Robert Kegan's Awesome Theory Of Social Maturity

"If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." - Isaac Newton.


Many years ago and quite by chance, I read a book that showed me a new and very powerful way of looking at a variety of human behavior we think of as social maturity. I recall being absolutely enthralled and blown away by the elegance and simplicity of the theory; the way that it explained things so nicely and made so many disparate facts about social maturity or the lack thereof seem to "click into place". I could not understand why this theory had never been taught to me in a psychology class! As time went on and practical responsibilities mounted, however, I let it go and did not think about it much for years. Last year, I found the book describing the theory on my bookshelf and picked it up again, remembering that I had liked it. I re-read the book, and experienced the same enthralling feeling all over again. My intention today with this essay is to communicate the basics of this theory of social maturity to you, my reader, so that you, too, will (hopefully) experience this same feeling of things suddenly "clicking into place" and making sense.

There are many different sorts of maturity we could talk about, but I will only be talking about social maturity. This sort of maturity has to do with how well people understand the nature of the social world they live within. Social maturity is what enables us to function as healthy adults. Without it, we end up having a difficult time ourselves, or causing a lot of difficult times for other people. A high degree of social maturity has something to do with a high degree of social skill, but these two things are not the same. A sociopath can evidence a lot of slick social skill, but that sociopath's ability to accurately represent the reality of the social word (e.g., to care about the fact that other people have feelings and lives) is likely to be severely delayed , and thus we would have to consider the sociopath to be fundamentally socially immature.

"Why is social maturity important?", you might ask. Think about it. Who are the people you want to be able to depend upon; to have as friends and family members? Not the fair-weather-friends you want to have a good time with, but the people you want to have as sources of comfort and advice when the going gets rough. You want to have socially and emotionally mature people around you in times of crises. Socially immature people are a blast at keg or cocktail parties, and make for exciting lovers, but due to their essential selfishness, they simply suck as spouses, and parents and grandparents, and as leaders of any variety.

Children are by definition, socially immature, and nobody wants them to stay that way as they grow into adults. In fact, a great deal of the difficulty involved in being a good parent can be expressed simply as the struggle to figure out what are the best methods to use, what are the proper decisions to make to help children find their way to become mature adults.

Social immaturity in adults is both a societal problem and also a personal problem for affected individuals, their families, and their employers. Social immaturity either plays an important role in maintaining multiple mental disorders or is in fact what defines those disorders. This is particularly true of the 'dramatic-erratic' personality disorders, including Narcissism, Borderline, Histrionic and probably also Antisocial Personality Disorders. Social immaturity is also quite frequently associated with long term alcoholism and/or drug abuse which began in youth, and is frequently encountered by therapists treating clients who have been abused as children. Therapists tend to think about these sorts of problems as being caused by developmental delays, but the question remains – delays of what? This essay will try to unpack that question of "what".

The term "immature" is sometimes used as an epitaph or derogatory term and I want to be clear here that I do not mean to use it in that sense. Some people might think I'm disrespecting personality disordered people to claim that they are socially immature, but that would be a wrong interpretation. What I am trying to suggest is that there really are states or stages in a developmental progression towards social maturity on which people's behavior can be categorized and that many personality disordered people act as though they are far less socially mature than their chronological age would suggest.

The Evolving Self

This theory of social maturity that I want to talk about is the work of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, and was first described in his brilliant 1982 book, The Evolving Self.

Brilliant though this book is, it is also difficult to read, even for smart, educated people. In the introduction to his follow-up 1994 book In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, Kegan makes light of the density of his prose by telling the following funny story:

"Some years ago, when I proudly told my father that (The Evolving Self) was being translated into German and Korean, he said, "That's great! Now when is it going to be translated into English?"

This essay is my attempt to translate "The Evolving Self" into English.

This is not to say that The Evolving Self is not worth reading – because it most definitely is. I just want to warn anyone who picks it up that you may have to struggle a little before you are able to appreciate the real treasure it contains.

In "The Evolving Self", Kegan described a theory of how people become progressively more socially mature across their lifespan. Though a wholly original and creative contribution, Kegan's theory borrows heavily from earlier developmental theorists, most notably from Jean Piaget, the genius swiss psychologist who practically invented modern developmental psychology. In order to understand Kegan's theory of social maturity, we first have to understand Piaget's earlier theory of cognitive (e.g., having to do with the ability to think) maturity, as the core ideas from Kegan's work are essentially Piaget's ideas which have been reworked, broadened and abstracted, and applied to the social realm. Before diving into Kegan, then, let's first rehash Piaget.

Piaget In A Nutshell

Piaget's theory described how children's ability to think develops from birth through early adulthood. You are perhaps familiar with Piaget's stages of cognitive development. He theorized that children pass through predictable developmental stages in which their minds develop in complexity and appreciation (ability to accurately understand) of reality. Piaget proposed four basic stages through which the development of thinking abilities must pass. He labeled these stages: "Sensorimotor", "Pre-Operational", "Concrete-Operations" and "Formal-Operations". These stages always occur in this particular order, and are for the most part linked to particular ages of life. The sensorimotor stage covers between 0 and 2 years, pre-operations covers between 2 and 5 years, concrete-operations between 6 and 10 years, and formal operations covering age 11 and beyond. That is, at least until senility sets in - haha.

The first Sensorimotor (or Sensory-Motor) stage is so-named because babies who are in this stage are basically preoccupied with the task of learning how to operate their bodies and interpret their senses. Though there are some instinctual abilities, babies are not, for the most part, born knowing how to do these things! During the Sensorimotor period, babies' thinking ability is, thus, basically all about learning how to comprehend sensory input (vision, hearing, touch, etc.), and how to understand how to move about (crawl, walk, manipulate things with your hands, how to focus your eyes).

At around age two, children have become (mostly) masters of their bodies – they can walk and see what is in front of them and pick things up. Though sensory and motor sophistication continue to develop past this point, this is around the time when babies' minds first become really capable of understanding that other people and objects exist that are separate from themselves. Before this time, babies are thinking that everything is them. Babies at this stage have made a major advance – they have figured out that they are separate than those things around them, but they still don't really get how all these different things interrelate. A lot of mistaken, fantastic and unrealistic sorts of relationships among objects in the world seem plausible to such children. For example, they may know that they are a boy and that girls are different than boys, but they may think that they can grow up to become a girl (yes, I know this can happen surgically in adulthood, but children of this stage think that it could happen just as a matter of course).

Piaget uses the term "Operations" in the manner we would use the phrase "Mental Techniques". An operation basically consists of representing something in your mind and then asking "what if", mentally transforming that thing to answer the question and visualizing the result in your mind. One type of operation is addition, to offer a mathematical example. I can imagine two things and then perform the operation of addition to them in my mind by asking myself, "what if I had two more things?", imagining those two more things, and then visualizing the result in my mind. I could then report to you that there would now be four things present. All this without actually touching anything!

Asking "what if" questions like this requires a major advance in the way that a baby thinks about things – the child has to be able to make a representation of an actual thing in the word in her mind (an imaginary object representing an actual object), imagine that something happens to that imaginary object (e.g., an operation) that has not happened to the actual object, and predict or visualize the result of that mental operation. Young children (ages 2-5) have a lot of trouble doing this sort of thing according to Piaget, and that is why he calls this stage between 2-5 years "Pre-Operational" (e..g, because kids can't operate on representations in any systematic way at those ages). Young children can be taught to count and to do simple adding and subtracting sorts of operations, but the vast majority of those kids are simply memorizing these operations – they don't "get" or understand how those operations actually work.

Older children can understand how addition and subtraction and other more complicated operations work. Between ages 6-10 or so (where school age starts), kids enter the Concrete Operations stage. As used here, the word "concrete" doesn't mean a man-made rock, but instead to something that is tangible, and obvious; the opposite of abstract. Simple addition and subtraction are concrete operations, because it is easy to imagine some number of things, and then to take away a few of those things (or add a few more things) and see the result visually in one's mind. You learn how to do these things mentally, by first actually doing them physically (e.g., in a concrete manner).

Learning proceeds from what can be visualized easily (because it is concrete and obvious) and only later becomes abstracted – or understood as a sort of "rule" that can be lifted out of its origins and applied to new categories of things that have never been experienced before. You might learn how to add and subtract by playing with marbles for example, but by the time you are a certain age (Piaget suggest starting around age 11) you become capable of adding and subtracting new types of things that you have never seen and which maybe don't even exist. Piaget calls this last stage of learning how to think about things "formal operations" because he is thinking that the "form" of addition or subtraction has been abstracted from the actual physical act of adding or subtracting marbles from a pile, and that form or rule can now be applied to elephants, suns, salaries and other fairly abstract categories of stuff.

At this point I have to put in a disclaimer. I have not picked up any books about Piaget and his stages in the writing of this essay – this is all from my head, and therefore the facts and the details are probably wrong in my above description. What is worse, Piaget himself was wrong about a lot of the details! Subsequent researchers have demonstrated that various operations happen earlier than Piaget thought, for instance. It is not really important, for my purpose right now, that you have all the facts and details straight. What is important is that we go over Piaget's description of the pattern of how knowledge grows and develops in a human mind over time. The pattern looks like this:

  • You cannot appreciate the diversity of things in the world (such as marbles, people, and elephants to name but a few sorts of things) until until you have first mastered how to work your body and interpret your senses.

  • You cannot appreciate that four marbles minus two marbles leaves you with two marbles until you first have concrete, physical experience with marbles. This appreciation of marbles assumes that you have first figured out how to operate your senses and can physically examine a marble in some fashion.

  • You cannot abstractly understand that " 4 minus 2 always equals 2 " until you have first grasped that same principle concretely, by actually subtracting a few physical things (like marbles) from a larger set of physical things and experienced the result.

Note that these are successive layers of appreciation. Each successive layer of knowledge uses the previous layer as a foundation. Knowledge is cumulative. More advanced, abstract understandings are not possible for people to have without their first having less advanced, more concrete experiences.

Also, note that later layers are always super-sets of the prior layers. This is to say, earlier layers are included in and assumed in later layers, and later layers expand upon what has been gained from the earlier layers. If we were representing these layers as a diagram or picture (e.g., a concrete representation to help you leap "up" into a more formal abstracted understanding), it would look kind of like a bullseye; a set of concentric circles where the earliest layers are the small circles in the center, and the outer (later) layers including those earlier circles inside themselves, but also covering more territory.

Read these two last ideas again a few times before proceeding, because they are critical for understanding what comes next.

How Social Maturity Develops

Okay – now, let us apply Piaget's insights about how knowledge develops in successive layers not to thinking maturity, but rather to social maturity, a topic rather dear to the hearts of most people visiting this website, I expect. The questions to ask now are:

  • Are there successive layers of social maturity (e.g., appreciation of the social world and of emotions and how to manage them) that people experience as they develop?

  • If so, what are those successive layers of social maturity?

  • What sorts of problems arise when you get stuck in a particular stage of social maturity and fail to mature further?

These first two questions are addressed in "The Evolving Self", while the third question is addressed in Kegan's follow-up book, "In Over Our Heads".

What Kegan has to say in "The Evolving Self" can be summarized (I think) in this manner:

  • Social maturity does evolve or develop in successive layers just as does cognitive maturity, progressing from the most simple understanding to more and more complex understandings of the social world.

  • More simple appreciations of the social world, and of human emotions are fundamentally inaccurate, and not a good fit for the actual complexity of the social world, but they nevertheless represent the best people can do at any given moment.

  • More complex appreciations of the social world evolve into existence as a person becomes able to appreciate stuff abstractly that they used to appreciate only in concrete (obvious, tangible) forms. This is to say (using Kegan's terms) that people are initially embedded in their own subjective perspective. They see things only from their own particular point of view and fundamentally cannot understand what it might be like to see themselves from another perspective other than their own. Being unable to understand what you look like to someone else is the essence and definition of what it means to be subjective about yourself, for example. Being able to appreciate things from many different perspectives is the essence of what it means to be relatively objective.

  • New layers of social/emotional development occurs as people become able to finally see themselves in increasingly larger and wider social perspective. For example, the moment I am able to understand for the first time what another person is thinking or feeling, I have made a sort of leap forwards out of subjectivity (me being trapped in my own perspective) and into a view of the world that is a little more objective. If I can understand what someone else is thinking and feeling, I can also imagine myself as I must look through their eyes and my self-understanding becomes that much more objective. This sort of expanded awareness represents an emergence from embeddedness in my own subjective perspective and the growth of my ability to see things from multiple perspectives at once.

  • This process of becoming progressively less subjective as you mature, and thus more able to appreciate the complexity of the social world, repeats itself multiple times in a given lifespan (assuming people do continue to mature as they age and don't simply get stuck!). Each new layer of awareness; each expansion of perspective that a person grows is simultaneously both more objective; offering a better, wider perspective on the social world than did the prior understanding), and also less objective then the understanding that logically follows next.

  • Where does this progression end? Theoretically, it ends in some kind of Buddha-like state of enlightenment, where everything that can be understood objectively is understood objectively and there is no more subjectivity to be embedded in anymore. More practically, it ends when we reach the level of social maturity that most of our peers achieve. Few people ever become more socially mature than the majority of their peers.

Let's take a moment to digest this stuff for a bit. It's still kinda dense, I know, even despite my efforts at simplification.

Stages of Social Maturity

What we've just gone over is a sort of abstracted version of Kegan's social maturity theory without any real detail shown. Of course, it will help to have that detail along with some some concrete examples of what he is talking about to make this all comprehensible, so that is what I will now try to supply.

Kegan is suggesting that as babies grow into adults, they develop progressively more objective and accurate appreciations of the social world they inhabit. They do this by progressing through five or more states or periods of development which he labeled as follows:

  • Incorporative

  • Impulsive

  • Imperial

  • Interpersonal

  • Institutional

In their beginnings, babies are all subjective and have really no appreciation of anything objective at all, and therefore no real self-awareness. This is to say, at first, babies have little idea how to interpret anything, and the only perspective they have with which to interpret things is their own scarcely developed perspective. They can recognize parent's faces and the like, but this sort of recognition should not be confused with babies being able to appreciate that parents are separate creatures with their own needs. This key recognition doesn't occur for years.

Kegan describes this earliest period as Incorporative. The sense of self is not developed at this point in time. There is no self to speak of because there is no distinction occurring yet between self and other. To the baby, there is not any reason to ask the question, "who am I" because the baby's mind is nothing more and nothing less than the experience of its senses as it moves about. In an important sense, the baby is embedded in its sensory experience and has no other awareness.

Babies practice using their senses and reflexes a lot and thus develop mental representations of those reflexes. At some point it occurs to the baby that it has reflexes that it can use and senses that it can experience. Reflex and sensation are thus the first mental objects; the first things that are understood to be distinct components of the self. The sense of self emerges from the knowledge that there are things in the world that aren't self (like reflexes and senses); things that I am not. To quote Kegan,

"Rather than literally being my reflexes, I now have them, and "I" am something other. "I" am that which coordinates or mediates the reflexes..."

Kegan correspondingly refers to this second period of social appreciation development as Impulsive, to suggest that the child is now embedded in impulses – which are those things that coordinate reflexes. The sense of self at this stage of life would be comfortable saying something like, "hungry", or "sleepy", being fully identified with these hungers. Though babies are now aware that they can take action to fulfill a need, they still are not clear that other people exist yet as independent creatures. From the perspective of the Impulsive mind, a parent is merely another reflex that can be brought to bear to satisfy impulses.

The objectification of what was previously subjective experience continues as development continues. Kegan's next developmental leap is known as the Imperial self. The child as "little dictator" is born. In the prior impulsive self, the self literally is nothing more and nothing less than a set of needs. There isn't anyone "there" having those needs yet. The needs alone are all that exists. As awareness continues to rise, the child now starts to become aware that "it" is the very thing that has the needs. Because the child is now aware that it has needs (rather than is needs), it also starts to become aware that it can consciously manipulate things to get its needs satisfied. The impulsive child was also manipulative, perhaps, but in a more unaware animal manner. The imperial child is not yet aware that other people have needs too. It only knows at this stage that it has needs, and it doesn't hesitate to express them.

