Kegan's Social Developmental Milestones

I recently read a book on Kegan's Social Developmental Milestones. It was excellent. For the last month or so I've been wearing Kegan tinted glasses while I look at the world. I'm bringing it up so much my friends have been teasing me about it.

When I picked up the book I thought I was well on my way to stage 5. I was so wrong - there's lots of little stage 3 behaviours I still have in different circumstances. It was very humbling.

I won't explain what the model is here. Lots of great blog posts have already been written on the subject. My favorite is David Chapman's Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence. If you're going to read one article on the topic, go read that.

My personal highlights:

But if you're going to read two articles... There was a bunch of ideas in the book which weren't in any of the blog posts I read beforehand on the topic. Without any particular order, here they are:

My favourite description of stage 3 is that in it you co-create your identity with how other people see you. So, someone in stage 3 will feel bad when their partner is angry at them, even if they feel justified in how they acted. (Emotionally, how you acted is largely irrelevant!).

In stage 3 you can be idealistic for the first time - "I'm an environmentalist!", "I'm a libertarian!", etc. But you're only really loyal to the social group, not the cause itself. If the social group's ideals change, yours will too. If there's an action consistent with the ideal but which would make you unpopular, most people won't take it.

Each stage is particularly vulnerable to a (narrowing) set of dumb behaviours:

  • In stage 2 you can't really plan for the future. Because you can't decenter out of what you want right now, you can't hold your future desires in mind while you act.
  • In stage 3 you need to be protected from toxic friends. Your behaviour will be shaped by your friends (because more than anything you're motivated by how your ingroup sees you). If your friends encourage you to do dumb stuff you'll naturally want to go along with it. Ingroup / outgroup is your one trump card - you have to outgroup people so you stop taking their opinion into consideration.
  • In stage 4 you're vulnerable to ineffective worldviews: "All welfare recipients are dole bludgers, and thats the end of it". Stage 4 is marked by not needing to take other people's opinions into account when you form your values. Those values can be counterproductive.

How you experience depression is probably different at each stage:

  • At stage 2 its simply the pain of not getting what you want.
  • At stage 3 its "Oh god, I'm different from everyone around me and I don't know how I fit in." Its normal to feel unsettled as you transition - your old way of viewing the world is falling apart and your new way doesn't yet support you. For example, moving into stage 3 you'll become able to have much deeper, more meaningful relationships than you ever could before. But as you transition, you may discover that none of your existing relationships have that depth. I suspect that 'normal' teenage depression is largely caused by this 2->3 stage transition.
  • At stage 4 its more of a "Oh god what do I even want to do with my life". I imagine a midlife crisis is this.

You probably spend more time transitioning than you do being in a given stage. Its pretty normal for the stage 3 to 4 transition to take 20 years.

About half of people will spend the majority of their adult life in stage 3. As a result of that, most people are in stage 3 when they start a family.

There's a couple of patterns of (A) then (B) then (better A) that show up:

  • In stage 2 you don't care about people - you just care about what you want.
  • In stage 3 you care about people a great deal.
  • In stage 4 you care about your values more than you care about whoever is right in front of you.


  • In stage 3 who you are is strongly influenced by the people around you.
  • In stage 4 who you are is decided by you.
  • In stage 5 who you are is a continuous decision you make to suit the occasion. "You put on an identity like putting on an old coat". So again, you change who you are based on circumstance, but this time you're in control.


In stage 3 you might think your relationships would suffer with the move to stage 4, but thats not the case at all. In stage 3 if my partner has a shitty day, my day will get measurably worse for hearing about their pain. We naturally want to protect the people we love from that sort of pain, so there's a tendency to be less honest and try to carry our burdens ourself. In stage 4 I have the capacity to hear what my partner is saying without making it about me. Because hearing their woes doesn't make me upset, I can respond in much more supportive ways. I can be supportive. I can be playful. I can tease them about it. I can suggest ice-cream. Anything I can think about. And they can trust that unloading on me won't be a
burdensome task.

But that said, Kegan says you can't truly be in a healthy relationship until stage 5.

Actually speaking of relationships, your relationships change completely as you move through the stages. As a result, having a relationship when each party is in a different stage is really difficult. There's so much to be said about how the stages influence relationships I might leave that to another blog post.

To transition between stages your environment needs a certain amount of disconfirmation. That is, life needs to feel a bit uncomfortable. There needs to be things which don't sit right. Capabilities you obviously don't have. Things you want which you can't get with your current set of tools. Your personal growth is at risk if you aren't continuously a little bit frustrated by your level of maturity.

Its a great set of concepts. Its highly compressible - which is to say, a small number of ideas describe an awful lot of what happens in the world. I recommend reading Chapman's blog post, SSC's blog post and if you're interested enough, go read a book on the subject.

Compressible as it may be, the books are still way better.