Book Review: The Postconventional Personality: Assessing, Researching, and Theorizing Higher Development

Book Review: The Postconventional Personality: Assessing, Researching, and Theorizing Higher Development

Angela Pfaffenberger, Paul Marko, and Allan Combs (Editors). The Postconventional Personality: Assessing, Researching, and Theorizing Higher Development. Albany, New York State University Press, 2011.

Glen Rogers

Religion is poetry that we believe in – Santayana

This edited book on the farthest reaches of adult holistic development includes a brief introduction and 13 diverse and separately authored chapters. These are of digestible length and comprise the 232 pages of substantive text, not counting references, index, and other welcomed scholarly assists. The book’s diversity is reflected in the authors’ position titles. Eight chapters include an author who holds a faculty position in a department of psychology, four include an author who is extensively employed as a leadership/management consultant, and six include an author who holds a position title related to integral studies or the study of consciousness.

The introduction surveys Loevinger’s ego stages in relation to Susanne Cook-Greuter’s extension of these stages and usefully provides a concordance of revised ego stage names that chapter authors have used in their adaptations of her measure. The book is then divided into three broad sections: (a) assessment issues, (b) emerging research, and (c) theories of postconventional development. These sections are indeed topics in the book, but also chapters typically are broader than the sections to which they are assigned. The order of chapters worked well for me, with the notable exception of the placement of chapter 2, which disrupted my tracking the assessment issues that flow from chapter 1 to chapters 3 and 4.

The book was originally conceived as a Festschrift to Jane Loevinger in recognition of her work in founding a scientifically productive theory of ego development, but that is only one point of reference that links the chapters. Nonetheless, the book’s opening attention to issues in assessing higher level ego functioning reassuringly connected me with her regulatory ideals for rigor and clear thinking or explicitly offered another perspective on these ideals. In chapter 1, Angela Pfaffenberger reviews the validity of Loevinger’s Sentence Completion Test (SCT). She empirically addresses how its adaptation into the Harthill Leadership Development Profile (LDP) yields somewhat lower estimates of ego level and observes that the two scoring systems may not be equivalent measures of advanced ego development, though they overlap. In chapter 4, Cook-Greuter summarizes the extensive data base of sentence completion protocols that has supported her identification of a 10th stage of ego development. Her main focus is on her rationale and standards for revisions of the SCT and on her various and evolving assessment purposes, which she has pursued in collaboration with others. Both of these chapters are informative and treat traditional assessment concerns with sufficient respect. Because I was well alerted to measurement issues that were afoot, I was ready as a reader to expect and look for empirical groundings in the book’s chapters and was less troubled when these were not as apparent or in the form I preferred.

Integral Leadership Review readers will appreciate that many of the chapters are positioned in relation to Ken Wilber’s integral theory and/or to the wisdom traditions of Eastern philosophy, which in substance seemed to be referenced as frequently as the developmental psychologists who more typically define the field of ego development in academia. There is an intellectual heft and even satisfying wholeness to this book that belies its small size and the wide diversity of the authors’ perspectives and backgrounds. The explicit binding focus is what the editors perhaps reluctantly settled on calling in the book’s title, the postconventional personality. A more descriptive term for the abiding focus might be, the postconventional self, which Jack Bauer uses in the title of his chapter. Perhaps this alternative title felt relatively discordant to those who reference the transcendence of the ego as the teleological end-point of spiritual or integral development. Of course, the term self (or its more formal cognate, ego) is perilously ambiguous in any tradition without clear reference. Moreover, in popular imagination, its connotations are drawn from the lower stages of ego development. And yet, it also seems indispensable if I am to use a single term to describe the center of gravity of this book, which is the various ways of being-in-the-world that are self-reflexively distinct from merely received societal conventions for construing purpose and meaning. For most of the authors, the termpostconventional self references ego development that is at or beyond Loevinger’s individualist stage, which in the book’s concordance is stage 7. But also, the broad categorical naming of the self of the highest stages may be further distinguished.

There is a general consensus among authors on the need to distinguish structural development of the ego, as a way of being in the world, from more ephemeral states of peak awareness. Indeed, this distinction between advanced structural development and heightened moments of consciousness is one of the thematic threads of the book. Chapter authors most often make the distinction in relation to the Wilber-Combs lattice and, more generally, integral theory, where concordances between levels of awareness and stages of ego development have been postulated.

On the one hand, the lattice posits that levels of awareness states (as defined in Eastern traditions) are, in some formal sense, concordant with stages of ego development. On the other, the lattice’s function within integral theory is to represent empirical discordances between a state of awareness and a stage of development so that these discordances can be theoretically leveraged or addressed. This is not an idle concern for integral theorists.