The Interpersonal period that follows next starts with the first moment when the child comes to understand that there are actually other people out there in the world whose needs need to be taken into account along side their own. The appreciation of the otherness of other people comes about, as always by a process of expanding perspectives. The child's perspective in this case expands from its own only to later include both its own and those of other important people around it. It is the child's increasingly sophisticated understanding of the idea that people have needs itself which cause the leap to occur. To quote Kegan again,

"I" no longer am my needs (no longer the imperial I); rather I have them. In having them I can now coordinate, or integrate, one need system with another, and in so doing, I bring into being that need-mediating reality which we refer to when we speak of mutuality."

In English then, the interpersonal child becomes aware that "not only do I have needs, other people do too!" This moment in time is where conscience is born and the potential for guilt and shame arises, as well as the potential for empathy. Prior to this moment, these important aspects of adult mental life don't exist except as potentials.

The interpersonal child is aware that other people have needs which it needs to be taken into account if it is to best satisfy its own needs. There is no guiding principle that helps the interpersonal child to determine which set of needs is most important – its own, or those of the other people. Some children will conclude that their own needs are most important to satisfy, while others will conclude that other's needs should be prioritized, and some children will move back and forth between the two positions like a crazy monkey.

As the child's sense of self continues to develop, at some point it becomes aware that a guiding principle can be established which helps determine which set of needs should take precedence under particular circumstances. This is the first moment that the child can be said to have values, or commitments to ideas and beliefs and principles which are larger and more permanent than its own passing whims and fears. Kegan refers to this new realization of and commitment to values as the Institutional period, noting that in this period, the child's idea of self becomes something which can be, for the first time, described in terms of institutionalized values, such as being honest. "I'm an honest person. I try to be fair. I strive to be brave." are the sorts of things an institutional mind might say. Values, such as the Golden Rule (e.g., "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), start to guide the child's appreciation of how to be a member of the family and of society. The moral, ethical and legal foundations of society follow from this basic achievement of an Institutional self. Further, children (or adults) who achieve this level of social maturity understand the need for laws and for ethical codes that work to govern everyone's behavior. Less socially mature individuals won't grasp why these things are important and cannot and should not simply be disregarded when they are inconvenient.

For many people, social maturity seems to stop here at the Institutional stage. Kegan himself writes that this stage is the stage of conventional adult maturity; one that many (but not all) adults reach, and beyond which most do not progress. However, the potential for continued development continues onwards and upwards.

The next evolution of self understanding occurs when the child (by now probably an adult) starts to realize that there is more than one way of being "fair" or "honest" or "brave" in the world. Whereas before, in the interpersonal mindset, there is only one possible right way to interpret a social event (e.g., in accordance with one's own value system), a newly developed InterIndivdiual mindset starts to recognize a diversity of ways that someone might act and still be acting in accordance with a coherent value system (though not necessarily one's own value system).

For example, let's consider how someone with an Institutional mindset and someone with an InterIndividual mindset might judge someone who has become a "draft dodger" so as to avoid military duty. There are precisely two ways that an Institutionally minded person might look at such an action. If he or she is of the mainstream institutional mindset, draft dodging is a non-religious sort of heresy and a crime which should be punishable. If, on the other hand, he or she is of a counter-cultural institutional mindset, then judgements are reversed and draft dodging is seen as a brave action which demonstrates individual courage in the face of massive peer pressure to conform. An institutionally minded person can hold one or the other of these perspectives but not both, because he or she is literally embedded in one or the other of those perspectives and cannot appreciate the other except as something alien and evil.

A person who has achieved InterIndividual social maturity is able to hold both mainstream and counter-cultural value systems in mind at the same time, and to see the problem of draft dodging from both perspectives. This sort of dual-vision will appear to be the worst kind of wishy-washiness and flip-floppery to someone stuck in a conventional Institutional mindset and maturity level. However, if you are following the progression of social maturity states, and how one states' embedded subjective view becomes something which is seem objectively alongside other points of view as social maturity progresses, you will see that such dual-vision is indeed the logical next step; what a more socially mature sort of human being might look like.

Kegan thinks of the achievement of InterIndividual social maturity, what might be considered "post-maturity", as a dubious thing. In a wonderful interview published by "What is Enlightenment Magazine " and available online here (no longer available) , Kegan comments on the danger that this state poses:

"... you have to think about what it means to actually be more complex than what your culture is currently demanding. You have to have a name for that, too. It's almost something beyond maturity, and it's usually a very risky state to be in. I mean, we loved Jesus, Socrates, and Gandhi—after we murdered them. While they were alive, they were a tremendous pain in the ass. Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr.—these people died relatively young. You don't often live a long life being too far out ahead of your culture."

I'm not going to comment on whether or not Kegan's social maturity theory is accurate. Whether or not it is accurate, it is still a very useful and interesting way of thinking about how social maturity develops. If we can agree to accept this theory as basically correct, for a moment, a whole lot of mental problems and disorders that are otherwise difficult to talk about suddenly start to make some sense; start to "click into place". This is already a rather long essay and I don't want to belabor it, but I need to give at least one example, and to my mind there is no better example for my purpose than Narcissistic Personality Disorder .

Narcissists are (typically) arrogant, self-important and even grandiose people who consider themselves special and "above the law", lacking in empathy and compassion, willing to exploit innocents, and who are consumed by visions of dramatic personal success and power to which they quite passionately believe they are entitled for no apparent reason. Narcissists use other people if it suits their purpose to use them, and discard or attack them if they are in the way.

Everyone knows a few people who fit the narcissist mold to one degree or another. It is generally not at all clear what the heck is wrong with narcissists that causes them to act in this obnoxious fashion, so most people tend to think of them in more simple terms, as "jerks" or "a**holes".

Now, think for a moment what an adult might look like who never left the Imperial self stage of social maturity development. Keep in mind that there are many different types of maturity and that we are only suggesting an adult whose growth has been stunted in this particular social-emotional manner. Other aspects of maturity (e.g., cognitive and intellectual maturity, knowledge, and of course age) are unaffected. That particular hypothetical adult is pretty much going to look like a narcissist, huh? A "little dictator" writ into adult form.

For example, the adult narcissist lacks empathy for the same reason that the normal imperial child lacks empathy; as an Imperially minded individual, he cannot conceive of any perspective that has any meaning other than his own. He or she is literally embedded in an inadequate and inaccurate representation of social reality; one in which only his own needs and impulses are important and no one else is important. The existence of other human beings with separate needs may be partially understood by such a fellow, but there is no recognition that those other people's needs have equivalent weight and reality to the Imperial-minded narcissists' own.

A similar argument can be made to explain how to account for sociopaths; antisocial personality disorders (who similarly lacks in empathy, guilt and remorse for criminal actions which harm other people), and also for the childish, immature and often reckless behavior that is frequently displayed by otherwise normal people who have been abusing drugs and/or alcohol since they were small and have only recently become sober. Such people's behavior can be made more comprehensible if you think of them as developmentally delayed in this dimension of social-emotional maturity.

Just because we can use Kegan's theory to explain why people act like jerks, doesn't for a second excuse jerky behavior. Or criminal behavior, for that matter. Adult narcissists and antisocials may be akin to little children in terms of their social maturity development, but they are not typically retarded in other aspects of maturity. They often have the full compliment of adult intellectual capabilities and may even have very good social skills. They often know right from wrong in some abstract manner even if they can't conceive it like a more socially mature person might. They are accountable for their actions even if they possess real handicaps that lead them to act in unacceptable ways.

Ask any therapist and he or she will tell you - it is quite difficult to do effective therapy with people who have social immaturity problems. If Kegan is right in his thinking, the reason for this would not be that these people are fundamentally resistant to the therapy process (which is how many therapists see the problem), but rather in large part because they cannot comprehend the therapy process, which is after all, very much a social process that requires a certain level of social maturity on the part of patients before they can benefit. It isn't enough to simply teach a set of skills to such people, because all such people will be capable of doing is aping those skills. They won't be able to fully appreciate the meaning of those skills and thus generalize from them to a more abstract (and mature) way of being with other people. Teaching social skills might actually work for some such people. Some people might actually learn the skills and that will be enough to trigger their growth. However, there ought to be a better, more direct way to make this sort of social maturity growth occur.

