Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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3 Stage Theories of Development

Updated: 16 May 2021

The work of Clare W Graves (1970) and its Spiral Dynamics ‘build’  (Don Beck & Chris Cowan, 1996) theorise about motivational systems and their emergence. Where the emergent system reaches its nodal peak in matching the life conditions (internal and or external), this can be considered an ‘existential state’, level or stage. In the period Graves was constructing his concept from the results of his research, several other developmentalists were coming up with very similar theories and models. Unlike Graves who perceived ‘stages’ as merely markers in the processes of emergence, however, these other researchers tended to see development in more or less discreet stages which were distinct from each other.

In spite of the limitations of these stage theories, the findings of their developers offer much additional insight into the characteristics of vMEMES, vMEME transition states and the workings of the Spiral. These additional insights are discussed in the pages on vMEMES.

The purpose of these pages is to describe the basic structures of what are arguably the 3 most important stage models and to provide some background and critiquing of these theories. The Comparison Map places these and some other leading developmental models into a schematic to enable a ready comparison which reinforces how close the constructs are.

Hierarchy of Needs
The original version of the Hierarchy of Needs was published by Abraham Maslow in 1943. He believed that people seek fulfilment and change through personal growth. He studied the healthy personality. Unlike Sigmund Freud, he was not interested in the ‘sick mind’ but in the fulfilment of human potential. He characterised the human condition as one of ‘wanting’ – meaning we are always seeking and desiring something. Maslow conceptualised these wantings or needs into a hierarchy.

1943 Hierarchy (Graphic by J Finkelstein)

1943 Hierarchy (Graphic by J Finkelstein)

The Hierarchy is predetermined in order of importance. It is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of 5 levels. The lower 4 layers of the pyramid are what Maslow called ‘deficiency needs’ or ‘D-needs’. With the exception of the lowest needs – physiological ones – if the deficiency needs are not met, the body gives no indication of it physically but the individual feels anxious and tense. These deficiency needs are: Physiological, Safety & Security, Love & Belonging, and Esteem.

Deficiency needs must be met first. Once these are met, seeking to satisfy growth needs drives personal growth and Self-Actualisation.

Fritz Lenel (visiting German friend), Howard McMaster (interpreter), Jane Richardson (later Hanks), Lucien Hanks & Abraham Maslow on the Blackfoot reserve – copyright © 1938 Jane & Lucien Hanks/Glenbow Archives

Although it was not widely known at the time – due to racial prejudice & discrimination against Native Americans, according to Sidney Stone Brown (2014) – it was Maslow’s 6-week sojourn with the Blackfoot Native Americans at Siksika in the Summer of 1938 which him gave greater insight into what Self-Actualisation is and how it might be achieved. At the urging of one of his mentors, the noted anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, Maslow accompanied an anthropological team studying the Blackfoot. What he found – in his own words (1938/2014), “about 70-80% of the Blackfoot are more secure than the most secure 5% of our population” – effected a profound change in Maslow. In the words of Ryan Heavy Head (2008a): “He saw in Siksika a model of what would later be termed ‘self-actualisation’.” Maslow subsequently abandoned the rigorous scientific approach he had pursued previously as a Behaviourist and turned to the biographical approach, seeking out examples from the estimated 5% of whites who seemed self-actualised (Heavy Head, 2008b).

Maslow’s mentor, Max Wertheimer, he saw as the epitome of Self-Actualisation. Other prime examples he studied included Freud, Benedict, Albert Einstein and ‘first lady’ Eleanor Roosevelt – who seemed to possess similar qualities to Wertheimer. He also studied historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Ludwig van Beethoven. In all, he used 48 case studies. He then considered the forces (D-needs) which would hinder Self-Actualisation.

