A Summary of Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Developmental Model
The extensive and cutting edge research of Susanne Cook-Greuter, which she described based on the findings of thousands of subject interviews, provides us with abundant information about how humans develop and grow a sense of self identity over the lifespan, and on how we make meaning in our lives.
Conclusions gleaned from Cook Greuter, Spiral Dynamics, and other models, (including Jane Loevinger, Robert Kegan, James Fowler, Lawrence Kohlberg, William Torbert, Jean Gebser, Michael Commons, Sri Auribundo, Jean Piaget, etc.), consistently point out that the way we see ourselves and the way we understand what our life is about shift as we move through developmental stages. Our relationships, our values, our worldview, and our sense of self are fluid and changing as we go. We are familiar with the ways, for example, we understand ourselves and our world differently at 25 years old verses when we were a 5 year old.
Our worldview may continue over time to become more inclusive and expansive. Stages can be split up conceptually in any number of ways, but however defined, as we evolve to more mature stages, who we are, what we value, how we make meaning, and therefore our choices and actions, are different: increasingly sophisticated, subtle, and inclusive.
The work of Cook-Greuter, using a research method that is thought to be highly reliable, found, in the realm of self identity, the same sorts of developmental examples as Spiral Dynamics found in the arena of values (se Appendix 1). In the later stages, as exhibited in a small number of subjects, self identity shifted from a primary concern with one’s identity in the material world, gradually and clearly toward a self identity wherein the primary concern (and indeed, the primary sense of self), was oriented toward the whole of things—the whole of the human race, the whole of the planet, the whole of whatever is in existence.
And though the two bodies of research used different methods and tools, different administrators, different subjects, and in different decades, the data pointed toward the same conclusions. Indeed the stage divisions articulated in Cook-Greuter’s work were congruent with the stages of Spiral Dynamics. Both consistently reinforced the conclusions of the other , even down to the sequence of stages.
These two models can be talked about in terms of the ways we as humans make meaning as we develop over the lifespan and through the stages. Here we will describe Cook-Greuter’s self identity stages, and briefly point to the equivalent SD stage as a way to describe similarities in the ways humans sequentially make meaning as they move through life.
The Pre-conventional and Conventional Stages
The first stages of Cook-Greuter’s model build on the earlier work of Jane Loevinger, who developed the original research tool that Cook-Greuter later expanded and revised. With slight differentiations, the earlier stages of Cook-Greuter’s model are the same as Loevinger’s.
The Symbiotic Stage
(Pre-ego merger with primary caregiver)
In this infant stage of human life, we experience a fusion with our primary caregiver, with no separate sense of self. This is a pre-verbal period. The infant is presocial (autistic), and then moves to a dependent relationship.
Cook-Greuter does not consider this stage a part of ego development, as individuals are not differentiated, and remain pre or nonverbal throughout their lives. This stage corresponds fairly closely to the SD Beige stage, an instinctive, physical stage. The symbiotic stage can be understood as a precursor to the development of the ego.
(Beginning ego and early language, concern for safety and meeting physical needs)
The Impulsive shows signs of a beginning ego, and, along with the development of early language concepts, demonstrate initial signs of early ego awareness (“me” and “my” and “I want…” and “no!”). The Impulsive is preoccupied with safety and meeting basic needs, and moves impulsively toward these ends (grabbing, tantrums, clinging, etc.), and relationship with others is limited to what others can provide to meet one’s needs. They are body oriented, expressing emotions in terms of bodily needs, and are easily confused and overwhelmed and anxious. The Impulsive is closely related to SD Purple, preoccupied with safety.
(Cook-Greuter has worked closely with another developmental researcher, William Torbert, who developed what he calls “action logics.” Torbert focused on the work place and logical styles of action therein, utilizing the same data as Cook-Greuter, but emphasizing those stages that are seen in the workplace. People at the symbiotic stage are not seen in the workplace, and those at the impulsive stage are rarely seen.
The stages that follow are much more relevant and applicable to the workplace, and therefore speak more directly about ego development and sense of self).
The Opportunist (or Self Protective)
(Self protective and self centric focus on immediate and concrete needs for short term self advantage)
The sense of self of the Opportunist is strongly rooted in the physical self, is self absorbed, and out to protect one’s self in a world perceived as threatening due to environment or others. The sense of self is more visceral than intellectual, more reactive and automatic, rather than planned, anticipated, or thought through.
Opportunists are interested in power in service of their own self centered objectives. They have a “me against everyone else” stance, and deal from values such as “might makes right” and “I win/you lose,” although their styles can be aggressive (such as first strike self protection), or passive (assuming a defensive stance for self protection). They can sense opportunities and go after them.
They do not perceive themselves as needing to be accountable—their perspective is that they are only reacting to threat, (it’s not my fault”), and take no responsibility nor feel guilt for their actions. Their counterpart in the Spiral Dynamics model is SD Red.
(The movement out of the Opportunist stage in Cook-Greuter’s scheme marks the end of the pre-conventional (and pre-egoic) levels which describe the establishment of a sense of self, and the beginning of the egoic or conventional period, or what can be understood as the period incorporating normative adult stages).
The Diplomat (or Conformist)
(Conformist, seeking external acceptance, group identified, and deference to powerful others)
The diplomat is truly the first adult stage, although the Diplomat does not take initiative, but rather seeks to listen to and follow the culture—pleasing, seeking acceptance, and deferring to group and cultural norms (such as ethnic and peer groups, countries, churches, and corporate organizations. Their identity is the identity of those they are with—they are group identified, assuming an “us versus them” stance.
Because of their strong group alliance, they experience an increasing sense of power through the aegis of the group. They attend to be “worker bees,” can work to solidify the group sense, (and so are good for organizations), don’t rock boat, exhibit little initiating behavior, and are extremely loyal. ”If you’re not with us, then you’re against us.” Diplomats don’t like to stand out, and tend to abdicate the responsibility for making choices to leaders within the group. Diplomats mirror the values of SD Blue.
(Efficient, problem-solving, and dogmatic, seeking recognition for uniqueness and expertise)
Experts see that they are separate persons from others. It is the first stage where it is possible to look at one’s own self and one’s own behavior. They are beginning to look both at themselves and at others in a more objective way, that is, they take a “third person” perspective. They step back and see that they are different from the group, and want to be recognized for that specialness.
On the other hand they tend to be self conscious, and are sensitive to judgment from others—just as their own approach is to observe others for their differences and assess whether they measure up to the Expert’s standards. This is the first stage where there is truly a real self, distinct from others. They are no longer aligned with one group; rather, they are starting to have multiple reference groups. They study and look for the right way to accomplish something, but they are unable to rank ideas: they are all equally good.
Experts need to have the last word—a competitive one-upmanship. Most cultures are run by experts. Experts can be understood as moving out of SD Blue and beginning to embrace SD Orange. They begin to move away from the group, yet remain involved with them while moving toward a more autonomous style.
(Cultural version of mature adulthood: success oriented, achievement based, initiating, win-lose mentality, operating within cultural structures)
The achiever is self-determined and independent, defining one’s story in one’s own terms. The Achiever is increasingly conscious, values objective data, emphasizes evaluation, and seeks contractual agreements around common goals.
This is the stage that is defined by our culture as the model of mature adulthood. The achiever has developed a sense of linear time, always looking forward, and so can utilize self-reflection skills.
The Achiever, too, has developed the capacity for formal operations— the traditional scientific mind. Achievers are responsible for having brought the world to where it is in terms of scientific achievement and technology. Because they have clear boundaries and know who they are, they can describe themselves and understand who they are in contrast to others. We are different: we can agree to disagree, or we can band together to solve different tasks. The Achiever is the actor in the “Strive-Drive” value system of SD Orange.
(The Diplomat, Expert, and Achiever are referred to as conventional stages of development, as they reflect the adult values of the culture. The next two stages, the Individualist and the Strategist are referred to as post-conventional, in that they are stages that move beyond traditional cultural mores into other ways of being and experiencing life. In Spiral Dynamics terms, the Individualist represents the last of the “first tier” or “survival” stages.
(Focuses on self and experience in the moment, looks inward, takes system approach, questions norms, inclusive of others’ perspectives)
The Individualist moves away from the notion that what is true is defined by the culture and family. Rather than accepting traditional ideas of the given, the Individualist is able to appreciate differing interpretations. It is now not so important to know what I know, but rather how do I make sense of what I know? The Individualist sees that there are many ways of knowing, of looking at something and understanding it. There are always a variety of possible interpretations to choose form, not just the one I have been taught. One can no longer take the given at face value. Who am I really, then? The capacity to go inside is a new capacity. At this stage, one begins to turn inward to find truth, and to turn away from valuing only information gleaned cognitively: other sources of information and “truth” become important, such as intuition, dreams, sensory and affective feedback from the body, one’s internal wisdom, and a “felt sense” of what may be important. Interpretation and map making, finding patterns and distilling them become important to knowing. Individualists experience greater freedom and creativity, as constraints are lifted.
The Individualist incorporates the role of observer at this stage. Since the time of Isaac Newton, the world has been seen in a mechanical way by science, and utilizing the scientific method, we could arrive at what we thought was “objective” truth. But the dawn of quantum physics and relativity theory have suggested the possibility of doubt that there is ever objectivity. Things are true, partially; in specific cases (for example, the conundrum of modern physics: Is what I am observing a wave or a particle?).
Quantum physics has taught us that truth is variable and dependent on the observer and relativity theory has taught us as well that time-space perceptions are in the eye of the beholder!
At this stage it is possible to look at the whole self system, seeing that, at different ages and stages, I am many different people. I don’t know what’s correct, and can’t objectively or absolutely determine it. The Individualist understands that “truth” is a matter of perspective. This stage is the first where one is a unique person, one who can be known because they are celebrating and sharing a personal uniqueness that cannot be pigeon-holed—versus the lack of individuation , at earlier stages, where people can be known, as Cook-Greuter says, more by the “type” that they are. This stage corresponds with SD Green.
The Strategist (or Autonomous)
(Focused on becoming the most one can be; guided by big picture principles; thriving on human complexity and variety, as viewed from a coherent, complex, and separate core sense of self; alive and aware that what one sees depends on level of development; creative; inclusive and pragmatic leadership)
The Strategist is able to see a rich, multifaceted universe from a perspective centered in the self as a separate being. This is the last of the postconventional stages, the last stage where one understands oneself as “a separate me.”
While the Individualist looks backward at previous stages and sees their utility, the Strategist considers the past and the future and how it all fits together in broad terms of culture or society or history. She or he is no longer limited to short term planning, but assumes a holistic view. Strategists are aware of the systems and trends and patterns by which they orient their life, and take it all into account. They are able to engage complex and intertwined components of life, relationships, and processes. The Strategist is conscious of, understands, and lives by the implications of this expanded awareness.
The Strategist is comfortable with shifting contexts of experience—understanding that no story is real. Rather than acting out of unconscious programming, Strategists choose to write their own preferred story, and so they feel in charge of their own psychological well being. They take self responsibility and are directive about their lives. Strategists are the first to understand that different people are functioning from different levels, therefore deserve different approaches, languages, and expectations, and they can understand and treat others appropriate to their levels of awareness. Still, the Strategist does not view all approaches as equals, developing preferences based in values and experience.
Self esteem for the Strategist is based on idea that she or he can understand others. Strategists truly appreciate others, and see connection with others as a necessary part of reaching their own potential. Strategists highly value self reflection, and value higher ego development as very important, because it leads to a richer, more complex, and more authentic identity. But they understand as well that no one right path or destination applies to everyone. Each person is responsible for themselves and their own growth. Strategists are adept at maintaining stable boundaries, and at the same time connect with others. The Strategist stage in Cook-Greuter’s model is strongly correlated with the quality of being value of SD Yellow, the first of the second tier stages.
(The next and the last two defined stages of Cook-Greuter’s model are referred to as transcendent stages, in that they describe stages that are experienced quite uniquely from the preceding “survival” and “being” tiers of the SD model. These last stages are also referred to as “third tier”).
The Magician (Construct Aware)
(Self as separate from the rest of reality comes into question, as Magicians see that language and storytelling has shaped, but limited, our understanding of who we are. Self now becomes understood as a part of one reality with no true separateness. One becomes more identified as having a global or planetary self sense).