In chapter 2, Fred Travis and Sue Brown present evidence that a well validated brain-based measure of being in a high state of awareness did not correlate well with ego development. They raise validity concerns about the SCT, but are also concerned with arraying a range of theoretical explanations for the discordances.

In the book’s penultimate chapter, Allan Combs and Stanley Krippner more specifically suggest how discordance between a developmental stage and a state of awareness can be used as a methodology in their integral ontology. They share their belief that experiences of deeper reality indeed result from direct contact with that reality, and that these can be read like “travel reports.” But their methodological twist is to propose that we can systematically track how these direct experiences are later distorted by less structurally adept travelers when we hear them report back on these experiences in their normal waking consciousness. I took it that this would require the investigator to be far down a path of formal and intensive spiritual study.

Combs and Krippner’s broader analysis systematically draws on complexity science, and so, they connect to Loevinger’s theory and findings indirectly. Or, as they say, the connection is through “an alternative logic concerning the nature of personality development that supports her conclusions from an entirely different direction” (p. 206). Whatever your ontological, epistemological, or cosmological perspective, I suspect you will find that the book produces an exquisite tension between what I would consider to be, in Kuhnian terms, the normal science of ego development versus paradigmatically alternative frameworks that in various ways challenge Loevinger’s (1976) more cautious and ontologically neutral assumptions. The tensions that exist between the chapters are generally not resolved. Instead, world views, sectors of practice, and methodological approaches percolate in complex mixtures.

Nonetheless, in her chapter, Heidi Page directly addresses what she calls “the East/West debate” over ego integration versus transcendence. Her analysis is helpfully grounded by her qualitative study of advanced religious figures in India and the United States who are from Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. In a mediating spirit that is grounded in her findings she concludes that a philosophical debate over the “greater reality” of non-dual ego transcendent experience obscures a common concern across traditions over addressing personality and the need to develop it, if only as a tool within Eastern traditions, rather than as an end. I particularly appreciated her bringing forward an analysis of how spiritual traditions co-constitute the more formal characteristics of spiritual experiences. Whereas Combs and Krippner connect with Loevinger’s sequence of stages through what they posit is a universal path of development that flows through the fundamental structure of human consciousness, Page more stylistically resonates with Loevinger by also drawing attention to how structure interacts with content. She frequently cites Wilber and references his use of the Wilber-Combs lattice to account for how spiritual adepts who are able to access subtle states of consciousness may also exhibit lower ego functioning. Her parallel concern is that she observes in her interviews a higher spiritual line of development in her sample than SCT ego development, though as she notes they generally had high levels of ego development compared to the general population. Themes she finds unique to the religious sample were valuing patience, valuing non-attachment to objects/experiences, and having experiences of synchronicity.

Readers will note that James Day, in his chapter, is actively looking for discrepancies between domains to emphasize what he believes are indispensable content distinctions between moral and religious developmental tasks. He finds that introducing religious language into a moral dilemma changes the level of hierarchal complexity scored. At the same time, the characteristics of advanced developmental structure that he illustrates are consistent with those that others have found. Across adherents of different religions, those at the highest stages expressed their depth of commitment to a religious truth while simultaneously using tentative language to describe this truth. Day uses quotes to illustrate this developmental theme, but does not provide quotes that would more specifically illustrate a cleavage between religious versus moral developmental structure.

The question of the effectiveness of an individual’s intentional pursuit of holistic development is widely touched on across the chapters, and may be the closest thing to a binding concern among the authors. For some chapter authors this interest is associated with their closeness to a practice that is designed to structurally support an individual who is intentionally pursuing his or her own spiritual development. Dennis Heaton’s chapter can be read as a contribution to a scholarship that directly supports an individual’s pursuit of enlightenment. He connects his review of research on the effectiveness of Transcendental Meditation® with an exegesis of the postrepresentational self in the Bhagavad-Gita. He then draws theoretical parallels between descriptions of developmental processes in Vedic psychology and Kegan’s subject-object theory. As I read this and other chapters that reference studies finding extraordinarily high ego development, I mentally adjusted them in relation to Cook-Greuter’s observations in Chapter 4. She notes a serious methodological challenge in assessing level of ego development when seekers of enlightenment become familiar with the theoretical frameworks that undergird its assessment.

Chapters that presented new research findings on higher stages of ego development drew my strongest initial attention. Bauer’s chapter includes a reanalysis of four prior studies that addressed the relation between ego development and happiness. Like others, Bauer finds that the two constructs are empirically and conceptually distinct, which is another recurrent topic in the book. But in the present chapter, Bauer qualifies this distinction slightly. He carves out some cases at the highest stages of ego development and tentatively concludes that a distinctive happiness that is integral to transcendence may be achieved. With more certainty, he summarizes a range of research studies that articulate the particular kinds of growth goals that differentially seem to facilitate happiness versus ego development in a more general population.

