Developmental Psychology and Gifted Students: Implications of The Cook-Greuter Ego Development Model

Developmental Psychology and Gifted Students:  Implications of The Cook-Greuter Ego Development Model

By:  Nicole Dietrich

We are not our stages; we are not the self who hangs out in the balance at this moment in our evolution.  We are the activity of this evolution.  We compose our stages, and we experience this composing.

~Robert Keegan, Harvard developmental psychologist

Conclusions from Cook-Greuter’s Ego Development, Torbert’s Action Logics, Ken Wilber’s Spiral Dynamics, Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, as well as other Western developmental psychological models consistently point out that the way we see ourselves and our lives shifts as we move through developmental stages.  Our values, choices, decisions, and behaviors change.

Developmental psychology absolutely fascinates me.  Because most of what I have read about the high level of cognitive ability that must exist for someone at the Conventional and Postconventional stages it most definitely ties in to my dissertation and research around giftedness and the path to eminence/self-actualization—in particular, the development of women or other marginalized groups of people.  The work of Kazimierz Dabrowski suggests that many people do not evolve emotionally beyond pre-conventional and conventional stages.  Furthermore, his theory of positive disintegration provides a theoretical framework for understanding human development that is sufficiently broad enough to account for the highly differentiated development of gifted, creative and talented persons.

In the article “Ego Development:  Nine Levels of Increasing Embrace”  Susan Cook-Greuter provides us with abundant information about how humans develop and grow over the lifespan, with a focus on how we see ourselves in terms of self-identity, and on how we make meaning in our lives.  Cook-Greuter defines the nine levels as:

The Preconventional Stages

*Infant (1):  No perspective on the self, Confused, autistic; preverbal

1.  Impulsive Stage (2):  1st person perspective, Rudimentary self-labeling “me” and “mine”, basic dichotomies, fulfillment of needs on demand

2.  The Self-Defensive/Opportunist/Self-Protective Stage (2/3):  Self-description in terms of own wishes; dichotomous thinking, self-serving, competing for goods, space, domination, and power

*Rule Oriented: (Not in LDF) Single external features; beginning comparisons, one variable at a time; sees and notices “other”; beginning recognition that if I want something from “other” I have to make myself appealing

The Conventional Stages

3.  The Conformist/Diplomat Stage (3):  Several external features; vital stats, membership self; rudimentary internal states; concrete operations, Two types of “other”:  1) Good “Other” = Own family, tribe, group, nation—“In-Group” or “Us” and   2) Bad “Other” = Everyone who is different or not part of my group—“Out Group” or “Them”

4.  The Self-Conscious/Expert Stage (3/4):  3rd person perspective, clusters of external attributes, simple traits, beginning introspection; beginning separate self-identity; abstract operations; need for “one-upmanship”, “yes, but” syndrome

5.  The Conscientious/Achiever Stage (4):  Expanded 3rd person perspective, Self as system of roles and clusters of traits; independent self, prototype personality; recent past and present, linear causality → Formal operations; the target stage for Western culture; rational, analytical determined, conscientious, fair; successful; competent with high self-esteem; generally believe in the perfectibility of humankind and in the scientific method to “uncover truth” if not now → later

The Postconventional Stages/The General “Systems” Stages

A)     The General Systems Stages

6.  The Individualist/Pluralist Stage (4/5):  4th person perspective, past and future; a conscious preoccupation with becoming “participant observer” (the observer who influences what he/she observes) ; truth can never be found; everything is relative; there is no place to stand or judge from → deconstructive postmodernism; standing outside the system

7.  The Autonomous/Strategist Stage (5):  Expanded 4th person perspective, Parent’s past and Children’s future; cognitively can comprehend multiple interconnected systems of relationships and processes (metasystematic operations); autonomous, tolerant, insightful, growth oriented; high self-esteem; overarching principles; truth can be approximated; higher development is more adequate for functioning in an ever more complex global theatre; concerned with individuality, autonomy, and self-fulfillment; toleration of multiple points of view; charismatic individuals who are ready for personal sacrifice in order to defend through personal example (walk the talk) the moral principles they believe in; “identity, growth, higher principles, self-fulfillment” are favorite terms and topics; principled anger

B) The Unitive Stages

8.  The Construct-Aware/Magician Stage (5/6):  5th person to nth person perspective; the ego becomes transparent to itself; good and evil, life and death, beauty and ugliness may now appear as two sides of the same coin, as mutually necessitating and defining each other; they hope to unearth the limits of the rational mind, and to unlearn their automatic, conditioned responses based on memory and continuous; everyday cultural reinforcement; they want to face their own profound need for theories and explanations; acceptance of tension and paradox, committed to service of self and others; humility in face of task; try to remain aware of the pseudo-reality created by words; can create/induce “flow” states (Maslow and Czikszentmihalyi) which can also be harrowing; may be frustrated and despaired that there are so few others like them and fear their own culpability of hubris; may envy the simplicity of earlier periods

 9.  The Unitive/Ironist Stage (6):  Global/Unitive Perspective; paradigm is universal or cosmic; higher stages are not better than lower ones; accept themselves “as is” in a non-controlling way; accepting, unassuming presence; fully empathetic, non-interfering ability to be with whatever is; truth is immanent; experiential truth of interconnectedness and nonseparateness, existence as changing states of awareness within timeless spirit; may be perceived as aloof; have completely internalized transpersonal or interindividual morality; inner conflicts and conflicting external demands are simply part of being and need not be resolved or denied, only witnessed; concerned with global justice, spontaneity, existence, and creativity; witnessing versus observing—the capacity to metabolize experience without the conscious, willed focus and preoccupations of other adult stages; understanding is the ultimate illusion; ways of being are infinite

Notice that in parentheses after each state is a number–this represents alternating stages of the differentiation that distinguishes each the level and of the integration to the next level.  This shift from differentiation to integration marks the transition from conventional to postconventional stages (5).  It is also important to note that this theory is meant to portray the different levels of development in the Upper Left Quadrant in Ken Wilber’s All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL) map of human experience, and furthermore is not to be interpreted as a simple hierarchy, or a linear/staircase progression—most theories see it as evolving in a spiral dimension (2-3).


If we want moral leaders, we need to nurture the soil wherein leadership grows. That soil is emotional intensity and inner conflict.  Only through dealing with emotionally charged issues can individuals learn what they really believe in and confront those parts of themselves they wish to change.

~Linda Kreger Silverman

As an educational administrator and gifted consultant I see huge implications for a model such as this—one where we invest in our students’ socio-emotional development as a means for increased “social capital”.  We must strive to help ALL students deal with disorienting dilemmas and help them move towards more “advanced” stages of ego-development.  However, because higher levels of development in turn require more advanced cognitive ability, it seems there are even more implications for gifted education.  Moving our brightest students to become productive 21st century citizens and global leaders—both ethical and creative—is a moral responsibility I believe that we can not ignore.  Continuing to study mindfulness, how the brain learns, motivation, and how to help our students become resilient to barriers and conflict is imperative.  I believe there is an undeniable synergy between a child’s socio-emotional development and their later academic and personal achievement.  Our global community will benefit greatly from leaders that are able to mindfully embody postsymbolic wisdom!  Cook Greuter says it best when she asserts that “much freedom is gained when people realize the essential inter-connectedness of all phenomena and the constructed aspects of boundaries, objects, our self-identities and our stories about life and nature.  Much suffering is alleviated when the automatic habits of mind and heart are unlearned and uncoupled from memory (what was) and desires (what ought to be) and replaced by mindful, non-evaluative attention to what is—now” (35).




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *