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An Overview of Constructive Developmental Theory (CDT)

2010 June 9

A generation ago, developmental psychologists focused on infants, children and adolescents because it was assumed that by the time we reached our early twenties, the mind was fully developed.  Several decades of research later, this premise has been proven to be false; the adult mind does continue to develop, albeit in different ways for different people.

The term “Constructive-Developmental Theory” derives its name from: “developmental”, as in cognitive development; “constructive”, as in we construct meaning about the world around us; “constructive-developmental”, as in the way we construct meaning can develop.

Building on the work of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, William Perry, and others, psychologist Robert Kegan developed a theory of adult cognitive development that defines five stages of mental complexity or “orders of mind”.  These developmental stages are not about higher intelligence or IQ, nor are higher orders intrinsically “better”.  What they represent are five levels of qualitatively more complex ways of thinking.

The Subject/Object Relationship: A key concept in understanding these orders of mind is what is known as the subject/object relationship.

There are those aspects of experience which we can perceive, take responsibility for and problem-solve around.  These can be thought of as what we are able to hold as object.  For example, a small child may be aware of the brightness of the sun, the scratchiness of his clothes, and the pull of his mother’s hand.  Meanwhile, there are also aspects of experience which we are not aware of, which we cannot take responsibility for and can therefore not problem-solve around. These aspects of experience we can consider being subject to.  For example, when the child is angry, his expression of anger is transparent; when he experiences joy, he smiles.  He has no emotional filters.  He is developmentally incapable of seeing emotions as object and is therefore subject to them.  Meanwhile, an adult might feel angry, identify the emotion as anger, but choose to suppress expressing his anger until he comes home from work.  In this way, the adult is holding emotion as object. As a result, the adult is no longer subject to his impulses the way the child was.  Of course the adult may also express his emotion in the moment, but a more complex order of mind gives the adult a choice that the child does not have—yet.

We can therefore think of the subject/object relationship as describing what we have in our perceptions, versus what has us.  What can be seen as object represents the content of one’s knowing.  Meanwhile, what one is subject to provides a clue about the underlying structure of one’s knowing.  Each order of mind is subject to its underlying structure, which will be described next.  As a result, the subject/object relationship is fundamental to understanding this stage theory.

Kegan’s theory describes five developmental stages or orders of mind: the Impulsive Mind, Instrumental Mind, Socialized Mind, Self-Authoring Mind, and Self-Transforming Mind.  The mechanism behind developing from one stage to the next is taking what we were once subject to and making it object (see the chart below).  This is known as the “subject/object reversal”.  Another way to say this is that the process of development is learning to look at what before we were unknowingly looking through.

A more detailed explanation of the three highest stages follows the chart.  Note that each stage represents a plateau in one’s development which, in reality, is a continuous process with gradations between each stage.


Kegan’s Five Stages of Development

The Socialized Mind takes as object one’s own needs, interests and desires.  Meanwhile it is subject to its social environment, that is, how one is socialized.  At this level of consciousness, one’s identity is tied to living in relationship with others in roles determined by one’s local culture.  Such a person is subject to the opinions of others and is therefore strongly influenced by what she or he believes others want to hear.  Such a stance tends to be reliant on authority for direction and less likely to question, making one a loyal follower.

The Socialized Mind is drawn to seeking alignment between itself and its surroundings.  As a result, its underlying structure of meaning-making can be described as operating “across categories”.  A major fear of such a person would be falling out of favor with one’s “tribe”.

Approximately 58% of the adult population is below the level of Self-Authoring.

The Self-Authoring Mind is able to take a step back from its environment and hold it as object, regarding his or her culture critically.  The Self-Authoring mind is able to distinguish the opinions of others from one’s own opinions to formulate one’s own “seat of judgment”.  The result is a “self-authoring” of one’s own identity that is independent from one’s environment.  Guided by their own internal compass, such a person then becomes subject to his or her own ideology.  These individuals tend to be self-directed, independent thinkers.

The Self-Authoring mind is drawn towards problem-solving around meeting its own personal agenda.  In the course of such problem-solving, the Self-Authoring Mind is holding the surrounding social system as object.  Therefore its underlying structure of meaning-making can be said to be operating at the level of systems.  Major fears of such an order of mind would be falling short of one’s own standards or being subject to others’ definitions.

Approximately 35% of the adult population is at this plateau of development.