Throughout his work in the 1950s and 1960s Maslow explored aspects of Self-Actualisation, growth needs and ‘being needs’ (‘B-needs’). By 1956 he was writing definitively of Self-Actualisation as being a way of thinking – a move beyond ‘maximum potential and possibilities’. In 1970 he formally revised the Hierarchy, splitting off 2 lower-level ‘growth needs’ prior to the general level of Self-Actualisation. Thus, he effectively created 3 categories of need:-

  • Deficiency needs
  • Growth needs
  • Being needs
1971 Hierarchy (Graphic from

1971 Hierarchy (Graphic from

In 1969, Maslow, who had become involved in the development of Transpersonal Psychology, proposed that some self-actualisers were able to transcend their own self and experience something beyond –  the higher level he dubbed Self-Transcendence. In his last work, published posthumously in 1971, Maslow was explicit that this effectively created 2 qualities of Self-Actualisation and wrote extensively about the qualities of someone self-transcending. It also appears  he was highly influenced in his identification of a complexity of thinking beyond what he termed Self-Actualisation by Graves who had found an eighth system, H-U TURQUOISE. (“You should know that Maslow came around to my point of view. If you look at some of his later writings, you will see that he accepted…that the system is open-ended.” – Graves, 1971b/2002, p52). Maslow did not explicitly state that Self-Transcendence is the highest level on the Hierarchy; but his differentiation between self-actualisers and transcenders clearly implies it. Thus, Maslow, in the end, had an 8-level model and a number of psychologists and researchers in the Maslowian tradition – eg: Henry Gleitman, Alan Fridlund & Daniel Reisberg (1999); Mark Koltko-Rivera (2006) – have treated Transcendence as  the eighth level of the Hierarchy.

Maslow’s 1943 Hierarchy was regarded as a major improvement over previous theories of personality and motivation and it has been highly influential throughout much of the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st. Particularly it has been applied to the field of Organisational Psychology in an attempt to understand what motivates people to work (apart from money) and what gives satisfaction at work. The Hierarchy of Needs is arguably the most used psychological model outside of academia, being used in counselling, social work, business, marketing, education, etc, etc.

 Unfortunately most people working with the Hierarchy tend to use just the original 5-level version. The 1970 7-level version is often overlooked and Maslow’s concept of Transcendence is usually ignored except by those devoted to Maslow’s work and those interested in the Gravesian approach/Spiral Dynamics and/or various schools of Transpersonal Psychology.

Maslow’s Hierarchy, as providing additional insight into the Gravesian approach, is evaluated in general in the pages on vMEMES.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

Interestingly, Graves, Maslow’s correspondent and sometime collaborator, by the time of his aborted book in 1978 – the book was completed by Chris Cowan & Natasha Todorovic and published in 2005 – had developed a number of criticisms of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Those criticisms are first and foremost reflected in simple fact of the differences in stages/levels between the 2 models. Graves collapsed Maslow’s second (Safety) and third (Belonging) levels into his second (B-O PURPLE) but expanded Maslow’s fourth (Cognitive) into his fourth (D-Q BLUE) and his fifth (E-R ORANGE). Then there is the fact that Maslow simply identifies needs and the motivation to meet those needs, not the psychological means – vMEMES – to change and act so the needs can be met. Nor did Maslow capture the cyclical nature of the Spiral, cycling between self-expression (individualistic) and sacrifice self to conform (collectivistic). According to Graves (1971b/2002, p52), he and Maslow ‘fought’ “this over for eight and more years”. However, this last difference appears to have been resolved shortly before Maslow’s death as Graves (1971a/1988, p13) claims that “Maslow came around to my point. If you look at some of his later writings, you will see that he accepted…the cyclic idea.” Since Graves did conduct extensive scientific research, where there are differences between Graves and Maslow, it is much more likely that Graves is correct.

The Hierarchy of Needs was very much Graves’ starting point and Maslow established many of the principles which are recognised in the Gravesian approach. Maslow’s needs can be looked up on as driving vMEMES, relative to what the life conditions are.

Maslow has been criticised also for concentrating on healthy people and not taking into account those with psychological disorders. However, since, unlike Freud, Maslow was interested in mental health as opposed to mental illness, this is hardly surprising. However, Maslow (1954) talked of ‘insectoid tendencies’, an innate tendency towards healthy growth and development – effectively the actualising tendency proposed by Carl Rogers (1951) and paralleled by Don Beck’s  (2002a) prime directive. Reflecting to some degree his early interests in Psychodynamic theories, Maslow held that, if children grow up in an unhealthy environment, their insectoid tendencies can be subverted and they might grow up to become destructive, aggressive and unloving individuals engaging in self-destructive and self-defeating behaviour. Maslow also accepted that engaging in Freudian-type defence mechanisms could hinder personal growth and stated that the lower the level of need that was not satisfied, the more disturbed the individual would be likely to become. His approach to mental health has been taken up by the likes of Marie Jahoda (1958) in her concept of Deviation from Ideal Mental Health as a way of defining abnormality .

