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Kegan's Levels (or Constructive Developmental Theory)


As soon as I stumbled on people talking about Kegan’s levels, it captured my curiosity: “finally, a coherent theory of self-development!”. My hopes were of course immediately towards actually being able to use it. So I warn you to take the theory with a grain of salt.

The core idea of the theory is that there are 5 developmental levels into which where you are categorized. The levels are mutually exclusive, but you aren’t strictly pigeonholed into a particular one. You are usually in a transition from one level to another.

Each level is defined by your ability to regard particular aspects of your life as an object, rather than being completely subjected to it and thus being unable to reflect on them.

If that sounds confusing, in other words, it means that your level in Kegan’s defined hierarchy depends on how well you are aware of some aspects in your life and capitulated on them as opposed to being pushed around by forces you don’t understand.

These aspects of life are described by Berger as aspects of meaning constructing.

Huh, meaning? I believe that meaning here points to what we deem valuable to us when it is in our object space, and subconsciously identifying with the things we value when subjected to an aspect. For instance, it is meaningful for us to build interpersonal relationships on level 4, as opposed to just enjoying these relationships without giving much thought to it.

The aspects are as follows:

  • reflexes (1st level object)
  • impulses, perceptions (2nd level object, 1st level subject)
  • needs, interests, desires (3rd level object, 2nd level subject)
  • interpersonal relationships, mutuality (4th level object, 3rd level subject)
  • self-authorship, identity, ideology (5th level object, 4th level subject)

(Clearly the list are simply labels which don’t do much in helping to embrace the full extent of what is seen as an object on each level. There’s an image of a table that uses these labels, but neither the table or the diagrams seem to provide much value, unless you already understand the theory, but here it is anyway: 5 stages of development.)

What makes the theory constructive and developmental is that each level builds on the object-level understanding of the previous level, thus developing to higher levels can be seen as constructing understanding of reality. It’s like 5 Matryoshka dolls inside each other.


Level 0/1

The first level usually only governs small children, in which there are no rules, no laws seeming to govern reality. Everything is an extension of oneself, a playground of sorts, or a dream you cannot make sense of. Transition out of this stage is via acquiring an understanding of reality that the things you sense might not actually be yourself after all, but rather can continue existing after you have stopped paying attention to them.

Level 2

The second level is the domain of mostly older children and adolescents, with adults possibly spending many years here as well. Here beliefs, rules seem rigid, and learned patterns about the world feel constant. Kegan argues that on this level the individual cannot tell lies as they cannot hold both their own perspective and another’s at the same time. In a nutshell, on this level you are a selfish agent (you don’t know you’re selfish) acting in a world with no regard to others’ motives or consequences that may come of it.

Level 3

The third level is where internal values come to play. The values are drawn from external influencers, and are used in decision making, including self-reflection. Should there be any conflicting ideologies or values from the influencers, you consult others how to resolve these conflicts. Dealing with the conflict, if told to resolve that yourself, you become even more confused and at a loss than before. Since selfishness contradicts so many of the acquired external values on the third level, it is also very difficult to break out of this in order to transition to the upper level (where self-esteem comes from an independently-constructed reality of self). The rightness of a decision ultimately is judged by other agents and on this level you try your best to satisfy that. Approximately 58% of the adult population is at this level or lower.

Excerpt of case study from Berger:

Walter’s Third order meaning system means that he finds himself over his head, though, when he is faced with issues or decisions that require him to make independent judgments. To know whether he’s doing a good job as a teacher, Walter turns to others. He wants a class where “there’s not any more argument from the students” and barring that, wants at least “to find support from the…other teachers or…[be able] to relay a story and to have them say, ‘I thought you handled that well.’” Without such positive feedback, he asks, “What’s the meaning of life here?” Part of the necessity for the feedback is that without it Walter has no way to decide whether he was a successful teacher. “It’s just a mystery,” he says.

Level 4

In the fourth level of Kegan’s framework, the biggest shift comes in that the self comes into existence. All of the previous ideologies, opinions, views can be viewed as objects rather than being subjected to them directly. They become manageable, governable, and you can use them to further develop your own values and can correct yourself as new information comes in. The opinions of others are still taken into account, however in this level the self comes into importance in making decisions. Thanks to all of this, you cannot become as confused at this level by conflicting meaning systems, because you have your own system which to make decisions with. However, should the inner meaning system be at conflict with itself, it cannot be easily resolved.

Excerpt of case study from Berger:

Instead of taking responsibility for his students’ actions, José has perspective on them. He says, “I didn’t feel as kind of personally betrayed but rather like they had stepped off this track of working hard, working honestly, kind of maximizing their potential…. And it didn’t feel so much like a personal affront but rather I thought that this was the kind of student you were and you showed me differently…” At the Third order, a teacher would be embedded in a particular ideology or institution—or even in the relationship with students or colleagues. Because he is in the Fourth order, José can hold on to a separate feeling of self while simultaneously feeling that the students betrayed the contract of the classroom.

Level 5

Kegan asserts that the fifth level is never seen before midlife. In the fifth level you have learned the limits of your inner meaning system and the limits of any identities you might hold. You start seeing more similarities and overlappings between the inner systems of other people. You deal better with controversies and paradoxes. You see problems with different decision making systems, admitting that there might also be a better one than you currently hold. One of such problems can be that your system can contribute to your inability to see better alternatives.