The Self-Transforming Mind is the highest level of consciousness in Kegan’s model.   The Self-Transforming Mind is able to take a step back from the act of self-authoring and hold it as object.  From this point of view, one is able to regard multiple ideologies simultaneously and compare them, being wary of any single one.  Driving questions would include, “What am I missing?”, “How can my outlook be more inclusive?”  As Susanne Cook-Greuter likes to say, such a person tends to move away from “either/or” thinking towards thinking that is more “both/and”. This mindset is problem-seeking. This multi-frame perspective is able to hold the contradictions between competing belief systems and is therefore subject to the dialectic between systems of thought.  Underlying this perpetual quest is an acceptance of the incompletion of wholeness.

Because of its interdependent meaning-making, the underlying structure of the Self-Transforming Mind can be thought of as operating at the level of a system of systems.  Fears of this order of mind would be having a sense of complacency regarding ones own identity or the sense that one has finally “learned it all”.

Less than 1% of the adult population is at this level of development.


But It’s Not That Simple

At this point, you might well have some very valid concerns about what the hierarchy in this theory implies, as well as be wondering where you and others you know might fall on it.  We live a society that frequently assumes that “bigger is better”, but I don’t think that’s the way we should approach theories of human development.  This theory is not about intelligence, IQ or whether a person is “good” or “bad”–or even happy.  All it describes are varying degrees of complexity of thinking. As one of my professors, Richard Reilly, likes to say, “The problem with theory is…it’s theoretical!” In other words, no one theory can hope to explain the multi-dimensionality of human experience. Hence, it is critically important to understand any one theory’s limitations.

Kegan likes to make the analogy of comparing drivers who can drive a stick-shift with drivers who only drive an automatic.  Can we say that someone is a “better driver” simply because they can drive a stick?  Of course not–any more than we can say that they’d be better company on a long trip.  Now what we can say is that the driver who can drive a stick will be able to drive certain cars under certain conditions that the driver who can only drive an automatic cannot.  But if someone’s driving their automatic to and from work everyday, there’s nothing wrong with that.  As Jennifer Garvey Berger has written, this isn’t a theory about “bigger is better”; it’s a theory about “bigger…is bigger”.

The only place where it might be appropriate to bring judgment into such a theory is in comparing a particular person’s capacities with the mental demands placed upon them.  If a person’s capacities meet the everyday demands placed on them, there’s a good chance that they’re going to be effective in their life and maybe even happy.  If, however, the demands placed upon them are greater than their capacities to meet them, they will most likely feel, as Kegan has written, “in over their heads”. For example, consider the case of a 3rd Order employee who is promoted to a senior management position (Kegan, 1994: 147-151). Without their own internal seat of judgment, they may feel paralyzed by the conflicting opinions of subordinates and desperately yearn for direction from a more Self-Authoring superior.

Another subtlety to keep in mind is that each of these three stages is a theoretical ideal.  In reality, most of us will spend most of our lives in transition between these three plateaus rather than precisely at any one. For example, someone who is in transition between 3rd Order and 4th Order thinking might frequently experience feeling torn between pleasing those around them versus listening to “that little voice in the back of their heads” that is telling them what they value. And this inner voice may be getting progressively clearer over time. Meanwhile a person who is somewhere in the transition between 4th Order and 5th Order thinking might frequently experience feeling torn between what they consider to be their core personal values and a growing sense of curiosity about other ways to approach any given situation.

Such transitions can takes years, decades, or not happen at all depending on our life experiences.  Not only that, we typically develop at different rates in different parts of our lives.  I therefore urge you to resist the temptation of trying shove yourself and everyone you know into one of these three pigeon-holes.  There are as many paths in development as there are human beings.

A person is a process, whether that person is an infant, a child, an adolescent or an adult.  What this theory does say is that at least part of this on-going process is about developing wider and wider circles of perspective-taking, perspective-taking on one’s own thinking, as well as the thinking of others.

This summary merely scratches the surface of a vastly complex topic.  If you’d like to learn more, I invite you peruse the other posts on this blog as well as explore these additional resources.

At this point it’s also reasonable to ask: So what?  How does any of this stuff really matter, anyway?

Here’s how I think it matters.

As I see it, humanity’s greatest challenge in a globalized world can be put very simply: “How can we learn to live in each other’s backyards?”  For the first time in the history of our species, a globalized world confronts us with a task for which a collection of Socialized Minds is inadequate.  Such a complex challenge is unlikely to be met solely through better leadership, policies, or technology.  I believe that it must be met through more complex thinking, and that responsibility is up to all of us.



Where to Go from Here

If you’d like to learn about an interview technique that explores a person’s development in terms of this theory, see this post on the Subject/Object Interview.

If you are interested in learning about applying this theory to personal development or in organizations, see this post on the Immunity to Change™ process.

