Notes from the Field

June 2010 / Notes from the Field

Reflections on Adult Development through the SRAD Symposium

by Ulas Kaplan

Ulas Kaplan

The 25th Annual Symposium of the Society for Research in Adult Development (SRAD) took place in Philadelphia on March 9 and 10, as a preconference for the Society for Research in Adolescence Biennial Meeting. Driving from Virginia to Philadelphia, I was listening to an audio recording of Bill Moyers’ program with Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. In this program, Campbell made a critical statement, which I realized captured a central theme at the SRAD Symposium: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” Such a shift of focus has profound implications for understanding the complexity of psychological development and transformation in a way that relates cognition realistically to the quality of human action.

Many perspectives and studies presented at the symposium reflected various aspects of the process by which adults actively create meaning in their development. On the other hand, there is also a growing recognition that real-life experience is much more complex and dynamic than what is typically represented by cognitive-developmental models. More specifically, a growing body of evidence reveals that the quality of human action and judgment is highly variable, and rarely arises from or corresponds to a single developmental structure of intellectual meaning making. Understanding such within-person or intrapsychic variability in real-life experience was one of the core issues at the symposium as a pressing challenge in accounting for the complexity of adult development.

This was my third participation, following my attendance at the 2001 Symposium in New York, and the 2007 one in Boston. In 2007, I had presented part of my doctoral dissertation in which I had explored moral motivation based on the use of multiple developmental structures of Kohlberg, as well as the role of emotions in moral judgment. For the past three years, my integrative quest led me to explore new connections between cognitive structures of moral development, and evolutionary perspectives in understanding moral motivation. As a result, during the 2010 Symposium, I was excited to exchange ideas in this direction, as well as learn about the recent studies and findings of my colleagues.

In addition to a workshop on the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, the symposium was organized into 5 different sessions:

  1. Student Learning and Development
  2. Development of Moral Reasoning, Wisdom and Higher Thought
  3. Well-being in Middle and Older Adulthood
  4. Measuring and Modeling Adult Development
  5. Contexts of Emerging Adulthood

My presentation, “Moral Sense and Moral Development” took place during the second session. Other presentations during this session included (a) a historical analysis and example of high level reasoning, (b) methodology of exploring highest levels of cognitive complexity, (c) postformal stages on moral and religious judgment, (d) connections between moral philosophy and adult moral development, (e) practical wisdom, and (f) distinctions between formal and postformal stages. The discussion during this session reflected some of the current challenges in moral psychology and adult development: If human experience and development are too complex to be based on functioning at a single stage, what is the value of developmental stages? And how can we reconcile the influence of social context with the operation of cognitive-developmental structures in determining moral motivation and behavior?

Some of the answers came from the workshop by Michael Commons on the Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC). According to MHC, it is crucial to distinguish stimulus from response, as a way of distinguishing the environment from the organism, in developmental analysis. In this context, stages do not belong to the organism or the individual. Rather, according to Dr. Commons, stages exist independently of people, and are properties of tasks that demand functioning at different levels of complexity. Hence, individuals can function at various levels of complexity depending on their experience with a particular task.

MHC resonates strongly with Kurt Fischer’s Dynamic Skills Theory, which was a frequent point of reference during the symposium. According to Fischer, individuals are within a developmental range, rather than at a stage. Much like Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development, developmental range includes possibilities of performance as a function of a variety of factors, including familiarity with the task and social support.

The symposium represented a complexity of complexity in understanding development. This meta-complexity was about the diversity of way of understanding and conceptualizing development as increased complexity. On the other hand, a complementary, and a more implicit theme underlying some discussions was the possibility that adult development also includes significant simplicity that is not accounted for by theories based on increased cognitive complexity. Is there a process of increased simplicity in the development of such psychological qualities as wisdom, intuition, inner peace and joy, which are significant for adaptation in adulthood?

The presentation on practical wisdom, and following discussions reflected such a dynamic interplay between complexity and simplicity. As the presenter Caroline Basset from The Wisdom Institute put it in the abstract of her presentation: “Wisdom may be developmental, complex, and not learned in ten easy steps. At the same time, small daily wisdom is around us all the time.”

It follows that adolescents and young adults have access to wisdom in their daily life decisions and actions. Hence, one of the common insights during the symposium was about the dynamic and complementary nature by which developmental structures may be operating in real-life experience. Thus, active learning and developmental experiences in adolescence and young adulthood are likely to involve the operation of higher cognitive structures that are traditionally and exclusively attributed to middle and late adulthood. Likewise, older individuals are likely to incorporate earlier stages in their real-life experiences that are often attributed to childhood and adolescence.

In the area of moral experience, my own research and that of others indicates that younger people do have access to post-conventional stages of moral development in the complexity of their moral judgment and action, though not necessarily as structures of explicit reasoning. Likewise, older and cognitively more mature individuals are likely to use pre-conventional stages, as triggered by a variety of factors including contextual demands, emotions, and personality dynamics.

Similarly, some presenters challenged the association between age and development. While there seem to be key aspects of intuition and wisdom that develop through accumulation of experience over the years, perhaps the quality of experience matters more than the quantity of years experienced. Studies exploring transformative learning, such as those based on pioneering works of Jack Mezirow and Robert Kegan, are promising to explicate the qualitative conditions that facilitate adult development and contribute to human flourishing.

About the Author

Ulas Kaplan is an assistant professor of psychology at James Madison University, leading research studies within the Human Development Lab. Besides studying moral motivation, his current projects include students’ psychological development, motivation and well-being throughout college, and biopsychological effects of mental imagery as a therapeutic practice, focusing on heart-rhythm coherence and brain functioning.

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