The life-story studies that Bauer summarizes did not generally draw from populations of seekers of enlightenment who pursue it as a formal field of study. Even so, Bauer reminds us of a methodological challenge when connecting participants’ goals to their ego development. A person who tells a life-story that includes seeking conceptual understanding of him or herself will also be a person, for reasons intrinsic to the construct of ego development, who is likely to be high on the SCT. Readers will have more than one occasion to think about whole/part relationships between ego growth process, facets of ego development, and holistic stages of ego development. Readers will also confront at least superficially different accounts of facilitators of growth.

In his chapter, Paul Marko reports on his study of SCT-measured postconventional subjects and their retrospective accounts of their transformational growth. He concludes that most transformational growth occurred in altered consciousness or alternative realms, perhaps because of the relaxation of ego controls. Contrastingly, Laura King finds that postconventional ego development often involves coping with disruptions (wakefully it seems) or unexpectedly finding meaning in everyday experiences. She distinguishes between intentionally seeking development as a goal and actively participating in it, which includes an individual choosing to surrender to an experience of being overwhelmed by life’s challenges rather than avoiding this vulnerability.

Another presentation of new research findings reminded me of how Loevinger consistently emphasized that structural development may include non-linear correlations. With wondrous clarity, Tobias Krettenauer articulates how the mere rarity of higher stages raises various theoretical issues. He then provides evidence for a discontinuity in developmental process, which clarifies how to resolve the theoretical concerns. To do this, he uses longitudinal precursor data drawn from the Iceland study of Individual Development and Social Structure. One limitation is that the study’s participants were still relatively young (age 22). Nonetheless, he finds different explanatory causes account for those who advanced to conventional ego development by young adulthood versus those who advanced from conventional to postconventional development (here defined as stage 6 or above). Hint: seek education and avoid internalizing problems.

Most of the chapters address postconventional ego or spiritual development as intrinsically justified ends, but a few chapters address how higher levels of ego development are related to an individual’s impact on their colleagues or clients. Tracie Blumentritt reviews studies that connect ego development to effective performance by counselors and nurses, as well as studies that have found nuanced curvilinear relationships to mental health vulnerabilities, which echo Krettenauer’s curvilinear findings.

The sector of management/organizational consulting is the applied area most represented in The Postconventional Personality. Bill Joiner summarizes a book-length account he has recently published that addresses how a manager’s leadership agilities are related to specific and high levels of ego development. Elaine Herdman Barker and William Torbert in their chapter plow ground that is in many ways similar to Joiner. Like Joiner, they find that renaming Loevinger’s ego stages in the context of assessing clients in management consulting is a central step in productively revising the construct itself. Both chapters illustrate research findings through examples of how managers at different ego levels frame their actions. Both broadly see postconventional managers as more collaborative and self-aware.

But, there are also distinct differences in style and substance between their chapters. Joiner is largely content to describe concordances of leaders’ ego levels with their views on leadership, with their actual conversational style in performance, and with their approach to leading teams and facilitating organizational change. In contrast, Herdman Barker and Torbert have metatheoretical fish to fry. Like Wilber, they offer an ontological and epistemological basis to their theory in a style that strives to be both informal and authoritative. Being similar in that way to Wilber, they distinguish their ontology from his All Quadrants, All Levels theory of everything by arguing that his ontology is more cognitive.

But, their chapter’s main focus is on making a theoretical/metatheoretical and empirical/applied case for LDP revisions of the SCT. They argue that their application and adaptation of the SCT to management consulting, including its use in giving individuals feedback on their developmental level, has transformatively advanced Loevinger’s measure and theory. They also argue that her scientific method, looked at from their perch, is five developmental stages less sophisticated. Setting this particular invidious comparison aside, their chapter does much to elucidate how they champion mutuality in organizational leadership and how they conceptualize the use and validity of the LDP. Their approach focuses on change-oriented inquiry into the developmental level of an individual’s and an organization’s action logic. Their version of the phrase triple-loop learning seemed to directly build on Chris Argyris’s influential description of an individual’s double-loop learning. Triple-loop learning in their fractal approach calls attention to developmental action logic at the collective as well as individual level in the context of ongoing deliberations.

Across the chapters of the book, what is most consistently appropriated from Loevinger is her SCT instrument and her articulation of specific stages of ego development. The chapters by King and by Krettenauer are key exceptions in that they also address the dynamic sources of motive restructuring that ground her theory. In contrast, other authors who use or adapt her measure do not, in their chapters, make connections with, or argue against, her dynamic interpretations of change and stability. It is relevant that most of these authors are studying and/or promoting spiritual growth or organizational performance. In these contexts they are perhaps retroactively adapting her stages and instrument to strong pre-existing discourses and practices that have developed with some independence from the field of ego psychology. However, Cook-Greuter’s particular extensions and revisions of the SCT reflect theoretical decisions she, at least initially, was making from within the field of ego psychology, as well as from her deep familiarity with scoring the SCT instrument. Thus, these revisions deserve theoretical and empirical attention from within the originating discourse of the field of ego psychology. Pfaffenberber rises to the occasion.

