Loevinger's stages of ego development

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Jane Loevinger's stages of ego development 'conceptualize a theory of ego development that was based on Erikson's psychosocial model', as well as on the works of Harry Stack Sullivan, and in which 'the ego was theorized to mature and evolve through stages across the lifespan as a result of a dynamic interaction between the inner self and the outer environment'.[1] Her theory is significant in contributing to the delineation of ego development, which goes beyond fragmentation of trait psychology and looks at personalities as meaningful wholes.[2]


Loevinger conceived of an ego development system that would closely resemble moral development but be both broader in scope and utilize empirical methods of study.[3] Loevinger started by creating an objective test of mothers' attitudes to problems in family life, which she called the Family Problems Scale.[3] This first test did not yield the expected results, but Loevinger noted a strong similarity between authoritarian family ideology and the concept of authoritarian personality being developed at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s.[4] Loevinger noticed that the women who scored at the most extreme ends of the authoritarian scale also tended to be the most immature. These women would tend to agree with such statements as "[a] mother should be her daughter's best friend" while at the same time endorsing punitive behavior. Additionally, Loevinger observed that a liberal, non-authoritarian personality was not the opposite of a high authoritarian personality. Rather, anomie, a disorganized and detached social style was the opposite of the high authoritarian, evidencing a curvilinear relationship.

Loevinger theorized that this was because the Authoritarian Family Ideology' scale was not measuring just authoritarianism but some broader concept which weighed heavily upon all the other constructs she measured. By combining this theoretical framework with Sullivan and Grant's interpersonal maturity continuum, she created the concept of ego development.[5] From this new concept, Loevinger then developed the Washington University Sentence Completion Test, which remains the primary method of determining ego development on Loevinger's scale.

The nine stages[edit]


Loevinger describes the ego as a process rather than a thing.[6] The ego is viewed as the frame of reference (or lens) one uses to construct and interpret one's world.[6] This contains impulse control and character development, with interpersonal relations, and with cognitive preoccupations, including self-concept.[7] Sullivan (1958) 'had proposed four levels of "interpersonal maturity and interpersonal integration": Impulsive, Conformist, Conscientious, and Autonomous'.[8] Developing over time from that initial framework, Loevinger completed a developmental model including nine sequential stages, each of which represents a progressively more complex way of perceiving oneself in relation to the world. Every stage provides a frame of reference to organize and give meaning to experience over the individual's life course. 'Since each new ego stage or frame of reference builds on the previous one and integrates it, no one can skip a stage...One has not yet acquired the interpersonal logic'.[9]

As the adult ego develops, Loevinger considered, a sense of self-awareness emerges in which one becomes aware of discrepancies between conventions and one's own behavior. For some, development reaches a plateau and does not continue. Among others, greater ego integration and differentiation continue.[10] Loevinger proposed eight/nine stages of ego in development,[11] the six which occur in adulthood being conformist, conscientious-conformist, conscientious, individualistic, autonomous, and integrated. The majority of adults are at the conscientious-conformist level.

The stages[edit]

Impulsive (E2)[edit]

Here the child 'asserts his growing sense of self' and views the world in ego-centric terms.[7] At this stage 'the child is preoccupied with bodily impulses, particularly (age-appropriate) sexual and aggressive ones.[12] The child is too immersed in the moment and view the world solely in terms of how things affect them. Their impulses affirm their sense of self however are 'curbed by the environment'. When someone meets their needs they are considered 'good', and if they do not meet their needs they are considered bad—often resulting in impulsive retaliation such as s/he will run away or run home'.[13] Discipline is viewed by the child as restraints, and 'rewards and punishments' are seen as being "Nice to Me" or "Mean to Me". This is because the Child's 'needs and feelings are experienced mostly in bodily modes',[14] and 'the child's orientation at this stage is almost exclusively to the present rather than to past or future'.[15]

Self-Protective (E3)[edit]

The "Self-Protective" stage represents "the first step towards self-control of impulses. The Self-Protective person has the notion of blame, but he externalizes it to other people or to circumstances."[16] At this level, the child "craves a morally prescribed, rigidly enforced, unchanging order," and if maintained too long "an older child or adult who remains here may become opportunistic, deceptive, and preoccupied with control...naive instrumental hedonism".[17]

While a degree of conceptual cohesion has been reached, morality is essentially a matter of anticipating rewards and punishments, with the motto: "Don’t Get Caught."