Actually, the question of how to help adult people become more socially mature when they aren't is a huge unanswered question that this theory leaves us with. Is there a way to help the Narcissists and the Antisocials and the Pedophiles out there? What about the rest of the people out there who are not quite at the level of social maturity that society demands of them? Kegan explores these questions in his follow-on book, In Over Our Heads" which is also very good and worth reading. If there is interest in this essay (we'll see), I'll find a way to go over his conclusions from that book in a future essay.

Hopefully, those of you who have stuck this out will have comprehended what I've been trying to say and it will have been a worthwhile expenditure of your time. If not, all I can say in my defense is that I tried my best (grin!). My aim is to educate, and this stuff is worth knowing about, even if it isn't something Oprah or Dr. Phil would do a show about. As per usual, I'm happy to answer questions and post non-trollish comments. Be well.

Editors' Note: A continuation of this essay concerning Dr. Kegan's second psychological book "In Over Our Heads" is available here .


  • Gary

    Thank you for your insightful essay on social maturity. I geuss I am not as immature as I thought I might have been. I have been struggling with the nature of my own moral dilemmas and any particular order toward grouping morality vs. open-mindedness. Do you know anything about a 'yoga mindset', and if it tries to offer a reality-based understanding for transcendance of certain types of societal-based morality?

  • Mike

    Excellent fodder for an analytical mind -- akin to poison for those who know him. ?P That said, it really does make an awful lot of sense. Especially liked the mental illustration of the target while discussing membership in supersets we aren't always good archers, sometimes on purpose. Would very much like to hear about the next step should you decide to write it. Thanks

  • Anonymous-1

    Refreshingly lucid.

  • Kay

    I've been looking for this exactly to help focus on how to get my pre teen to the next level of maturity. You said it exactly. At some point we all must look beyond ourselves and consider on our own (this means without others prompting us to do so) how another person has gotten the view, belief or stance that they come to have. Once that considersation is made, we are closer to true understanding AND can be more patient, tolerent and sucessful in relating with them. We do have the natural inclination to veiw everyone else through our own frame of reference and really should not put these things upon others. I also have been working with an individual that has gotten stuck at a more immature social stage. They are brilliant in some ways but often blame others for all kinds of reason, not ever stopping to consider that there may be another expalanation. Each time I try to point out that there could be another possibility why, they tell me that these are just excuses. If they could consider others with more of an effort to understand, they could actually solve some problems, build relationships and save themselves alot of frustration. They just do not have this ability yet though.

  • Ted

    Why is selfishness assumed to be caused by some inability to empathize with other people or to see their points of view? I think that this is a completely unjustifiable assumption made by many theorists in developmental psychology. Is it not conceivable that a person could, while fully aware of the wants and needs of others, simply choose to disregard them? If a person values their own needs above all others it is in no way necessary to concluded that they simply have no understanding of the feelings, needs and values of others. Indeed, many sociopaths display a remarkable ability to understand the needs and desires of their victims. These same sociopaths will use this information to more successfully exploit their targets. I believe that the tendency to simply assume that totally self oriented people are somehow developmentally arrested or otherwise immature demonstrates a sort of intellectual myopia among those working in this field. This biased thinking restricts their ability to produce satisfactory explanations of human behavior and development. Further, such narrow thinking precludes the development of treatments and therapies that could take into account that a persons undesirable social behavior is not merely a symptom of delayed social development, but perhaps a rational choice - at least from their own perspective. In order to demonstrate my point, let us take a look at two of the social maturity levels in the article from the hypothetical point of view of someone who has concluded that their own wants and needs are more important than any other. 1) Interpersonal stage: According to the description of this stage given by the author it would seem that any selfish person who, while recognizing that others have needs, still placed their own needs ahead of all others would be 'stuck' in this stage. According to this article, it would seem that such people have somehow failed to fully understand the needs of others. The author mentioned that some people in this stage would conclude that their own needs were most important but never explained how they went on to 'grow out' of this stage by concluding that other peoples needs were as or more important than their own. Why would a totally selfish person ever conclude this? What rational basis is there for such a leap? 2) Institutional stage: From the point of view of a person solely concerned with meeting their own needs, this stage would seem to represent a type of brainwashing. This stage involves internalizing many values and behaviors that may not be in our short or long term best interest. Indeed, being a proper 'moral' person often requires that we act in ways that are disadvantageous to achieving our own wants and needs. This would seem quite irrational to a totally selfish person. Take the draft dodger example from the article, for instance. The selfish person may refuse the draft because they may perceive that military service is dangerous and personally unrewarding. They could make this decision individually, without being a member of some larger culture or counter-culture that was opposed to the draft. Why should they care that some politician wants them to fight in some war? Answering the call to be drafted and fight in a war for no personal reasons, knowing that death or disabling injury are both very real possibilities, simply because 'it's the right thing to do' is the hight of group think. It may very well be in the best interests of the politicians - and in the case of a 'good' war even the best interests of the nation itself - that the draftee be sent to battle, but it cannot be rationally argued that it is in an *individuals* best interest to be sent off to war where they will be potentially maimed or killed. Even in the case of a nation facing invasion, it may very well be better, from an individual perspective, for the draftee to simply flee the nation altogether rather than risk death or dismemberment on the field of battle. For an individual to 'progress' to this stage of development they must, at least in part, think of themselves as members of a group or society. They must not think of themselves exclusively as individuals. They must think as group members, not as individuals. Can this really be called adult maturity? I don't think so. Selfishness is not a 'symptom' of delayed development. It is, in fact, a rational choice that many individuals choose to make. The failure of many in the psychological community to realize this fact limits the ability of the field as whole to understand and treat socially maladjusted individuals.

  • Anonymous-2

    Thankyou, Mark for this excellent essay. I sincerely hope you can lead us through the next steps to address the results of the problem.

  • Mantas

    i found Kohlberg's stages of moral development is more awesome theory. It is simmilar to Robert Kegan's, but little more awersome :), becouse has stages further.

  • Alex A.

    Incredible insight into stages of human development! I understand that all the theory and research concludes that these stages can not be skipped. My question is: How can the grouth through the stages be accelerated?

    Thank you.

  • Anita Schmelling

    Mark you are very good at explaining this complicated theory. I have now managed to understand what Robert Kegan is writing :-)

    Since I am doing my thesis for my M.Sc. Pyshcology, I really need to understand his next book - in over our heads. U state in the end of your comments that you will consider to do so, if people needed it explained. I am desperate and would like an explaination as soon as possible from you. Thanks and I hope that u will take this request seriously.

    Kind regards,
    Anita Schmelling

  • Steve

    The word "selfish" has the connotation of excessive concern for one's self. An example might be a 14 year old complaining that he can't have ice cream immediately because his parents are driving to their friend's funeral first. He might whine, "Maybe you knew her well, but *I* didn't!" I assume that most of us would characterize this behavior as selfish, and we also wouldn't find it particulary commendable. Yet if selfishness is a virtue, then this behavior should be admired.

    If you want to say that rational self-interest is worth pursuing, that's arguable. It's something else to use "selfish" instead of "rational self-interest". They're not the same thing. It's in my rational self-interest to tie my shoes, but I don't think it's selfish for me to do so. It's in my rational self-interest to pursue the best price for a given purchase, but I don't see how that by itself makes me selfish.

    I'm not sure what to make of your criticism of military service. If you want to argue that it's irrational to join the military, does that mean that people who join the military are irrational? It's strange to argue that someone else's personal career decision is wrong. In general, it almost sounds like you're arguing that everyone has the freedom to think for themselves as long as they agree with you.

    I've read Aristotle quoted as saying something like "The wise man uses other people's reasons to persuade, but the fool uses his own." Many people have intuitions that we're part of a community we have obligations to, and that other people are worth considering on their own terms, not merely as means to ends. Simply denying these intuitions belittles the people that have them. And simply denying them is, ultimately, selfish.

  • Someguy

    Histrionic and Borderline seem to be in Impulsive stages of social development.

    Narcissist and Sociopath seem to be in Imperial stages of social development.

    Yet both seem to have Interpersonal and even some Institutional traits in their adult development, which usually masks their dominant social development stages and blurs people's perceptions of what state they are actually dominated by.

    How do you know a person's true social development when people, in general, seem to be approval seeking by nature and seem to portray certain levels of social stages that aren't necessarily embedded? How do you know what they are if they can fake it?

  • Sarah

    I'm 14 years old and I agree.

