Loevinger (1976, 1998) saw a need to extend the groundwork laid by Erikson both theoretically and empirically. For her, the ego is the chief organizer: the integrator of our morals, values, goals, and thought processes. Because this integration performed by the ego is so complex and is influenced by personal experiences, it is the primary source of individual differences at all ages beyond infancy. Ego development, which results from dynamic interaction between the person and the environment, consists of fundamental changes in the ways in which thoughts, values, morals, and goals are organized. Transitions from one stage to another depend on both internal biological changes and external social changes to which the person must adapt.
Although Loevinger proposes eight stages of ego development, beginning in infancy, we will focus on the six that are observed in adults (see Table 9.2). An important aspect of her theory is that most
people never go through all of them; indeed, the last level is achieved by only a handful of individuals. Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence suggests these stages are age related (Cook-Greuter, 1989; Loevinger, 1997, 1998; Redmore & Loevinger, 1979). At each stage Loevinger identifies four areas that she considers important to the developmental progression: character development (reflecting a person’s standards and goals); interpersonal style (representing the person’s pattern of relations with others); conscious preoccupations (reflecting the most important things on the person’s mind); and cognitive style (reflecting the characteristic way in which the person thinks). As we consider the ego levels important for adults, we will examine them in terms of these four areas.
A few adults operate at the conformist level. Character development at this stage is marked by absolute conformity to social rules. If these rules are broken, feelings of shame and guilt result. Interpersonally, conformists need to belong and show a superficial niceness. Of central importance is appearance and social acceptability. Conformists see the world only in terms of external tangibles, such as how one looks and if one behaves according to group standards. Thinking is dominated by stereotypes and cliches and is relatively simplistic.
Most adults in American society operate at the conscientious-conformist level. At this stage character development is marked by a differentiation of norms and goals; in other words, people learn to separate what they want for themselves from what
social norms may dictate. People deal with others by recognizing that they have an impact on them and on the group as a whole. People at this level begin to be concerned with issues of personal adjustment and coping with problems; they need reasons for actions and recognize that life presents many opportunities from which they may choose. They are still concerned with group standards, and the desire for personal adjustment is sometimes suppressed if it conflicts with the needs of the group.
The next level is marked by a cognitive style in which individuals begin to understand the true complexity of the world. People at this conscientious stage focus on understanding the role that the self plays; character development involves self-evaluated standards, self-critical thinking, self-determined ideals, and self-set goals. This level represents a shift away from letting other people or society set their goals and standards for them. Intensity, responsibility, and mutual sharing characterize interpersonal relations. People evaluate behavior using internalized standards developed over the years. They come to realize that they control their own future. Although more complex, conscientious people still think in terms of polarities, such as love versus lust or inner life versus outer appearance. But they recognize responsibility and obligation in addition to rights and privileges.
Loevinger postulates that the individualistic level builds on the previous (conscientious) level. A major acquisition at the individualistic level is a respect for individuality. Immature dependency is seen as an emotional problem, rather than as something to be expected. Concern for broad social problems and differentiating one’s inner life from one’s outer life become the main preoccupations. People begin to differentiate process (the way things are done) from outcome (the answer); for example, people realize that sometimes the solution to a problem is right but the way of getting there involves hurting someone. The dominant trait of the individualistic person is an increased tolerance for oneself and others. Key conflicts are recognized as complex problems: dependence as constraining versus dependence as emotionally rewarding, and morality and responsibility versus achievement for
oneself. The way of resolving these conflicts, however, usually involves projecting the cause onto the environment rather than acknowledging their internal sources.
At Loevinger’s autonomous level comes a high tolerance for ambiguity with conflicting needs both within oneself and others. Autonomous individuals’ interpersonal style is characterized by a respect for each person’s independence but also by an understanding that people are interdependent. The preoccupations at this level are vividly conveyed feelings, self-fulfillment, and understanding of the self in a social context. Autonomous people have the courage to acknowledge and face conflict head-on rather than projecting it onto the environment. They see reality as complex and multifaceted and no longer view it in the polarities of the conscientious stage. Autonomous individuals recognize that problems can be viewed in multiple ways and are comfortable with the fact that other people’s viewpoints may differ from their own. They recognize the need for others’ self-sufficiency and take a broad view of life.
The final level in Loevinger’s theory is termed the integrated stage. Inner conflicts are not only faced but also reconciled and laid to rest. Goals that are recognized to be unattainable are renounced. People at the integrated level cherish an individuality that comes from a consolidated sense of identity. They are very much like Maslow’s (1968) self-actualized person; that is, they are at peace with themselves and have realized their maximum potential. They recognize that they could have chosen other paths in life but are content with and make the most out of the one that they picked. Such people are always open to further growth-enhancing opportunities and make the most out of integrating new experiences into their lives.
Loevinger has spent decades developing the Sentence Completion Test, which provides a measure of ego development. The measure consists of s entence fragments (similar to “When I think
of myself, I _______ ”) that respondents complete.
Responses are then scored in terms of the ego developmental level they represent. Although it is a difficult instrument to learn how to use, the Sentence Completion Test has very good reliability.
© Rick Reinhard / Black Star
Being committed to broad social concerns is the essence of Loevinger’s individualist phase of ego development.
Trained coders have high rates of agreement in rating responses, often over 90% of the time.
Loevinger’s theory is having an increasing impact on adult developmental research. One of its advantages is that because of the Sentence Completion Test it is more empirically based than Erikson’s theory, so that researchers can document the stages more precisely. Loevinger’s theory is the major framework for research examining relationships between cognitive development and ego development (King et al., 1989). For example, Blanchard-Fields and Norris (1994) found ego level was the best predictor of social judgments from adolescents, and from young, middle-aged, and older adults, about negative outcomes in personal relationship situations. Likewise, Labouvie-Vief, Hakim-Larson, and Hobart (1987) reported that ego level was a strong predictor of the coping strategies used across the life
span from childhood to old age. Both studies documented age-related increases in ego level that were associated with higher levels of social reasoning or with more mature coping styles.