For a summary of additional resources on adult development, click here.


Or browse some of the my other posts, exploring everyday experience from the perspective of adult development:

Considering the movie classic Saturday Night Fever through the lens of CDT.

An exploration of how adult development might affect the behavior of individuals in groups.

A 15 minute video narration of a presentation exploring the possible relationship between immigration and development.

A short essay musing about the Dalai Lama’s developmental path and its implications for all of us.



14 Responses Leave One →
  1. February 19, 2011

    Peter, this is a terrific overview of CDT. I am in the SOI group on LinkedIn and saw your Saturday Night Fever blog post. I have not seen the movie in several decades, but I enjoyed your analysis of the developmental stages you saw in the film. Like Jennifer, I look forward to watching it again.

  2. Mónica Berrocal permalink
    March 15, 2011

    I loved this very comprehensive, yet concise explanation! You are very talented!

  3. Laura Pruyn permalink
    June 9, 2011

    Peter, I thought this was an excellent explanation of a complex theory. Your drawings complement the text perfectly. You made it all so clear that even I, your mother, could understand it all. Thank you!

  4. Becca permalink
    November 20, 2011

    Thanks so much, Peter. This has helped me to make sense of stages 3-4 in a different way. I have been wondering why Kegan disavowed the helix (other than the hierarchical inferences) – I found it a helpful visual, especially in thinking about us coming back to revisit our issues at a different level of complexity. Also, what has he done with the idea of the longing for agency/autonomy and communion/community that he used the helix to demonstrate. I still thought that was powerful. Even though I know that some women’s theory states that we don’t need total separation and individuation to develop (which I completely agree has been overemphasized in our western culture) I still found some value in his discussion of the tension. thoughts?? thanks again for this valuable website.
    Becca Adrian

  5. Peter W. Pruyn permalink
    November 22, 2011

    Hi, Becca. Thank you for the comment. Great question! I always liked the spiral diagram in The Evolving Self, too (p. 109)! For the explanation of Kegan’s evolving perspective on gender in relation to his theory, look up ‘Carol Gilligan’ in the index to In Over Our Heads, particularly pp. 217-222. In short, Kegan makes the distinction between “structure” and “styles”. One can have a “relational style” but still be thinking in a Self-Authoring way. Conversely, one can be “product-oriented” but be thinking in a Socialized way. He does confess that he did not make this distinction well in The Evolving Self. I think in retrospect, the spiral diagram confused this issue.

  6. Anita Hamilton permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful resource and clear explanation of Kegan’s theory. My first understanding of Kegan’s theory was through a paper written by a wonderful occupational therapy educator, Barbara Hooper, used it to explain the evolution of our profession.

    Barbara explains our professions struggle to help explain the evolution of our profession (occupational therapy) as we struggle with third ordered ‘doers’ in an evolving fourth and even fifth ordered group of ‘thinkers’.

    The purpose of my research is to explore the role of using online technology to advance our capacity to self-author and self-critique.

    I like that your mum also commented on your blog :)
    Cheers, Anita

  7. Peter W. Pruyn permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Thank you for your kind words, Anita. I’m glad it was useful and appreciate your feedback.

    Kegan actually uses professions, generally, as examples of 3rd Order systems. Each can be viewed as mechanisms for socializing standardized behaviors. Sometimes that’s good; all electricians should connect the blue wire to the correct terminal. But, as you point out, there are limitations to only “doing”. This also helps explain why there’s so much push-back to the more “disruptive” professional innovations. My favorite relatively recent example was the doctor who proved that ulcers were produced by viruses by drinking some of the virus and getting an ulcer. Prior to that evidence, he was castigated for the suggestion. He got the Nobel Prize.

    When I wrote that summary, in the back of my mind was, “I want to explain this so simply that even my mother could understand it.” I’m glad I achieved at least that.

    Let me know what you discover in your research. It sounds very interesting.

  8. January 22, 2012

    Peter, thank you so much for the wonderful summary of Kegan’s five level of conciouness. It is elegant with such clarity. May I have your permission to cite and use your overview and chart in my dissertation? I am trying to articulate the linkage between Kegan’s level 2, 3, 4, & 5 and Confusious developmental stages, there are much similarity in their theory.

    Looking forward to your reply.
    Happy Chinese New Year of the Dragon!!!

  9. Peter W. Pruyn permalink
    January 27, 2012

    Hello, Marjorie.

    I’m glad my blog has been useful to you. Yes, you may use my chart. All I ask is that you maintain the citation at the bottom of it.