  • Anonymous-3

    So basically what prompted me to look into the internet about "social immaturity" is a personal issue, something that I'd be looking to fix, or improve. I've been more and more, finding out that I don't get along really well with peers my age, and although superficially, I won't be anti-social, I cannot name a single peer that I would really be on a true friendly basis with. I have some friends that are a year younger than me, and one day, with one of them, we came upon that subject. So basically, the problem would be that people wouldn't "respect" me, and that the younger kids would feel like I am one of their peers. Although I find its a sad reality, its something that unless I fix, I will need to live with, but I'm just looking out there, to see if there are answers people could give me, or that would already be published. Hoping anyone can help on that note, if they understand or get the situation. If not, just ignore this.

  • Sue

    Your essay is insightful and quite true from my experience. I'd like to also hear your thoughts on what it is like for those who are emotionally connected to or invested their love with impulsive/selfish narcissists. Why is it that someone like me can be so drawn into their world, and attach to them, want to help them out but then disappointingly realise that this leads to their own detriment, as in the times of crisis when you realise that there literally is no empathy and concern for yourself, but a generalised empathy for 'other people', and only concern for themselves. I have kept a relationship going in the hope that a deeper connection might eventuate, but end up in tears again and again as I realise that this person is incapable of being there for me when I need him, which is devastating. However, there does seem to be love in his heart and body, but there seems to be no attachment or healthy regard for me personally, I'm not there in his mind and thoughts except as someone to be used, just as you describe. What is it like for others? Is it futile and dangerous to expect anything for myself because as you point out, there doesn't seem to be any conception that I have needs, and I have become compassion drained trying to do the right thing by this person when all I get is grief.

  • Walfin

    Hi, your article made very interesting reading.

    However I am given to understand that there seems to be no way to empirically measure social maturity. Also your view of social maturity seems to be rather one-dimensional - there are no "different forms" of social maturity.

    Does social maturity manifest itself in behaviour? Or can it be so well hidden that a socially immature person can appear to be a socially mature one?

    I am interested in researching whether there is a way in which social maturity can be measured through behavioural observations, and whether there are "multiple social maturities" just as there are "multiple intelligences".

    Editor's Note: You raise some wonderful and thoughtful questions. First, let me say that I can't take credit for any of these ideas - they are all due to Dr. Kegan (unless I've mistranslated them in which case they are my mistakes). If you buy into the view Dr. Kegan has proposed, social maturity would be a set of social and emotional behaviors that reflects a given person's complexity of consciousness. The complexity of consciousness that is maturity is reflected in behaviors but not itself directly observable. it would be entirely possible for an immature person to 'ape' more mature behaviors, and that might indeed fool people interacting with that immature person in the short and medium terms. However, the idea is that an immature person would not deeply understand the meaning of behaviors reflecting a more complex mature mindset - they might use them instrumentally (so as to obtain a result - such as a "don juan" might ape love in order to get laid) but over the long term, they would probably betray themselves over time becuase the long term arc of an immature person's behavior will reveal itself to be selfishly motivated. Any measurement of social maturity would have to be repeated over time and could only be done by people who are themselves mature and who know the person they are judging intimately - this makes the task of measuring social maturity in an empirical systematic way difficult (although Dr. Kegan has had over 25 years to work on it and may have developed some techniques I'm not aware of). I don't think there could be 'multiple' social-emotional maturities, but I do think that people can be functionally more mature in one aspect of their relationships (such as with friends) and less so with another group of relationships (such as family). Just my observations - no data to support that assertion.

  • Fred

    In response to the first question about an empirical basis:

    If this theory can in fact be supported by measureable phenomena, perhaps it could be measured via brain activity in various brain regions. I've read that certain concepts occupy regions in the brain. Could you measure correlations between activity in one part of the brain, say the part that represents a need like "hunger," and activity in another part of the brain, say the part that represents the self? If one were able to differentiate oneself from impulses, like hunger, then the two regions would be distinct and should be able to operate independently over time. That is, one should be able to think about "hunger" without thinking "I'm hungry," and that distinction might be observable in the form of temporaly distinct electrical activity in distinct brain regions.

    Please let me know if you decide to pursue this course of research.

  • Anonymous-4

    I think this really is gold:

    " For an individual to 'progress' to this stage of development they must, at least in part, think of themselves as members of a group or society. They must not think of themselves exclusively as individuals. They must think as group members, not as individuals. Can this really be called adult maturity? I don't think so. Selfishness is not a 'symptom' of delayed development. It is, in fact, a rational choice that many individuals choose to make. The failure of many in the psychological community to realize this fact limits the ability of the field as whole to understand and treat socially maladjusted individuals."

    This essay is simple and convenient. Its convenient to imagine that babies that can only scream and crap themselves aren't able to comprehend what a low quality of life they have. Its convenient to imagine that everyone progresses to the same state, because if we are similar to our peers, we don't have to worry about being a jerk. Its convenient to imagine that seeing both sides of an argument is good because then we don't have to examine whether our own beliefs are correct (since there are no correct beliefs).

    imo simple and convenient beliefs are wrong, and more fundamentally there ARE right and wrong answers to questions.

    imo psychology is pseudo science propagated by mediocre individuals who benefit from this hive mentality. The attempts to force equality result in diminished institutions and wasted resources. eg. If everyone is equal, what is the point of education?

  • Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

    To the last person who posted: You see trees, but you fail to see the forest.

    Dr. Schwartz

  • Adam

    I'm doing a research paper on exactly what was shared here! I am very grateful. This essay has also struck my mind on multiple child and adult maturities. I do hope you continue researching other psychology items that could help others complete their lives as well.

  • Anonymous-5

    I came across this article because I have concluded that part of my emotional problems come from immaturity. However, I haven't always been at this stage and this confused me. I'm in my thirties, but I think in some ways I was more responsible and behaved more maturely when I was seventeen. I don't know if it's possible for people to regress in their social maturity, but I think according to these stages outlined by Keagan, I bounce around on the maturity spectrum. For example, I have trouble being organized in my personal life and paying bills on time... However, for years at a time, I have done this without much stress and because I know it's the right thing to take care of myself and be accountable to others. But then I kind of regress sometimes to a state where I feel burned out or simply helpless and I neglect my responsibilites to myself and others. Is this a behavioral issue or a maturity issue? And what is the difference? I never feel that this behavior is right or acceptable, but somehow I continue to do it. What I do feel when I "regress" is that being mature and acting responsible financially is too hard, I feel overwhelmed by helplessness and ashamed for that. I don't mean this to excuse myself on any level, but just to give you an idea of some of my motivating feelings, feelings that I'm trying to understand and overcome. I guess as a theory this is interesting, but I think most people I know operate on various levels of social maturity and inconsistently, like very mature at work, not so mature with friends or visa versa, and they may hold institutionally mature beliefs when it comes to something like draft dodging, but then behave in a way that is imperial... I mean I don't know anyone who is consistently at one stage of social development. So, I don't see how these stages can be developmental and not just descriptive, if that makes any sense. I still think there might be something to this social maturity theory, but something not so rigid as successive stages of development.

  • Eliane geren

    I resonated with the essay I just read by Mark and last month I heard Dr. Kegan in person. The stages of development have been clear to me for a while and a question often asked is, "How do we progress to other stages?" I'll give my answer after I give you a concept that has helped me appreciate "selfishness."

    I define "needs" as anything that universally makes a human's life more satisfying--not only the physical needs for food, water, air, shelter, but also needs for bonding, autonomy, choice, meaning and the like. After or during our progression through the stages toward maturity, one major need I think we have is to contribute to the well being of others. We reach a stage where doing something for another person, that meets a need of theirs, is very satisfying to "me." Normally, we would call an action in the service of another "unselfish." I like to call it "self-full" because while performing the action that meets another's need, I am also meeting MY own need to contribute (AND it satisfies me.)

    I've learned how to be aware of what needs I want to satisfy, and how to use the most effective strategy to do so (i.e., choose so that I'm less likey to regret the choice later) from studying a process called, Nonviolent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD. The model he developed gives me tools, clarity, and great hope. Have you heard of it?

    Dr. Dombeck's Note: Eliane is on to something correct, I believe, with her concept of self-fullness, at later stages of social-maturity. At the very least, she understands these concepts accurately at a literary level and has contributed to them on their own terms.

