Ego Devlopment : the nine stages theory of Loevinger

As every reader of this blog knows I am hooked to developmental stage theories, so couldn’t resist passing along this nine stage ego development theory of Loevinger. I will draw heavily from a course lecture by Prof. Kenneth Locke of Univ of Idaho, while describing the nine stage theory (prof Locke meanwhile clubs the 7th and 8th stage together into one, which I like and which takes the stages number to eight). Here you can find the full transcript of the lecture and here you can find the slides.

Before proceeding with the theory, let me tell you a bit about the method used by Loevinger. She used sentence completion paradigm where subjects had to complete sentences like

  • My main problem is …
  • Being with other people …
  • The thing I like about myself is…

Here the responses provided were analyzed to find the process by which the ego made sense of experiences. I would request my readers to pause here and before proceeding to read the entire mail, complete these sentence stems in the comments below and let me offer them an analysis of which stage they are predominantly on. to give you an example of what you can fill, the first sentence ” My main problem is …” can be filled in many different ways like “…a slow internet connection”, ” …the readability of this blog”, ” …your thesis that seems too much steeped into stages mode of thinking” etc. do not worry too much about what you fill, juts go a=head and complete the sentences!!

Now lets get to the ego formation stages themselves:

The first stage is the pre-social and symbiotic stage. This is the stage that the ego is typically in during infancy. A baby has a very id-like ego that is very focused on gratifying immediate needs. They tend to be very attached to the primary caregiver, often the mother, and while they differentiate her from the rest of the world, they tend experience a cognitive confusion and emotional fusion between the caregiver and the self. But our understanding of this stage is more speculative than our understanding of other stages because pre-verbal infants we cannot use sentence completions and instead must rely on inferences based on observations.

The second stage is the impulsive stage. While this is the modal stage for toddlers, people can be in this stage for much longer, and in fact a small minority of people remain in this impulsive stage throughout their life. At this stage the ego continues to be focused on bodily feelings, basic impulses, and immediate needs. Not being particularly good at meeting these needs on their own, however, they are dependent and demanding. They are too immersed in the moment and in their own needs to think or care much about others; instead, they experience the world in egocentric terms, in terms of how things are affecting me. If something or someone meets my needs, it is good; if something or someone frustrates my needs, it is bad. Thus, their thinking is very simplistic and dichotomous.

The third stage is the self-protective stage. While this stage is particularly common in early and middle childhood, some individuals remain at this stage throughout their lives. The self-protective ego is more cognitively sophisticated than the impulsive ego, but they are still using their greater awareness of cause and effect, of rules and consequences, to get what they want from others. Therefore, they tend to be exploitive, manipulative, hedonistic, and opportunistic. Their goals is simply to “get what I want without getting caught”. Assuming others are like them, they are wary of what others want. They are also self-protective in the sense of externalizing blame–blaming others when anything goes wrong. Individuals who remain in the stage into adolescence and adulthood tend to, unless they are very smart, get into trouble; indeed, research using Loevinger’s sentence completion test shows that a high proportion of juvenile delinquents and inmates score at this self-protective stage.

The fourth stage is the conformist stage. We tend to see this stage emerging at the time Freud said the superego first emerges, around five or six, and is the most common stage later in elementary school and in junior high school. However, a number of people remain at this stage throughout their lives. Conformist individuals are very invested in belonging to and obtaining the approval of important reference groups, such as peer groups. They tend to view and evaluate themselves and others in terms of externals—how one looks, the music that you listen to, the words or slang that you use, the roles people assume to show what group they are in and their status within the group. They view themselves and others in terms of stereotypes—broad generalizations about what members of certain groups are or are not like. While from the outside such individuals may seem superficial or phony, they do not experience it that way because this group self is their real self. More generally, they tend to view the world in simple, conventional, rule-bound and moralistic ways. What is right and wrong is clear to them—namely, what their group thinks is right or wrong. Their feelings also tend to be simple and rule-governed, in the sense that there are some situations in which one feels happy, and other situations in which one feels sad. While Loevinger does try to avoid describing some stages as better than others, she does use the somewhat pejorative terms “banal” and “clichéd” to describe the conformist understanding of feelings. Interestingly, both feelings of happiness and feelings of shame tend to peak at this stage. Shame peaks because they are so concerned about approval from their group; consequently, the threat of shame is a powerful tool that groups can use to control individuals at this stage. On the other hand, as long as their place in the group is not threatened, conformist egos are quite happy, even happier than egos at the later stages, where right and wrong can never again be so simple and clear.