Conformist (E4)[edit]

'Most children around school age...progress to the next stage, conformity'.[18] Persons begin to view themselves and other as conforming to socially approved codes or norms.[19] Teaching education as adult development. Theory into Practice, 17(3), p. 231 Loevinger describes this stage of having 'the greatest cognitive simplicity. There is a right way and a wrong way and it is the same for everyone...or broad classes of people.[20] One example of groups conforming together at this age is by gender—boys and girls. Here persons are very much invested in belonging to and obtaining the approval of groups.[21] Behaviour is judged externally, not by intentions, and this concept of 'belonging to the group (family or peers) is most valued'.[22] 'the child starts to identify his welfare with that of the group', though for the stage 'to be consolidated, there must be a strong element of trust'.[16] An ability to take in rules of the group appears, and another's disapproval becomes a sanction, not only fear of punishment. However rules and norms are not yet distinguished.

'While the Conformist likes and trusts other people within his own group, he may define that group narrowly and reject any or all outgroups', and stereotypes roles on the principle of ' social desirability: people are what they ought to be'.[21]

Self-Aware (E5)[edit]

Loevinger considered the Self-Aware (also known as 'Conscientious-Conformist') Transitional Stage to be 'model for adults in our society',[23] and thought that few pass the stage before at least the age of twenty-five.

The stage is largely characterized by two characteristics: 'an increase in self-awareness and the capacity to imagine multiple possibilities in situations'...[24] [was] a stable position in mature life', one marked by the development of 'rudimentary self-awareness and self-criticism': however the closeness of the self to norms and expectations 'reveal the transitional nature of these conceptions, midway between the group stereotypes of the Conformist and the appreciation for individual differences at higher levels'.[25] Loevinger also considered the level to produce 'a deepened interest in interpersonal relations'.[26]

Conscientious (E6)[edit]

While progressing to 'the conscientious stage...individuals at this level, and even more often at higher levels, refer spontaneously to psychological development'.[27] By this stage, 'the internalisation of rules is completed', although at the same time 'exceptions and contingencies are recognised'.[28] Goals and ideals are acknowledged, and there is a new sense of responsibility, with guilt triggered by hurting another, rather than by breaking rules. 'The tendency to look at things in a broader social context' was offset by a self seen as apart from the group, but also from the other's point of view; as a result 'descriptions of people are more realistic...[with] more complexities'.[29] Standards are self-chosen, and distinguished from manners, just as people are seen in terms of their motives and not just their actions.

The Conscientious subject 'sees life as presenting choices; [s]he holds the origin of his own destiny...aspires to achievement, ad astra per aspera '[30] but by his or her own standards.

Individualistic (E7)[edit]

During this stage, persons demonstrate both a respect for individuality and interpersonal ties.[31] Loevinger explains' To proceed beyond the Conscientious Stage a person must become more tolerant of himself and of others...out of the recognition of individual differences and of complexities of circumstances'[32] developed at the previous level. The individualistic ego shows a broad-minded tolerance of and respect for the autonomy of both self and others. With a new distancing from role identities, 'moralism begins to be replaced by an awareness of inner conflict', while the new stage is also "marked by a heightened sense of individuality and a concern for emotional dependence".[32] Subjective experience is opposed to objective reality, inner reality to outward appearance; and 'vivid and personal versions of ideas presented as cliches at lower levels'[33] may emerge.

A growing concern for psychological causality and development will typically go hand in hand with 'greater complexity in conceptions of interpersonal interaction'.[33]

Autonomous (E8)[edit]

Loevinger described this stage as marked by the freeing of the person from oppressive demands of conscience in the preceding stage'.[34] People at this stage are "synthesizers" and are able to conceptually integrate ideas.[35] The autonomous person also 'recognizes the limitations to autonomy, that emotional interdependence is inevitable'.[34] The stage might also see a 'confrontation with the limitations of abilities and roles as part of deepening self-acceptance'.[36]

'Self-fulfillment becomes a frequent goal, partly supplanting achievement', while there may well be a wider 'capacity to acknowledge and to cope with inner conflicts',[34] such as between needs and duties.

'A high toleration for ambiguity...[and] conceptual complexity'[34]—the capacity to embrace Polarity, Complexity, Multiple Facets, and to integrate ideas—is a further feature of the Autonomous Stage, as too is the expression of 'respect for other people's need for autonomy in clear terms'.[37]

Integrated (E9)[edit]

According to Loevinger, this is a rarely attained stage. At the Integrated stage,"'learning is understood as unavoidable...the unattainable is renounced".[36] The ego shows wisdom, broad empathy towards oneself and others, and a capacity to not just be aware of inner conflicts like the individualistic ego or tolerate inner conflicts like the autonomous ego, but reconcile and make peace with those issues.[38] This 'Reconciling inner conflicts...cherishing of individuality'[39] are key elements of its Self-Actualizing nature, along with a fully worked-out identity which includes 'reconciliation to one's destiny'.[40]

Possible tenth stage[edit]

As differentiation increases, the model of ego development has found broader acceptance amongst international researchers. Therefore, a new stage E10 has been mentioned in reference to "Ich-Entwicklung", the German equivalent of Loevinger's stages.[citation needed]

"Need to evaluate things and persons is abandoned. Merging with the world, no more holding, but engaging in the flow of things. Playful alternation between seriousness and triviality, intermingling of different states of consciousness, thinking in time cycles and historical dimensions, full acceptance of differences and people as they are."

