have come across.
I have made the decision of changing the numeric label for the Self-protective ego stage, called Delta by
Loevinger, to better communicate with a non-academic audience and to make the numeric labels “look”
consistent. The Self-protective stage is now referred to as stage 2/3 since it comes out of the Impulsive Stage 2
©2014 S. Cook-Greuter 117
and evolves into the Conformist Stage 3. This move, ignores the earlier subtle distinctions in Ego Development
Theory, that includes a Rule-oriented stage between Stage 2/3 and 3. It does not eliminate this level when
actually dealing with populations in which it is of theoretical importance. For research in the preconventional
arena, Loevinger’s earlier distinctions are retained. We justify this move given that the preconventional stages are
rare in the professional environments we work with.
Most of Loevinger’s early inquiry into development was done with home-bound women, thus what she and her team saw was
mostly the self-protective version of this level.
I recall that when hula-hoops were in fashion in the late 50’s, I joined a group of girls who played another game,
girls I didn’t particularly like. I didn’t want to feel left out just because my parents couldn’t afford a hula-hoop.
The terms General systems and Unitive stages are explained in more detail in Cook-Greuter, S. (1999). Postautonomous ego
development: its nature and measurement.
In German and in other languages the term “Individualist” has strong negative connotation synonymous with egotistical. It
refers to self-centered people who do what they want without regard for others. Thus, we use the word Pluralist for those
languages exclusively. Since Individualists often struggle with the experience of multiple or plural selves, this use of the term
Pluralist can be readily expanded to include the Individualist expression of the underlying structure of meaning making.
At the same time, the internet highway enables determined special interest groups to have world-wide access to like-minded
folks of less benevolent predilections. Thus these new ways to connect can also reinforce absolutist beliefs and preexisting
According to the polarity wisdom perspective, any values-based assessment that presents later stages as assemblies of ever
more positive values neglects the opposite values that are equally important for sustaining a healthy system. Such
assessments suffer from the upward projection of those who created the theories - which is common trap in developmental
thinking. Some examples of common polarities to harmonize for long-term viability: stability and change; self-care and other
care; activity and rest. My descriptions may sound similarly overly positive. Describing the pitfalls of each level and the
pathologies possible at them all is not the focus of this paper.
In the evolution of therapy, this parallels the move from one-to-one, individual approaches to systemic and family-centered
models of intervention.
Past economic theory is a powerful example of what is being critiqued from this perspective. Much of it was based on the faulty
assumption that human beings are rational and make rational choices. Only now a new field is emerging in economic theory
that explores and the very irrationality of much of human behavior and the concomitant biases and mental shortcuts.
The label “Strategist” often leads to confusion because a strategic planner is not necessarily making meaning from the
Strategist level. People knowledgeable in strategizing and systems analysis can be at the Expert or Achiever level. They
analyze complex systems by looking at them as objects. In order to be recognized as a Strategist in the developmental
sense, individuals need to understand their own inner dimensions as being influenced by multiple interlocking systems of
which one is a part. They need to have a perspective on their own meaning making and psychology.
Especially in the integral and the evolutionary spirituality crowd we observe a tendency to still feel superior to earlier levels and
to desire for everyone to become as oneself. It’s natural for the ego to self- assess as being at the integrated stage of
meaning making when one subscribes to some of the later stage values.
Of course, much overcoming and healing from trauma and ancient hurts can be achieved with good therapy at earlier stages.
However, the Strategist does not just tell a new story, now the prior stories are accepted as part of becoming who one is
now. Bad experiences are often the best teachers and an aspect of living in the crucible of life. In the ideal case, they are not
ignored, or reframed but integrated into a deeper self-awareness and compassion for others.
From a developmental perspective, one can argue that an Opportunist is also being authentic, that is, if we can accept that
they have no choice to be otherwise.
The recent abdication and falling from grace of several revered spiritual teachers in the Integral community is but one
indication of the dangers of such self-appointed, charismatic leaders.
The later the stage, the less my characterizations coincide with Torbert’s. Torbert’s insights were originally based on
biographies of historical exemplars as well as on interviews with some dozen leaders and high-ranking company officers.
Ego Development Theory
© 2013 Cook-Greuter, small edits 2019 118
Moreover, Torbert has tended to take his own meaning making and his own example as a guiding frame for what Alchemists
are like. My descriptions, on the other hand, evolved from exploring thousands of records from individuals of all walks of life.
Thus, my data accesses a wider range of occupations, ages and cultures and describes the characteristics of Construct-
aware and Unitive persons as projected onto the sentences stems by the subjects themselves. It is very possible that leaders
in organizational settings often do display the specific traits that Torbert observed in his post-Strategist individuals.
In my experience, few of those identified as Magicians choose to be company men and women. I gather that in Torbert’s latest
iterations these later stages are no longer part of teaching leadership development theory in his short three-day introduction.
I do wonder how much my own experience and fascination with language has influenced my sensitivity to language issues and
the choice in naming this level first as Construct-aware.
I recently read about such a metatheory coming out of Russia. It is offered as an alternative to Integral
AQAL theory. See Shindin, Alexey (in press): Integral and Mosaic: Questions of comparative meta-
modelling. Here the reconceptualization of the awareness space and of stages and states is that of a
I do not consider Wilber’s A theory of everything (2001) or the AQAL framework as representatives of this tendency of
Construct-aware meaning makers to overcomplexity. The elegance and simplicity of AQAL theory likely emanates from a
later perspective. At the same time, grand generalizations often are open to critique especially in details.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a t