The fifth stage is the self-aware stage. This stage is the most common stage among adults in the United States. The self-aware ego shows an increased but still limited awareness deeper issues and the inner lives of themselves and others. The being to wonder what do I think as opposed to what my parents and peers think about such issues as God and religion, morality, mortality, love and relationships. They tend to not be at the point where they reach much resolution on these issues, but they are thinking about them. They are also more aware that they and others have unique feelings and motives, different from those that might be prescribed by the feeling rules they have learned from movies and books and other people. They recognize that just because one is part of the group does not mean that one always feels or thinks the same as the other group members and that’s true for other people in other groups as well. In short, they are appreciating themselves and others as unique. Increasing awareness of one’s unique feelings and motives creates tension between the “real me” and the “expected me”, which can lead to increased conflicts with family and peers. Finally, this ability to wonder whether your family or peers are right about what is right and wrong, to question whether you have been right about what is right and wrong, can lead to increased self-criticism.
At the sixth stage, the conscientious stage, this tendency towards self-evaluation and self-criticism continues. The conscientious ego values responsibility, achievement and the pursuit of high ideals and long-term goals. Morality is based on personally-evaluated principles, and behavior is guided by self-evaluated standards. Consequently, violating one’s standards induces guilt. This differs from the conformist stage where the tendency is to feel shame. Shame arises from not meeting the others’ expectations; guilt arises from not meeting one’s own expectations. Greater self-reflection leads to greater conceptual complexity; experiencing the self and the world in more complex ways; and this includes experiencing one’s own feelings and motives in more accurate and differentiated ways and expressing them in more unique and personal terms. Finally, with increasing awareness of the depth and uniqueness of others’ feelings and motives as well comes increasing concern with mutuality and empathy in relationships.

Before going on I should mention that the preceding three stages—the conformist, self-aware, and conscientious stages—are the most common for adults in the United States, and there are fewer and fewer people at the stages we are about to examine. Moreover, Loevinger suggested that we all have a hard time understanding stages that are more than one level above our own, so for many of us who are at the middle stages it can be hard to fully grasp the highest stages.

At the seventh stage, the individualistic stage, the focus on relationships increases, and although achievement is still valued, relationships tend to be more valued even more. The individualistic ego shows a broad-minded tolerance of and respect for the autonomy of both the self and others. But a wish gives others the autonomy to be who they really are can conflict with needs for connection and intimacy. The heightened sense of individuality and self-understanding can lead to vivid and unique ways of expressing the self as well as to an awareness of inner conflicts and personal paradoxes. But this is an incipient awareness of conflicting wishes and thoughts and feelings—for closeness and distance, for achievement and acceptance, and so on—but there is unlikely to yet be any resolution or integration of these inner conflicts.

At stage eight, the autonomous stage, there is increasing respect for one’s own and others’ autonomy. The autonomous ego cherishes individuality and uniqueness and self-actualization; individuals’ unique and unexpected paths are a source of joy. And these independent paths are no longer seen in opposition to depending on each other; rather relationships are appreciated as an interdependent system of mutual support; in other words, it takes a village to raise and sustain an autonomous ego. There is also greater tolerance of ambiguity. In particular, conflicts—both inner conflicts and conflicts between people—are appreciated as inevitable expressions of the fluid and multifaceted nature of people and of life in general; and accepted as such, they are more easier faced and coped with. Finally, the heightened and acute awareness of one’s own inner space is manifest in vivid ways of articulating feelings.

At the final stage, the integrated stage, the ego shows wisdom, broad empathy towards oneself and others, and a capacity to not just be aware inner conflicts like the individualistic ego or tolerate inner conflicts like the autonomous ego, but reconcile a number or inner conflicts and make peace with those issues that will remain unsolvable and those experiences that will remain unattainable. The integrated ego finally has a full sense of identity, of what it is, and at this stage it is seeking to understand and actualize my own potentials and to achieve integration of all those multi-faceted aspects of myself that have become increasing vivid as I’ve moved through the preceding three stages. In Loevinger’s research this highest stage is reached by less than 1% of adults in the United States.

Prof. Locke, does a good job of describing the stages, so I have juts copied the relevant sections from the transcript. Its however important to note the parallels here with other eight stage developmental theories. The first stage has to do with the differentiation of self from world and formation of ego in the first place. The second stage has to do with egocentric ego formation. The third with manipulative ego formation. The fourth with societal and conformist ego formation. The fifth stage with a self -aware or reflective ego formation. The sixth stage is qualitatively different and involves issues such as relationships with others and issues of intimacy and ego involved in relationships. The seventh and eighth stages have to do with interpersonal ego and the last with an integrative ego. All this follows the general developmental template and framework.

So don’t forget to fill the sentences completion exercise and let me speculate on the ego stage of my readership!

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7 thoughts on “Ego Devlopment : the nine stages theory of Loevinger

  1. Antoine

    Great! I’d love to answer your three questions.