Excerpt of case study from Berger:

By the time Kathleen was in her early 50s, she had become chief counsel for in a large government agency. During her fast rise through the early years in her profession, she was “much more willing, for the sake of prestige, status, intellectual challenge” not to have what she would later think of as her “whole self” engaged in her work. While emphasizing the “whole person” and being “a leader in doing that” with her staff, Kathleen “was much less in touch with what that actually meant to me.” While her work “mattered to me a lot and was important to do,” Kathleen never “felt like it was an expression of who I was.”



And now that you’ve read all this…

The theory becomes kind of flat and fluffless when we simply use the core ideas from each level (taken from Stanford mailing list, includes 0th level, rephrased for clarity):

Level Philosophy
0 living in an objectless world, a world in which everything sensed is taken to be an extension of oneself
1 thinking fantastic and illogical, feelings impulsive and fluid, social-relating egocentric
2 rules, sets of directions, and dualisms give shape and structure to one’s daily activity
3 other people are experienced as sources of internal validation, orientation, or authority
4 the capacity to take responsibility for and ownership of one’s internal authority
5 recognizing commonalities and interdependence with others

Then again you can argue that the core philosophy of a level doesn’t tell the full picture and what Kegan points to isn’t completely describable by a few sentences.


Kegan’s theory keeps emphasising how hard it is to reach level 5 and usually not before midlife and even then it’s really unlikely. But I dare to digress. So let’s see where we are…

In order to beat level 0 all I need to do is understand that I am not everything. Yep.

Do I acknowledge my impulses and perceptions? Yup, definitely. Level 1 is beat so that means I am now at level 2.

Can my needs, interests, desires be seen as an object? Simply understanding this question means “yes”.

I reason about my relationships with other people. I have a governing self and if the people that influence me disagree with me on matter of values, I stay on top. I self-reflect, see problems, adjust behavior. I seem to easily exhibit level 4 behaviour.

And finally, the mythical level 5. It seems to me that anyone who has a foundation in probability theory and has brought it into life must necessarily be at this level.

The aspects of level 5 are reasonably straightforward to understand on the basis of probability theory and logic and its many implications, such as:

  • seeing the possible limits of your own meaning making system as brains function unoptimally (which is why we have cognitive biases)
  • understanding that personal identity is only in the brain (and any particular identity you might hold might not be best aligned with your true values)
  • you can hold a paradox in your brain without malfunctioning (seeing that as merely your map, not the territory)
  • being generally humble about being possibly wrong

Recognizing commonalities is also sort of a statistical inevitability. I am not sure what is meant by interdependence with others, but by the sound of it, in a society we all depend on each other one way or another (possibly by very long causal chains), so that means we’re interdependent, right?

This is also the biggest peeve with the theory that the categories don’t seem really that difficult to achieve for reasonably smart people (if you are reading this, you are one), even before mid-age. But I am open to considering consensus bias being in effect here, thinking that everyone can reason themselves through the levels. Maybe it is really hard. And perhaps reasoning isn’t the same as living it.


So when we flatten the ideas of each level, they are easy to obtain. Some might argue that Kegan said this and that also for a particular level, but then it becomes the problem of not being well-defined enough. But if this theory is not well-defined, then how can we really reason about it if it is so vague and open to interpretation?

If you read some of the studies made on categorizing people to these levels, it seems like the tests are still done on pretty subjective basis, like interviewing and asking for people how they think and feel. But for why it is said that level 5 is so hard to achieve is also, I believe, because their described behaviour pattern matches lower levels and so the data comes out in a way that assigns a higher likelihood on the individual belonging to a lower level as well, no matter that they might actually have the object-level understanding of level 5.


I got nothing out of this theory in the form of knowledge in order to make better life decisions that are aligned to my values. But perhaps that is just my ignorance towards what the theory actually promises it can or cannot do. I didn’t find any disclaimers :).

Despite the issues and all of this questionable value and incoherence of the theory leading to believe it is without grounds in reality, I do think some people in my life are in level 3 by the theory. I have seen that they do not have a governing self, but rather draw all of their values from other influencers by the looks of it. Their actions seem to be motivated to satisfy their influencers’ views, rather than understanding they don’t really need to conform and can Really Do Whatever You Want.

Then again, it is not the point of the theory to categorize, but rather to be able to self-develop. It also goes without saying that to get to where you want to be, you first have to know where you stand.


Self-development in the current world is done usually in a very crude way. You learn patterns, patterns on top of other patterns, resulting in an ad hoc model of the world (map is not the territory). And then you have influencers who preach it’s just the way things are, even though they might not necessarily mean it to be absolute truth. Then you start seeing serious problems and confusion in life, you try to make even better rules on top of both of these patterns and truths, but even these might fall apart in the face of reality. It’s all very messy.

It would do the world a lot of good if we had a coherent high-level developmental theory that helped people grow into having more accurate models about the world and people around them, step-by-step throughout life.

Until then, we have (a lower level, but still immensely useful) epistemic and instrumental rationality, but it does not fit all personality types and can eat your cat if used wrong.

After 4 Years of This Post Being Up

I think initially I was way too harsh on demanding Kegan’s theory to be strict and useful as a tool for an individual’s development. I don’t really think it was designed as such.

Naturally, it has some pretty OK observations about how people might be potentially categorized w.r.t. their developmental levels. It might not be the only hypothesis, but it is one and it’s known.

To give it more credit, it might be of help in analyzing small populations (like a classroom) and subsequently helping these groups of people collectively reach to a stronger sense of the world and self, not just in theory, but also in practice. I think all of the aspects mentioned are actually good to have in your object space either way.

All-in-all I hope that both my explanations and teardowns have been of use to someone.