  • Bob Turner

    Thank you for your excellent article. I appreciate the benefit I received from your hard research and work. I have been researching the idea - how do we help people to continue to mature: physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, intellectually. Your article is very stimulating and helpful in my thinking.

  • roseroberta

    I thought that your essay was a good one. I too have had concern about how to treat people with narcissistic or anti social personality disorders. I'd love to hear if you come up with some conclusions. I wonder what is going to occur in the field of neuroplasicity. Ther are interesting things happening these days. In How the Brain works the author found that at the time of an aha moment th brain goes silent and all the synapses stop firing. I think this relates to the higher levels of development that Kegan Mezirow talk about.

    I think that the person who found issue with the selfishness being a lack of development is mixing up the kind of narcissistic selfish you were referring to with higher levels of development where one has choice and is self-authoring or beyond. There is a huge difference.

  • michelle

    Hi, good essay!!!! have a look at - Kim and Steve cooper's story of how she managed to rid him of his narcissism while doing some growing up herself, i bought the book and am growing up too and becoming more self aware. the book is definately worth a read and there are tips on how to work on developmental gaps etc. well worth a look, she's a clever lady!!

  • KT

    I read this (very insightful) article with my 5-yr old autistic son in mind. He seems to be be in the Imperial stage mostly, with some Interpersonal period traits emerging, and yet, none of these categories truly fit. Have you -- or Dr. Kegan -- or anyone given thought to how these stages might progress (or stall) in a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder? Figuring out how to teach my child concepts like empathy and multiple points of view (which social maturity comprises) is rather the holy grail for me and so many other parents. Any thoughts?


    Dr Dombeck's Note: This is an *excellent* question, and I'm sorry to say I don't know the answer to it. But I hope someone does and will share it, or agrees that it is important and decides to do research on it.

  • Anonymous-6

    Great job on a very complex topic! Great for some research i'm doing on developing the social maturity aspect of a program for abused/abandoned/neglected children in my country!

    Exactly what i needed to know without being too overwhelming logically presented and wisely concluded.

    So - did you ever do an essay on "In Over Our Heads"? Would love the link!

  • rhondar

    I can't help but wonder about the correlation of the emergence of Dr. Seuss and the lessons and practical applications that are taking place in the classrooms over the last few decades. When Aesops fables were a mainstay in the home and schools, it seems that our citizens grew up trusting our insticnts to translate decision making skills using our ability to analyze and systematically judge certain situations accurately. Just wondering what happens to the young growing psyche when it learns that sometimes you can judge a book by it's cover, and yet these insights must be hidden. Does this hinder our ability to mature and grow, or do we become hindered emotionally because of such an obvious attempt to force us to conform to a social engineering program that teaches us not to question the incongruity and pluralism of reality.

  • Anonymous-7

    I was blown away by your article. Not really looking for confirmation but my son is almost 6 years old and stuck in the imperial stage. He is way behind his peers socially and emotionally but far above them cognitively. My fear before reading this article was if I don't do something to help him in this area he could develop a Narissistic or Antisocial personality disorder. Then I read this article and became even more concerned. Are there any books/workbooks that you would suggest? How do you help an individual (child) progress on to the next stage?

  • Kim Cooper

    Great article and thankyou for allowing Michelle's comment (which I just read recommending our website and ebooks). My husband Steve (who was assessed as having NPD but has matured through this stage) and I have helped thousands of people now with the very ideas you discuss here and I was very excited to find you and this article.

    I hope you might allow a few thoughts of my own on this subject ...

    A few of the reasons why I belive many people don't mature beyong the imperial stage are ..

    a. Advertising discorages it by fueling our fears of inadequacy which keep us impulsive and insecure and hence bigger consumers.

    b. Lack of adequate role models.

    c. Anxiety - causing a person to stay in denial about anyone else's needs but thier own.

    The last point will explain why despite their differnces a person with NPD and a person with Asperger's syndrome may both display a lack of empathy and social matururity despite so many other obvious differences ie. both are experiencing very high levels of anxiety.

    The next idea I would like to share is answering your question of what helps a person to mature socially?

    We have done an enormous amount of work in this area but in a nutshell I would say that good role models are what is the most important factor.

    The trouble with people who act like Ass***es is that they tend to succeed in bringing down the maturity level of everyone around them. A couple of phrases we use and like are

    "Deal with disrespect with self respect" and
    "Don't let other peoples bad behavior bring out the worst in you"

    This of course is harder to talk about than to practice but maturity is something I believe only comes with daily practice and individuals need to be supported in learning to make healthy choices for themselves and remain mature adults especially when other adults around them may be behaving like brats.

    This is tough sure - but does improve with practice!

    Some of the "Super Nannie's" tactics can also be modified and used with adults having tantrums (ha ha ha) but that is another story.

    Thanks for allowing me to share these ideas here and I will come back soon and finish reading all of the comments, this site seems to be a very needed breathe of fresh air on this topic and I thank you for sharing these truly insightful theories.

    I love your work!

    Kim Cooper

  • Anonymous-8

    This is an excellent topic. Any relevance to people with Asperger's syndrome?

  • Roxanne Nesbit

    Thank you. i am coming to the end of my teacher training and needed a quote/comment on the lack of maturity that an adolesacent may have to be able to interpret a situation or emotion and how this tiees in with mis communication and elaboration when recitation is taking place. taht was all i wanted and i ended up reading the whole doculment, understanding it completely, loving it and whats more adding weight to wanting to complete a psychology in teaching degree after this....... Thank you.x

  • farha

    i rally say thanks to uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu,,,,becuase this really help me for compleating my study on social maturuity among adolescents

  • Elf Jennifer

    Thank you so very much for writing this article! My 10 year old son with Aspergers was just given a new diagnosis (fully autistic) I've spent hours and hours over the past 2 weeks searching for information on emotional maturity. The testing showed that his emotional maturity is that of a 2 year and 5 month old... Yet he has been doing very well in school and only has social issues during recesses and lunch.

    I, like a few other commentors, would really like to find information on steps to take to help others get through one stage and master the next.

  • amy

    thank you for your beautiful essay...this is so interesting... it helped me a lot from my report entitled "Maturity"... thank you so much coping with your other esssy....

  • sandy

    Some of our family, from paternal grandfather's side, exhibit extreme lack of social maturity. Now we are noticing, grandchildren and great grandchildren with similar tendencies. Can this be an inherited gene with some switches on or off at birth?Perhaps a recessive gene in both parents? Wow! I am blown away at being able to pinpoint similarities right down the ancestor lineage. Thank-you so much for your insight and research. Teacher's should have this copied in their classrooms as reference and teacher's aide.

  • minxgirl

    sir, how can I make a questions about " display maturity of the concern individua?"

    thank yoU!

  • nina

    such a nice article. i just wanna ask is a child's maturity level be affected when they are in a broken home?

  • NP Student

    Dear Dr's Kegan and Dombeck,

    I am writing a Focused Scholarly Paper on a topic that I decided 4 years ago, before I even knew I would have to.

    You see I have a son who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 19. As a nurse I knew the repercussions of the from a physiological perspective, but time would show me the developmental huddles my son would have to jump.

    To put it plainly, when a child under the age of 18 is diagnosed, a team of people is assigned by the PCP or the Hospital. This includes Primary care, Endocrinologists, eye specialists, dieticians, diabetic nurses to teach everything from how when and why their check blood glucose to Hemoglobin A1C, and anything else that child needs. So, even if that child isn't really listening or is to young developmentally to care, the mere amount of information given over time shows that it is absorbed so that when that child reaches 18 "adulthood" and is booted out into the adult system and they have a handle on their diabetes.

    But, in our case we have been faced with a son diagnosed at 19 who has a maturity level of about a 16 year old (as most first born tend to have) and is not so much developmentally stunted, but lacks the skills to manage his disease because he was not given the appropriate tools for his MATURITY level. Therefore, not having this team to emulate he repeatedly falls back in to a cycle of compliance and non-compliance to the degree that endangers his health. He has been hospitalized twice for diabetic ketoacidosis.

    I heard something recently about emphasis being placed on a the social aspects of new developmental group 18-25, but what I'd like to find is research that shows how this maturity, "or lack there of" puts the health of this age group patients at risk when chronic diseases are diagnosed after or near age 18.

