We all know that children develop through stages—such as infant, toddler, adolescent, teenager—where how they think and their ability to handle more complex issues improves.  But few people are aware that adults also are capable of moving through higher and still higher stages of development.  While virtually all children pass through these stages pretty much automatically, not all adults do.  Many get stuck along the way.

In recent years scientists have discovered that the brain is plastic and is capable of change and development until the day we die.  Three major stages of adult development have been identified by researchers, some of whom have used different names for essentially the same stages:

Three adult stages of development

  • Pre-conventional, pre-operational (preop), egocentric
  • Conventional, conventional operational (conop), ethnocentric
  • Post-conventional, formal operational (formop), world centric

bigstock-snowdrop-11973230A fourth stage, characteristic of less than one percent of the adult population in Western countries, is a highly developed spiritual stage that has been called transcendent, integral, unitive, or cosmic perspective.

Although your behavior and feelings are significantly affected by beliefs at each stage, your level of development also significantly affects your life in a multitude of ways.  Each level has a different way of knowing, a unique worldview, and a distinct way of making meaning.

And just as one childhood stage is not inherently “better” than another—teenagers are not inherently “better” than adolescents; they are only better able to deal with more complex issues—the same is true of the adult stages.

Because so much of the way we perceive and interact with reality is a function of the stage of development we are at, understanding the different stages enables us to understand others and ourselves much better.  As you start to become aware of the various stages, other people’s incomprehensible behavior will start making sense.

The differences between the three stages

Here are several excerpts from “Unfolding Perspectives,” an excellent article by Bill Harris of Holosync that describes some aspects of several stages of development.  (To read the entire article, go to http://mortylefkoe-podcast.s3.amazonaws.com/Unfolding_Perspectives_2012-10-17.pdf)

From “me” to “us”

“The shift from preop to conop … involves moving from ‘it’s about me’ to ‘it’s about us.’ In making this shift, the child exchanges his previous immersion in ‘me’

for the collective security of the group. The group is organized around the group’s idea of what is important, what their truth is (‘our myth’)….  At this stage there is little or no ambiguity. Life is about this or that, about concrete objects and concrete procedures (hence the name concrete operations). Things are either black or white, this or that, with no shades of gray. What is true is visible. There are no internal, abstract ideas or principles yet, just concrete objects and concrete ways to manipulate them to achieve outcomes. …

“To move into this stage [namely, conop] the child must transcend a merely bodily orientation, where the world is experienced solely through physical actions and bodily feelings (an immersion in the body), and learn to experience the world through the mind as well as through the body. To do this, the child must learn to take the role of other, to shift from an egocentric orientation to a sociocentric (or group-centric) orientation. This is a shift from a bodily identity to a role identity, an identity based upon one’s role in the group. This new ability to take the perspective of others is more than just knowing that others have a perspective, though. It also includes the ability to mentally reconstruct that perspective, so as to put oneself in the shoes of another. The preoperational child [and adult] can’t do this; the concrete operational child can. …

People at different stages see reality differently

“The conop child easily sees that when liquid is poured from a short, fat containerinto a tall thin one the amount of liquid remains the same. The preop child believes that the thin container, being taller, holds more, even though it’s the same liquid.  …

“One more example: if a ball of clay is broken into twenty smaller balls, the preopchild (centering on the size of the pieces) thinks that there is now less clay. The conop child, however, isn’t fooled. He can logically see that the amount of clay is conserved, just as the amount of liquid was conserved in the previous situation.

I once saw a mother give an older child two cookies and a younger (obviously preoperational) child one cookie. The younger child cried because he had only one cookie, so the mother broke his cookie in two, saying, ‘There. Now you also havetwo.’ The child … was satisfied. …

“Needing concrete evidence in order to believe something is concrete operational thinking. Being able to imagine what it would be like to believe in some other way is formal operational. The visionaries of the world use formal operational thinking (and, very likely, cognitive strategies beyond formal operational …). If you call concrete operational ‘thinking,’ then formal operational could be termed ‘thinking about thinking.’ Where concrete operational thinking might be described as learning the rules for how to do things, formal operations involves looking at how rules are generated, noticing patterns, and so forth — in other words, operating on rules and other ways of thinking, rather than operating merely on concrete things and situations. …

“Adults who remain in this stage (namely, conop, which makes up the largest percentage of adults in Western countries) are capable of mastering incredibly complex concrete operations: flying an airplane, being an expert locksmith, building a house, repairing complex engines or other machines, being an expert woodworker, and on and on.  …

“Ken Wilber points out three important qualities of formal operational. It is the first stage that is ecological, in the sense that it can see and hold in awareness the possible consequences of the relationships involved in a situation. Second, formal operational involves an understanding of relativity. In being able to hold in mind different perspectives, it sees in what way they operate relative to each other.

“Finally, formal operational thinking is nonanthropocentric (it doesn’t interpret the world solely in terms of human values and experiences). Formop sees a bigger picture, a larger perspective, in which humans are a part of a larger whole that includes the entire planet and other living things.

During this developmental process we’ve seen morality move from a pre-conventional, narcissistic perspective, centered around the child’s bodycentered feelings and impulses; to a conventional, ethnocentric, group-centric perspective centered around one’s tribe, society, race, or social group; to a postconventional or worldcentric [formal operational] perspective, oriented to “all of us.” …  (Emphasis added.)

“Only about 30% of adults develop formal operational cognitive abilities.”  (Emphasis added.)

I have just started a course designed to help people move through these stages.  I’ll keep you informed about what we learn.  I expect there will be many more blog posts on this topic in the months to come.

Thanks for reading my blog.  Please share below your thoughts and questions on stages of development.  Your comments will add value for thousands of readers.  I read them all and respond to as many as I can.

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Copyright © 2013 Morty Lefkoe

Use this information to improve your life

Take a look at some of the characteristics of the three stages described in the post and see which are more typical of you.

Then take a look at some people whose behavior makes no sense to you whatsoever.  See if you can figure out what stage of development they are at.  Perhaps the fact that they are at a different stage from you explains why the way they see the world seems so foreign to you.