Pfaffenberger argues that Cook-Greuter’s conceptualization of the drivers of ego development have a cognitive focus that substantially departs from Loevinger’s synthetic ego. Pfaffenberger’s observation that this reflects a fundamental change in Loevinger’s theory of ego development is, in my view, correct. She also cites research that I and others have done that have empirically distinguished cognitive and ego development. Pfaffenberger’s critique goes to the strength of claims for the construct validity of Cook-Greuter’s measures. In short, the substantial evidence for the construct validity of ego development, as measured by Loevinger’s SCT, does not necessarily transfer to the LDP or SCTi-MAP, which may be measuring something substantively different. Unfortunately, Cook-Greuter does not address Pfaffenberger’s incisive critique.

Nonetheless, Cook-Greuter’s chapter remains important in characterizing the evolution of her perspective and practice. Besides describing the basis for her revisions of the SCT, she shares in a personal way her evolving practical motives for her work, buttresses these with a thoughtful analysis of the valid uses of the SCT, and describes tensions that she has felt between “scientific considerations and practicality” (p. 69).

In the last chapter, Judith Stevens-Long engages a wide range of theories and perspectives in a playful and resonant style. Her brief chapter does not integrate the book, but does serve as a palate cleanser for the reader’s own reflection. She quickly dips into and out of familiar discourses as she questions and then advances the book’s central theoretical assumption, namely that ego development proceeds toward coherence in meaning-making. She suggests that a key to addressing postmodern critics of a unitary self is to highlight multiplicity of selves in coherence, which she metaphorically describes as the prism self. This particular symbol is too static for her purpose, but she does effectively bring forward psychodynamic theory in relation to Wilber, Kegan, and many others to show that postmodern observations of a multiplicity of selves in dialogue can be accommodated within holistic ego development. Her summary description of “the process of selfing” falls into the tradition of dynamic ego psychology, reflects research findings on ego development, and expresses solidarity with postmodern views of the self.

So what is the quality of the contribution of the book as a whole? On the one hand, the book is indispensible. It assembles an impressive array of research and theory on an unusual, poorly understood, and not well demonstrated phenomena, which is the development of a postconventional self. The strong focus on assessment methods gives The Postconventional Personality a stance in scientific rigor that will make it a critical support for future research. It also offers a broad view into how theories and practices are being rhetorically and metatheoretically positioned in relation to various metaphysical ontologies and epistemologies. Hearing how phenomena are redescribed through a set of very diverse voices calls forth the reader’s deeper reflection. Plus, the book’s focus on upper stages of postconventional development does much to reveal the underlying assumptions of the theories and theorists.

On the other hand, the chapter authors in their diversity generally do not mutually engage each other, even in argument. Moreover, theory, speculation, and metatheory are not always well distinguished. And so, the reader has fewer solid grappling points at hand to assist with leveraging this diversity. This reflects, perhaps, the current state of the relation between these various discourses and practices. They travel together because they share a common concern for adult holistic development and because they use common measurement tools. These similarities are indeed resources for calibrating meaning, clarifying assumptions, and making productive the spaces that fall between their different focuses on ego, spiritual, religious, and organizational development. But, that is both why the book works well and also why it does not fully achieve its potential.

Ironically, the relative lack of deep mutual engagement across discourses provides the integral reader with another ground for comparative reflection. How have the authors’ ideals and sectors of practice shaped their perspective on the highest stages of ego development? How do these ideals and sectors shape how they offer their positions? How are theory, metatheory, ontology, and epistemology related to each other and to the authors’ offered findings? What makes these relationships and offerings effective and sharable? What kind of epistemological humility is commensurate with the potential for mismeasurement, misinterpretation, and misconstrual? How are the boundaries between these discourses managed, and why this way? These questions are not the focus of this book and are only occasionally addressed explicitly. But, if these are the kinds of questions you like, and you are a free spirit, then this is also your kind of book.

About the Author

Glen Rogers

Glen Rogers, PhD, is Director of Research and Evaluation at Alverno College, Milwaukee,Wisconsin, where he works alongside faculty and staff in studying and improving the college’s ability-based curriculum, which integrates education in the liberal arts and the professions. The study of student and alumna learning outcomes has been a central part of this work. In the context of the Alverno Longitudinal Study, he has contributed to the development of a metatheoretical model of the person that articulates domains of growth and transformative learning in adults and has authored or co-authored several publications that describe this metatheory and its relationship to theory, research and practice. He has pursued his study of adult holistic learning, development, and performance for over 25 years in a way that is intentionally embedded in the college’s community of inquiry and practice.