While the Strategist functions from a strong sense of separate self, the Magician begins to move away from an ego-based self identity, the first stage where one’s self identity is not centered in an individual self. For the Magician, the separate self is an abstraction—an idea rather than a literal reality. Concepts of “me” and “not me” seem confining and limited. The Magician sees the ego as an idea that has been “made up” by humans. It is a way human make sense of existence, and they use to try to explain reality. Magicians see the notion of the self as a story or an allegory, but not real.
More and more, the experience the self at times seems to include everything in the universe: now the self is felt or experienced in concert with the whole of the universe. It is a new way of experiencing self, an experience that, in addition to the sense of separate self, now includes as well both knowledge of one’s connection to everything else, as well as the actual experience of those connections as the self.
To the Magician, reality is now understood, according to Cook-Greuter, as “the undifferentiated phenomenological continuum,” an indivisible union incorporating all aspects and all seemingly separate entities of existence, over all dimensions and beyond time.
The Magician is the first to be aware of the power (and the limits) of language. Previous levels are unaware of what language does. We know that the human ability to use language allows for us to communicate with each other in ever more sophisticated ways, but language also determines, shapes, defines experience itself. The Magician sees this and begins to move away from a preoccupation with one’s own ego and shifts toward being a watcher of all this. Magicians can step outside of ego and witness experience as it unfolds, or use ego when useful or preferred.
Language bias, social conditioning, and mental map making are attempts to freeze existence, to understand existence by containing it in bite size chunks of knowledge— in an attempt to both make sense of the impermanence of the human self and to understand the reality of human existence. These things may be beneficial in daily functioning, but they are illusory. Nevertheless, our social beingness demands language and story—both of which influence what we can see and how we can understand who we are.
Humans are story tellers, and just as the story we tell changes the experience, Magicians see for the first time that and the story we tell changes as we experience. Magicians realize that we humans make meaning and create a sense of self through the stories we tell. In fact, theory-making itself is just a story. E. O. Wilson, an eminent biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist, and author indeed says, as if to underscore the illusory nature of theory building: “Science is the grandest myth of them all”.
A Magician can always tell a new story; understands that the human story is ever changing, and always understood from new, fresh perspectives; and that each human, over time, sees her or himself in a fresh light and with a new story. This ability to see the world and oneself in a way that is free from previous stories results in an incredible amount of new power: a power to create new stories as a separate self and as a self that is part of the universe.
Magicians begin to see through their own meaning making. They are becoming “construct aware,” that is, they see that ideas and concepts which humans have created through the use of language are not solid, but change through changing time, person , experience, life conditions and awareness.
Concepts are true in one context but not in another, and so are artificial, illusory, and therefore, cannot capture a full understanding of existence. For example, the concept of “good” cannot be defined without its opposite, “bad,” so that good requires bad, and bad requires good—both are necessary, both are always present, by definition. One cannot have a coin without two sides. The way we separate opposites from each other is a construct, a story we tell to make sense of the world—but it is not true. Heads and tails are not separate: a coin requires both to be a coin. The same is true of all opposites: they can only be artificially defined as separate. Magicians see that things are not this duality, that indeed all reality is one thing, and they see the limits of language in defining what is.
Quantum physics, for example, has demonstrated that a given phenomenon can look like a particle to one observer, or as a wave to another. Both are true, depending on the location of the observer in space and time. The reality is the phenomenon is one—both particle and wave, yet neither merely particle nor wave.
If all is one, there is no separate self. The self is part of the one reality. Magicians see in this that the roles they may play in society and culture are not who they are either. These are mere aspects of a greater whole.
So now, the Magician looks beyond the social and culture definitions of self to find meaning. The human impulse to be constantly forming value judgments becomes conscious. Magicians want to move toward acceptance and allowing of these automatic conditional responses—toward a broader all inclusive sense of self—and thus toward a surrender. And, because they now see that a reality divided artificially into separate parts is only an illusion, Magicians are compelled to move beyond their own physical sense of self toward a global awareness. This fresh, expanded perspective that goes beyond mere rationality is deepened as the Magician accesses and reflects on her or his internal intuitions, feelings, dreams, and bodily states.