    1) To me, my greatest problem is consistently matching my actions with my values. I have an idea of who I want to develop into and manifest in the world and my actions do not always match this. Sometimes I can, but often I don’t.
    2) Being with other people for me has become less compelling than it used to be since starting my new line of work. My job is very people intensive and I need a lot of ‘down time’ or recovery time, time to spend by myself.
    3) The thing I like about myself is that I am very reflective about my life. I think a lot about my personal development, about how I show up in the world, about how to be responsible for my thoughts and actions, about creating and responding to my life deliberately.

    So will you publish your response to my posting on this website so that I will know what you think?

  2. Sandy G

    Hi Antoine,

    your responses seem to fit somewhere between the fifth and sixth stages viz. self-aware and conscientious stages. You seem to be a very self-aware person and I know that your job, which requires you to interface with a lot of people, may have a put a damper on your enthusiasm to relate to other people, but that is somehow missing from your responses. so, at fifth or sixth stage …and this is my personal opinion and I am not even a qualified psychologist, so take this with a grain of salt!!

  3. MedleyMisty

    I realize that this is really old, but hey. I’d like to have a go.

    1. My main problem is understanding the human species.

    It’s like the world is this beautiful joyful awesome place and then there’s this rip in the fabric, an ugly hole where human empathy is supposed to be. There’s the warmth of the sun and the beauty of grass and trees and the sky and the love of all the other species and then there’s a cold dark place, a place of apathy and greed and selfishness and cruelty and hate.

    I think that maybe that’s the last thing I have to do – I have to integrate that cold evil into the rest of it. I have to learn to accept it, not recoil from it as tendrils of hate and anger snake out of it and wrap themselves around my feet.

    I have to free myself of the abyss and accept it with love for what it is before I can really get to work on it. I may be on my way out of that cave, but I am not yet fully free of it. When I am standing free and liberated in the sun, then I can turn around and face it and go into it and not so much pull people out from it as make it okay for them to walk out under their own power.

    And I’m not going to do that by cursing them for choosing to stay inside.

    2. Being with other people can be incredibly painful and also blindingly full of joy. Sometimes you smile at a stranger and they smile back and everything is green and golden and good and there’s love swirling all around. Other times it’s like everyone is sticking a Bendy Straw of Doom in you and sucking your energy out and you can’t stand to be around people.

    3. The thing I like most about myself is…hmm. I don’t think that this is something that I like about myself. It’s more one of the experiences of living inside this particular bag of skin that I really enjoy and value.

    It’s like driving my Thunderbird and slinging it through curves on a late afternoon when the sun is shining in lovely orange tones on the tops of the trees that are part of me and there is wonderful music on the radio and I roll the windows down and smell the fields and freshly cut grass while the wind lifts up my hair.

    So I guess it’s my ability to sort of meld with the universe and feel such incredible joy. It’s like – when I die, I’ll know that I lived life. That I drank in the sun’s warmth, that I felt the breeze on my skin, that I noticed the leaf lying so perfectly on the pavement.

    Here’s a few paragraphs I wrote a year and a half ago that I think expresses it.

    I am joy. I am love. I am beautiful. I am universal.

    I am child-like. I am as old as space and time.

    I am whiny. I am stoic. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I say mean things about strangers, and sometimes I am so overtaken by their pain that I curl up and sob.

    I can be selfish. I can erase all appearances of an ego. I am, and I am not. I am real, and then I blink and fade and come back and am real again.

    I am joyful noise, and I am eternal silence.

    I am emptiness and the absence of form, and I am always changing.

  4. MedleyMisty

    Oh wait, was I supposed to keep it to just one sentence?

    How can you do that? *pets her words* Words are so pretty and nice and I like them so much.

    So should I try again and keep it to one sentence?

    1. My biggest problem is that I cannot understand conformity, prejudice, selfishness, and human evil in general and so I tend to be rather harsh about it.

    2. Being with other people can be a really joyful and spiritual thing or it can be hell, depending on context.

    3. The thing I like about myself is my openness to experiencing being alive, to just feel what I feel no matter what it is.

  5. Sandy G

    Hi MedleyMisty,

    Give me some time. I’ll try to post an analysis soon.

    Sandeep G

  6. annette

    Hi Sandeep, are you still doing this?

    My main problem is self organisation, self discipline

    Being with other people lifts my mood

    The thing I like about myself is my drive for self improvement in self and other activities (being a better parent, carer as well as a better student or runner for example)

    Many thanks,

    1. sandygautam Post author

      Hi Annette,

      That was more for fun; I dont think I’m qualified enough to do that sort of analysis; that said, given the stage descriptions you should be able to make some sense of where you fit on your own!

      Best wishes,
      Sandeep G

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