Stages of Ego Development
Of all the developmental stage theories referenced in the Comparison Map, Jane Loevinger’s Stages of Ego Development (1976) most closely parallels the  Graves’ work, even down to including stages that match some of the vMEME transition states  – though there are some not-inconsequential differences in emphasis. Yet, although they refer to each other’s work in building their arguments, Loevinger and Graves appear to have had little or no direct communication. Graves himself (1978/2005, p463), in comparing his and Loevinger’s work, says: “…there is a remarkable cross-confirmation of two points of view of two people who have not met nor communicated with one another.”

Jane Loevinger

Jane Loevinger

Loevinger built her model from extensive research, largely using a sentence completion test psychometric. In theorising from the results, she draws from both her Psychodynamic roots – in particular Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development and the work of Harry Stack Sullivan – and the Cognitive Developmental stream initiated by the ground-breaking work of Jean Piaget (1929)

The theory describes the ego as a process, not a mental structure in the way that Freud (1923b) understood it. The ego is viewed as the frame of reference (or lens) someone uses to construct and interpret (meta-state about) their world. Sullivan (1953) had proposed 4 levels of “interpersonal maturity and interpersonal integration”: Impulsive, Conformist, Conscientious, and Autonomous. Developing over time from that initial framework, Loevinger completed a developmental model including 10 sequential stages, incorporating 7 nodal and 3 key transitional stages. Each stage represents a progressively more complex way of perceiving oneself in relation to the world. Every stage provides a frame of reference to organise and give meaning to experience over the individual’s life course.

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 behaviour. For some, development reaches a plateau and does not continue. Among others, greater ego integration and differentiation continue.

In delineating between integration and delineation, Loevinger is echoing the work of András Angyal (1951) who used the terms ‘autonomy’ (self-determination) and  ‘homonomy’ (self-surrender) for opposite poles of a ‘biosphere’ of interlocking systems. Loevinger does not emphasise the integration/delineation as much as Graves – that would come from the work of Susanne Cook-Greuter (1985).

Susanne Cook-Greuter

Susanne Cook-Greuter

Cook-Greuter is to Loevinger very much what Beck & Cowan have been to Graves – a dedicated follower who has elaborated and expanded on the original work, much of it by revising and updating Loevinger’s sentence-completion test instrument. And, as Beck has linked Spiral Dynamics to Ken Wilber’s (1996) All Quadrants/All Levels philosophy resulting in/ 4Q8L, so Cook-Greuter has explicitly located ego development in AQ/AL’s Upper Left.

As with Maslow’s Hierarchy, Loevinger’s construct is evaluated in general in the pages on vMEMES.

Interestingly, Graves is often credited with being the only researcher from the 1950s-1980s waves of developmentalists who saw the so-called ‘double helix’ – the relationship between the mental state and the ‘life conditions’, both internal and external. However, Loevinger certainly saw the relationship between the mental state and the external ‘life conditions’. Interactions with the external world which had an effect on the mental state she deemed ‘pacers’, as they influenced development of and transition between the stages in the development of the ego process.

To fit with the Spiral Dynamics construct, in the pages on vMEMES, Loevinger’s stages are marginally reordered. For completeness, the original order is presented below. This also shows Cook-Greuter’s (2005) attribution of Loevinger’s stages to the concepts of Pre-Conventional, Conventional and Post-Conventional structure used by Wilber – though the concepts had long been used by other developmentalists such as Lawrence Kohlberg (1963) in his Stages of Moral Development. In Cook-Greuter’s revision, Integrated is split into Construct-Aware and Unitive.


  • Pre-Social
  • Symbiotic (I-1)
  • Impulsive (I-2)
  • Self-Protective (?)


  • Conformist (I-3)
  • Conscientious-Conformist (I-3/4)
  • Conscientious (I-4)


  • Individualistic (I-4/5)
  • Autonomous (I-5)
  • Integrated (I-6) – split by Cook-Greuter into Construct-Aware and Unitive