Magicians no longer can look at self as the culture does. They have entered into the arena of a complete paradigm shift away from a dualistic, egoic, and separate self sense of what reality is toward an all encompassing unity, or oneness, kind of paradigm. It is a difficult and painful emotional spot: the personal realm within which they have lived and within which most humans continue to live no longer seems real or offers comfort. And thus, at an emotional level, the realization that nothing is separate, paradoxically separates and isolates the Magician from the mainstream of humanity.
This stage of self identity in Cook-Greuter’s schema correlates with SD Turquoise with its value of planetary renewal.
The Unitive (Ego Aware)
(Creative participants in the ongoing evolutionary and creative journey of humanity; a deep and continuing cherishing and honoring of all humans, non-judging; an experienced state of being that is beyond language; self identity based on inner knowing, the higher self)
This is the place where Cook-Greuter’s model ends—and she acknowledges that here we are at the limit of our capacity to clearly define stage features, as well as being limited in describing the few individual humans who function from this level of self identity, meaning making, and values. Nevertheless, she maintains, all of the language used to articulate this stage, and all of the characteristics identified here “were carefully taken from actual utterances from individuals who did score at this highest stage.”
The perspective of the Unitive is no longer shaped by language, with its inclination to differentiate one aspect of reality from another. Instead, Unitives see themselves as well as others as an “ongoing humanity,” in a highly evolutionary and creative journey. Unitives take a universal perspective and experience themselves and humanity as part of nature, part of the cosmic dance. Therefore they are able to experience multiple perspectives and many states of awareness. This viewpoint enables the Unitive to at once feel both deep connection with others and deep uniqueness and separateness. They are able to experience the humanness of individuals at all stages of awareness and becoming, humbly recognizing the human essence that they have in common, thus allowing the Unitive to be welcoming and accepting of others as they are, without judgment, agenda, or a need to control.
Unitives are oriented toward all that exists—toward being—and toward being present in the context of an eternal time frame. This orientation is not a conceptual orientation but truly an experienced state of being beyond language. This experience is imminent, that is, something held and known within. The self identity of Unitives indeed is this inner knowing, the higher self.
Unitives generally have rich, focused, energized relationships with individuals of all varieties of humans and of all demographics. Because of their immense cherishing of all humans (as a part of themselves), their interactions with others result in feelings of peace, worthiness, and well being.
More technically, Cook-Greuter notes that individuals at “the high end” of ego development are very much aware of the ways that language shapes and limits one’s understanding of being. This awareness of “the language habit” “…is so deeply engrained that speakers of any given language are not aware of the reality construction imposed on them by language,” (that is, speakers of language are not aware that through the use of language we actually create a version of reality we take to be true). This becomes clearer and clearer in the “construct-aware” stages, the Magician and the Unitive. A co-researcher with Cook-Greuter, Skip Alexander, identified all stages preceding these last two as being personal, verbal, and discursive, while the last two stages, especially the Unitive, demonstrate a “transpersonal” and “post symbolic,” “non-evaluative, witnessing stance” or mode of living.
Cook Greuter’s Unitive Stage correlates with the also, as yet not defined and little understood, SD Coral stage. She believes that this stage is perhaps a “gateway” stage to the transcendental, post symbolic, spiritual stages of the East. These “postpostconventional, ego-transcendent” stages are described in the works of Ken Wilber, especially in Transformations of Consciousness. Such stages go beyond the realm of ego development and self identity, and so are not part of Cook-Greuter’s stage model. She conjectures that these post symbolic spiritual stages may sequentially follow the stages of ego development, whose currency is symbol, or that, just as humans have become proficient in symbol and language through an early intensive training by language “experts,” humans may also have the potential to become proficient in post symbolic (beyond language) ways of knowing if given equivalent training opportunities.
Although descriptors of the Unitive are to some degree conjectural because of the few individual humans who are known to have achieved this level of self identity, the stage suggests the potential that it may be possible for humans to develop in terms of a sense of self, values, and meaning making. Moreover, Cook-Greuter’s research and explorations into the “high end stages” of human self identity and ego development point the way for our species to continue to grow, become, and evolve. It is difficult to imagine that a more life affirming, positive picture could be painted!