Critical response[edit]

Susanne Cook-Greuter has further refined both Loevinger's sentence-completion test instrument as well as definitions and distinctions among the stages of ego development.[41][self-published source?]

Some have maintained that 'in general, Loevinger's model suffers from a lack of clinical grounding', and that arguably 'like Kohlberg's theory...it confuses content and structure'.[42] Based as her research was on the assessment of verbalised material, because 'the measure focuses so heavily on conscious verbal responses, it does not discriminate intelligent, liberal people with severe ego defects from those who actually are quite integrated'.[43]

Nevertheless, the wide extent of her research must give a certain weight to her findings. 'Loevinger's (1976) model of development is derived entirely from empirical research using her sentence completion test...The manuals contain hundreds of actual completions, organized by exemplary categories'.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard M. Lerner et al eds., Handbook of Psychology: Developmental Psychology (2003) p. 470
  2. ^ Blasi A., "The theory of Ego Development and the Measure" (1993) p. 17
  3. ^ a b Loevinger, J. Paradigms of personality (1987) p. 222
  4. ^ Loevinger, J. Paradigms of personality (1987) p. 223
  5. ^ Loevinger, J. Paradigms of personality (1987) p. 224
  6. ^ a b Witherell, S., & Erickson, V.,(2001). "Teacher Education as Adult Development", Theory into Practice, 17(3), p.231
  7. ^ a b Loevinger, J., & Wessler, R. (1970) Measuring ego development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  8. ^ Michel Hersen et al., Comprehensive Handbook of Psychological Assessment: Personality Assessment (2004) p. 602
  9. ^ Pauline Young-Eisendrath, "Ego Development: Inferring the Client's Frame of Reference" Social Casework 63 (1982) p.325-6
  10. ^ Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  11. ^ Hy, L. X. & Loevinger, J. (1996). Measuring Ego Development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  12. ^ Loevinger, p. 16
  13. ^ Loevinger, J., & Wessler, R., p. 4
  14. ^ Young-Eisendrath, p. 327
  15. ^ Loevinger, p. 16
  16. ^ a b Loevinger, p. 17
  17. ^ Loevinger, p. 415 and p. 17
  18. ^ Jane Loevinger and Ruth Wessler, Measuring Ego Development Vol I (San Francisco 1970) p. 4
  19. ^ Witherell, C. S., & Erickson, V. L. (1978)
  20. ^ Loevinger, J. (1987) Paradigms of personality. New York: Freeman
  21. ^ a b Loevinger, p. 17–18
  22. ^ Young-Eisendrath, p. 328
  23. ^ Young-Eisendrath, p. 329
  24. ^ Witherell, C. S., & Erickson, V. L., p. 231
  25. ^ Loevinger, p. 19 and p. 153
  26. ^ Loevinger/Wessler, p. 74
  27. ^ Loevinger/Wessler, p. 5
  28. ^ Loevinger, p. 20-1
  29. ^ Loevinger, p. 22 and p. 154
  30. ^ Loevinger, p. 154 and p. 21
  31. ^ Blasi, A. (1993) The theory of ego development and the measure. Psychological Inquiry,
  32. ^ a b Loevinger, p. 22
  33. ^ a b Loevinger, p. 154
  34. ^ a b c d Loevinger, p. 23
  35. ^ Witherell & Erickson, p. 231
  36. ^ a b Young-Eisendrath, p. 330
  37. ^ Loevinger/Wessler, p. 102
  38. ^ Witherell, C. S., & Erickson, p. 231
  39. ^ Loevinger, p. 25
  40. ^ Loevinger/Wessler, p. 107
  41. ^ Cook-Greuter, Susanne (1985). "Ego Development: Nine Levels of Increasing Embrace".
  42. ^ Drew Westen, Self and Society (Cambridge 1985) p. 151-2
  43. ^ Westen, p. 152
  44. ^ Polly Young-Eisendrath/Florence L. Wiedemann, Female Authority (1990) p. 52

Work cited from Aging, The Individual, and Society, 8th edition, by Susan M. Hillier and Georgia M. Barrow