    I would also be interested in learning more about Confusious developmental stages. Can you point me in the direction of a summary of them?

    Good luck to you,


  10. rhea.3011 permalink
    March 16, 2013

    This is great – Another movie from the the CDT “facilitated process’ that comes to my mind is Karate kid -1 , One can actually ‘see’ the transition in the student as he moves from the subject to the object and what it does for him


  11. Eve Kodiak permalink
    July 3, 2013

    Thank you for this clear summary of post-Evolving Self Kegan. I took a couple of courses with Dr. Kegan at HGSE in the eighties, and I remember his response to a question about whether you could be in in more than one stage at once. He said, no. His idea seemed to be that once you had the capacity to see things in a larger context, you would theoretically have the ability to exercise this power of mind in every circumstance. The answer seemed driven by the model, not by experience. It was sort of a monotheistic way of seeing – either there is a God, or there isn’t.
    But my professional experience in the twenty-plus years since then suggests otherwise. For example, I am struck by the construction in the diagram that in the impulsive stage, the reflexes are “content” – are “object.”
    But the reflexes, neurologically speaking, are never object – otherwise, they wouldn’t be reflexes. They are involuntary responses. We can override them sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t happen. And what happens in the brain/body system when a reflex gets triggered, and is overridden, is quite different from when a reflexive action is not involved.
    Reflexes “live” in the medulla, in an old part of the brain that is pre-verbal, pre-conscious. And we never stop having reflexive responses, no matter how far up the developmental ladder we go. Even if we become aware of them, and learn how to integrate them into the higher functions of the brain (my work), while we are experiencing that reflexive response, we are completely subject to them – no matter what age we are. We can climb up the ladder real fast, with experience and consciousness. But when we are in reflex mode, we are down there with the babies – even with the fetuses!
    The lower rungs of the ladder remain a part of our repertoire forever. We don’t stop using them just because, in some circumstances, we have become more mature.
    Just think of the experience of calling your parents, which I just did. I just reverted back to “third order” operating mode – I could not detach. I wanted their “thou” to correspond to my “I” and I felt so threatened that it didn’t that I had to get off the phone. But in my office, with a client, I would NEVER be in this position. Professionally, I am able to operate in one of the higher orders.
    But basically, with my parents, I went all the way back to my reflexive mode. Which is what we all tend to do under stress. When that anger or fear or panic or seeking nurturance impulse hits, we are all babies again. Attaining a higher order simply means that that order is developmentally POSSIBLE – not that we are there all of the time. And we don’t just slide between contiguous orders. When the trauma is deep enough, all of us can slide right back to the womb.
    CDT is an amazing model and so helpful for understanding the meaning-making schema of ourselves and others. But we contain all the stages we have evolved to, and operate in different ones, depending upon the context we find ourselves in. It is useful to remember our potential. But foolish to believe we are capable of behaving at our highest potential at all times. If the situation is more challenging, we sometimes need to drop down an order, or two, or three, just to cope. If we don’t acknowledge this, we are either living in delusion or shame. And neither one of these states is conducive to growth.

  12. Anita (aka VirtualOT) permalink
    October 19, 2014

    Dear Peter, I “dropped by” this blog post a few years back and am now finally in the last stages of writing up my dissertation. I would like to ask your permission to reproduce your adapted version of Kegan’s Five Stages of Development from In Over Our Heads in my dissertation. The title of the table would read:
    Kegan’s Five Stages of Constructive-Development Theory (Pruyn, 2010). The in-text description would state “Table 2.4 has been reproduced with permission from Dr. Peter Pruyn (P. Pruyn, personal communication, October 19, 2014) and illustrates the five developmental stages of constructive-developmental theory developed by Kegan (1994, pp. 314-315).”
    I look forward to hearing back from you.
    Kind regards, Anita.

  13. Anita Hamilton permalink
    December 31, 2014

    Hi again Peter, I wrote a post on your blog about 3 years ago… I’m finally writing up my dissertation and I’d like to include the figure “Kegan’s five stages of development” with your approval. It would be cited as Kegan’s Five Stages of Constructive-Development Theory (Pruyn, 2010) and the figure would be preceded by the words “Figure 2.4 has been reproduced with permission from Dr. Peter Pruyn (P. Pruyn, personal communication, date) and illustrates the five developmental stages of constructive-developmental theory. ”

    Kind regards, Anita

  14. Xehra16 permalink
    May 5, 2015

    Thanks for providing this explanation. I am grad student working on my thesis and needed clarification and you did a great job in allowing me to make the connection with my topic and this theory!

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