    Eventually I would like to take the research one step further to show that, if the number one cause of death in this group is accidental injury, then what part does developmental maturity play.

    I'm having trouble finding articles that relate this age group to health problems, particularly chronic health conditions of this age group. Do you or anyone reading this have any advice?

    Thank you in advance

    Donna RN BSN

  • Anonymous-9

    Again it seems InterIndividual/fourth order consciousness has been confused with fifth order consciousness. In the What Is Enlightenment/EnlightenNext interview, the comment about people like Jesus, Socrates, and Gandhi being killed for being too far ahead of their culture was in response to a question about ultimate human maturity, and shortly before that Kegan addressed a fifth order consciousness. The principle may apply as a general rule to people who are ahead of the culture regardless of which stages we're talking about, but it was not mentioned specifically in connection with the InterIndividual stage.

  • sheepman

    I have been struggling with trying to understand adolescent Facebook behavior (I'm a teacher and parent) and I feel I've found some answers concerning questons I have about cyber bullying and other anti-social behavior present amongst this age group in the social network arena. Thanks for the great article.

  • Anonymous-10

    My graduate school course in lifespan development uses Kegan as a main source. I am so lucky to have found your article, it saved me. Kegan is a great theorist, but VERY hard to read. Thank you

  • Jeff Kramer

    Thanks for an interesting piece. My question is this, has the different points in time or decades passed impacted the overall maturity level of children? One would assume, a child growing up in the Great Depression would be more apt to be more mature than a child growing up in the 1980's. etc...

  • Greg Warren

    Thank you so much for publishing your article on the web. I read it in doing research for a project on Kegan. Your insightful summary helped me to understand the overall concept of how Kegans material is to be understood and applied. I am compelled at this point to attempt to read his book yet quite concerned I will gain little more from reading it outside of what you have provided as an outline. :) Thanks.

  • Cathy Hasty

    Like you, I read Kegan many years ago and have always had his ideas in the back of my thoughts, assessments and reflections. Today I was searching for a summary to respond to a blog at the Empathinc site. Your reflections were helpful and I pointed others to your articles.

    Thank you.

  • Terry

    I have been dealing with a person I think has a certain level of narcissism and found your article to be very informative. Again Thank You!

  • Missn

    I am interested in the comments on approval seeking behavior and narcissim and have been trying to work with this for some time. I was told that I have those tendences and I don't know if that is true or if it was just something said by one of the people who was being mean. But I have been trying to take a spiritual approach to this in that if a person is working for the approval of another person they are devaluing themselves and changing to get the approval of another person instead of working spiritual principles that might have different results. There is very little help and support for a person who is trying to get to the other side of this...lots of people who like to point out the faults but not many who say, ok, this is the way it is done. It is why I was also interested in your writing about empathy because it is true that people with the disorder sometimes do not understand that. I also do not like to say that it is not entirely the fault of the person with the dysfunction because sometimes they were given bad "teachings." Positive feedback that helps one to grow is appreciated. This happens by accident.

  • late maturer

    I greatly enjoyed your piece. I wonder what part of delayed adult maturity might be biological--either a delay in some part of brain development, or a weak development for which we later learn compensation skills.

    In many ways I didn't really grow up until my mid 30's. Adults considered me mature in my early teens, but somehow I never became one of those mature, confident 20-somethings who impress me today. I was also a weak and self centered husband and father, although I'm a much, much better person now, a couple of decades too late!

    My son is now in his late 30's, and he too is just becoming more realistic and emotionally mature. And my mother commented that she was a child for so long that it was embarrassing for her to think about. So, of course, I wonder whether that might be a trait with a biological component.

    There seems to be relatively little research done with regard to the maturing process of adults. Almost a wide open field, and with application not only to the seriously socially deficient, but to a lot of intelligent underachievers.

  • Jeanne

    Thank you for clearing this up with my first google choice! I am disappointed that these type of people won't respond well to therapy but you explained why.

    What can I do to help a low-functioning adult relative who is basically homeless but "has all the answers"? Do I just let it go and continue to set boundaries, do I confront them outright or what?

  • Rita

    I have seen clear evidence that a person can appear to be mature and function to a degree but never establish the solid fundamental character traits that are needed to live a successful, law abiding, long life. It is tough for an individual that has been surrounded by a family full of social deviants to overcome generational issues. Their support base has to be solid and sold out to the cause otherwise they can become frazzled and worn out because of the lack of healthy social maturity. Deviance can begin to grow in early childhood and if not properly caught and treated can appear "normal" to others but grow into enormous proportions as an adult. A scary scenario is an adult with a drivers license, vehicle, cell phone and the cash to fund their activities but not realize the consequences of their potential careless actions. Even scarier are the ones who secretly don't care about anyone but themselves... then society feels the pain of their bad behavior...

  • W.M.Lancaster

    I really enjoyed the article and look forward to reading Kegan. Surley there is connection between the social immaturity and some other sources of the "peter pan syndrome." I have in my life a paticular woman who exhibits all the characteristics of an institutional staged adult, but only exercises the imperial characteristics. That is to say she has experienced what it takes for the latter stage but by personal decision, or organic influence has decided to stay at the regressive stage. The problem is this is rubbing off on her daughter and effecting her husband to the point where the entire household is neurotic. I guess time and study will help me figure out this anomaly.

  • Marie

    I started realizing these past couple of weeks, that I am living a very immature life for a 36 year old. This is so strange, because it's almost like I'm growing in reverse. Pretty much as soon as I was born, I was given responsibility for way too much. The older I got, the more responsibility I had to handle. Pick any young age for me (including early 20's), and I had more responsibility and needed more emotional maturity than... hmmm... a 36 year old might need. The past ten years though, although I should be a responsible adult now -esp since I was such a responsible young person - I don't think I really am. I am extremely messy, and quit jobs unexpectedly, because I just can't handle the stress. I can discipline myself about many things, and, indeed, am excessively disciplined about many things - but - when I feel like things are too much to handle - I just don't (unless it's an absolute necessity). (Cleaning is one example of that - I like clean houses, and I'm good at cleaning - but things get dirty so quickly it's overwhelming to me.) The job thing is obviously more serious. I think these are symptoms of emotional immaturity. I decided to do some research to find out why I'm stuck in the ways that I am, when I am still the absolute best person to turn to in a crisis. So... reading this article, I was hoping for answers. Although I didn't find answers, per se - I did find more interesting things to think about - so thank you.

  • mb

    Bless you for your interpretation of this complex text (Evolving Self). I can barely get through a chapter without reading pages over and over again. And I consider myself academically literate!

    I like the tone you used -


  • Jennifer

    does it really stop at interindividuality? i think the potential for growth and maturity is unlimited. i know i personally have reached the interindividual stage and i still continue to mature. instead of being able to see two sides of something, you become less dualistic in your thinking and are able to see things as they are, as a whole. and there is a certain level of spiritual maturity at play in evolving beyond the interindividual stage. a great quote comes to mind but unfortunately my blackberry wont let me paste it also wont let me capitalize for some reason! but the quote is from "love without end" by glenda green. it speaks of higher intelligence being manifested through integrated perceptions of wholeness which restore your recognition of the one spirit. i have found this to be true in i have reached a point where duality no longer exists and i feel connected to the oneness that is god. i struggle with it and it can be hard to communicate with other people about it. i usually dont even try because they just think i'm nuts. lol. i'd like to see more on this subject of 'social' maturity...though i would rather call it spiritual transformation!

  • T. Swan

    Thank you so much for your wonderful essay. You have hit the nail on the head. And best of all, you made me giggle through a very very tough and close to home topic. You deserve to be proud of your work! What a gem!

  • Anonymous-11

    I can relate to confused about my social maturity. Im in my thirties, i have high morals, i have empathy for others and am mature in certain areas yet at the same time there is a inner child in me that makes me very imature. i am a mother of a 16 yr old and his maturity level started passing mine about 2 yrs ago. I was very mature as a child and teen. whether i regressed or not i dont know but it seems as though i have. that or it has just become more apparent. i often feel like a kid having to do grown up things while lacking skills like time management, organizational skills, and some responsibility.

  • Hema

    My internet search led me to your aticle on "Social Maturity". Indeed a very eye opening, insight providing article. The very concept of " social maturity" , the simple and humorous way(in places) of uncovering the meaning of indeed a difficult concept, has been thoroughly acheived. Congratulations on your good work!

  • Anonymous-12

    This was a fascinating read. I was interested in the posts commenting on whether delayed / stunted social and emotional development could be genetic. My instinctive response to this, based on personal experiences with my ex-partner, observations about this trait repeated in his family members and in one of our own daughters is that there is a genetic element to this issue. However, I also believe that the way you nurture a child's development and positively support them to learn what may not come altogether easily and naturally to them must have an effect. I therefore agree that exposure to role models who show and encourage the more socially advanced behaviour, throughout childhood especially are really important in trying to overcome this. It's said that you learn what you live. I also have to believe this as I have seen first hand how this inability in adulthood to develop fully or progress to an expected level of maturity leads to significant, repeated personal failure and heartache. But most sad is the apparent inability to recognise and learn from those experiences so as to avoid repeating them in future.

  • Lisa

    Would twins, in some sense, be able to develop their Interpersonal selves earlier and more easily than their 'singleton' counterparts?

    Twins, because of their closeness with one another, would be more easily aware of another being (their twin) as an equal (as opposed to their caretaker), as well as their twin's emotions and needs.

    What do you think?

  • RainDancer

    I was curious why you chose that picture of a woman's face emerging from the water for this article. It's very interesting .

    But I would like to hear your say on where you see it match.

  • Catherine

    Thank you for this 'blast from the past'. I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology and found myself 'remembering' this 'stuff' as I read your essay. So thank you for that! Also, you write in a very raw, inviting and engaging way. I'll read whatever you put out - you need a bigger platform for these messages! How can I help?

  • Anonymous-13

    Thank you so much for this amazing article! For many years, I have observed others' reactions to my thoughts, words, and actions. These observations often left me confused wondering what I had said or done to evoke such a negative reaction. Your article helped me to define my difficulty as social immaturity. I wonder how many others are in a similar situation.

    I was born to a younger set of parents my father was critically injured when he was 21 years old, and he lost both his right arm and right leg. Combined with the depression of this incident, my father was raised by an extremely violent father who repeatedly beat him and his siblings. Due to his lack of social understanding and his depression, my father continued his family's legacy of alcoholism and abuse.

    At the time, I was unable to understand the part that my father's past played in his actions with our family. Due to my inability to understand, I was also unable to forgive his actions. Years of bitterness and resentment festered as my father's social isolation of our family precluded my social and emotional development. Under his tyrannical rule, I was unable to develop the skills necessary to establish or maintain friendships.

    Years passed, and I eventually married a man to escape my tumultuous homelife. This marriage was built upon observation of a severely dysfunctional one, and I daily feared abandonment and rejection. When the days of eventual arguing came, I had no ability to communicate my frustrations. These discussions gradually became more volatile as my inability to relate my needs became more obvious. In addition, I was unable to see that he, too, had needs which might be unfulfilled.

    Eventually, I had affairs which led to a bitter divorce. I remarried the man who I was involved with last. Our initial years together were fraught with similar problems until I finally succumbed to attending a recovery group held at my church. My attendance there opened the floodgates to recovery and healing as I located others with similar stories to tell.

    In the past three years, I have finally begun the social maturity process that stalled so long ago. I have begun to express my needs and feelings more appropriately, to accept responsibility for poor past choices, and to develop new positive relationships with others. In this process, I have struggled with public opinions of past behavior, and I have craved a chance to renew broken bridges. At this point, I have not yet determined a way to do this, so I have chosen to start again without looking back while learning from my mistakes. I have six children who have grown with me, and I daily work with them to not repeat my lot in life.

  • Lisa

    Thank you for taking the time to share this theory with the world I hope clinical professionals in the various arenas of ppsychiatry, counseling and marriage and family therapy will become familiar with this concept, assuming it is not already a universally known theory. Id also like to mention, humbly, that it seems unlikely for anyone to search a concept online and come upon your essay - I very intention droven series of action - and then read it if they found the very concept too obtuse I did happen to re-read the section you suggested, but did so without prompting, but otherwise found the incisional warnings to distract and can see how some others may be intellectually offended (although I was not, personally :). I mention the above solely because I would love to see this concept become popularized, and integrated into practice that could become a cumbersome challenge if those it's being introduced to are offended. Does that make sense?

  • Janice

    I was looking for answers as to why one of our granddaughters is so immature and I came across this essay. I'm not sure i really found an answer or what we as a family can do to help her. i have been pleading with her to get some therapy but am now unsure if that will help due to the statement you made that therapists find it difficult to effectively help people with social immaturity problems. I'm just sick over the whole thing and feel helpless to provide her with much needed guidance, especially since she is a single mom who is unable to bond with her new infant.

  • geraldine

    Mr Kegan I would like to thanks you for a very reader friendly explanation of immaturity.I have a son that has always been difficult todeal with and your essay helped .....Regards Geraldine Livesey

  • Jackie Davenport

    Thank you very much for this article. I was in a relationship for over ten years until last week when i found out my boyfriend led a secret life that did not take me into account. I had worked with him for years on social skills and basic living skills, safe driving, etc. but nothing ever stuck for very long (he would go back to driving recklessly, go back to living in filth, not be able to communicate with people only talk at them, etc.) b/c he didn't seem to have the development to understand the long term rewards of being a responsible adult. After finding out about his secret life and talking with a therapist I started to think about the social/emotional immaturity of his brain and it started to all make sense. He was an alchoholic for years (late teens early twenties) and his childhood life wasn't the healthiest (his parents are still horders, etc. and do not take care of their health, etc.). I even noticed how you wrote, they only recently became sober. He just quit drinking a few years ago after a DUI. I beleive he is stuck somewhere bt the 4th and 5th stages of development you mentioned. He went back and forth between his and my needs, and he never could be fully honest (in face he was a compulsive liar) or appreciate laws or really understand how badly his secret life would affect me, etc. I found he had a sex addiction, but in addition, all of the things he was secretly doing on his computer was very much stuck in the stage of teenage 'angst': music videos about drugs, violence, agaist society, seeing women as objects, etc. It is much more clear to me now after reading your article he is exactly stuck at stage four and doesn't grasp stage five. He can follow the 'rules' of it for a while but then gradually slips back again b/c he does not fully comprehend the things in stage five. He does a good job looking like a great social person, but he is stuck at the stage where going out to bars at night with people who don't really care about him is the norm for him, and I don't know if he'll ever get past it (along with everything else). Anyway, it has been helpful for me to read this after the devistation that has destroyed my life after learning about him. I am hoping the more I learn/know the better I can deal with moving on without him and the life I was living for. Thank you SO much!

  • harjinder singh

    It is great to read this essay. Thanks for exercising the implications how mind acts and reacts during its interaction with life in different contexts. I feel that some individuals hate to be limited by what is obvious and understood in physical terms. What I like to say is as I feel is 'Imagination' in sense gives the mind the required stir to act and it is helpful in hypothesising matters around. The abstract thinking is superb but I feel to what degree it reaches accurately the pre-supposed results is very fantastic. For example, I realize it practically or I know that if a rabid dog bites a person, the person becomes vulnurable to developing rabies. I also know that those virus have stages to develop. Also I know that humans have immunity in them to fight against different diseases. Now I have knowledge also of these matters but at the same time I fear rabies. The matter now to ask myself is 'have I acquired knowledge to serve practical ends in life. I mean if I were bitten by rabid dog, I will not go for shot I fear more because I can very well imagine the pain of that. Rather I will trigger my immune system to work with a strong feeling and imagination but not bereft of logic that I will wash the injury with strong detergent. This washing will remove the greased wall coating of virus and white blood cells do find their enemy to eliminate them. I feel since the fear factor is greatly subdued by strong positive feeling as countermeasure, it certainly reflects in the practical results in people. I am not sure how it works in what degrees because humans differ in immunity strengh. All at this point I can say is that a person never exposed to weak forms of virus and bacteria owing to obsession of cleanliness and using chemicals of all sorts is more at risk unlike me deliberately indulging in such things. By implication it means we can go beyond the limits of conventional thinking or established practices to do something different. Higher development does at some point clash with established practices.