Impulsive Mind: Understanding Our Little Egomaniacs

adult development

Presumably, you have no six-year-olds on your project team (although you might have colleagues who lead you to believe otherwise on occasion). So, as a leader in an organization, what value is there in learning about a stage of development that typically ends in first grade?

Three reasons:


Each of Kegan’s developmental stages is a building block for those that follow. We hatch out of our egg of subjectivity only to find ourselves inside a larger, more complex egg (the shell of which we cannot yet see). Although we exit Impulsive Mind as young children, it is foundational for Self-Sovereign Mind, just as Self-Sovereign Mind is foundational for Socialized Mind and so on. Whether you are 15 or 50, that Impulsive Mind still lives in you, and the right circumstances can bring it much closer to the surface: stress, fatigue, intense emotions, overwhelm, to name a few.


The subject-object shifts that occur at this age are easier to understand than those characteristic of the stages that come later (the stages we, ourselves, might be in!). The shifts get more abstract as we increase complexity, but the basic processes remain the same. Solidifying our understanding of the move from Impulsive Mind to Self-Sovereign Mind, which usually happens around age six or seven, will help us grasp the later transitions.

And finally, third...

It is possible that you have small, Impulsive-Minded humans living in your home, perhaps of your own creation. Understanding how your preschooler makes sense of the world can make life a lot less frustrating for you, and for them too. Short version: we expect young children to understand things they simply cannot yet understand.

Archibald and Blanche (or, Big Names for Little Kids)

In order to eschew cumbersome, hyphen-laden prose involving repetition of phrases like “your five-year-old” or “a preschooler’s understanding,” let us instead discuss a couple hypothetical little egomaniacs: three-year old Archibald, and four-year old Blanche. Don’t worry, egocentrism is normal at this age—it is actually an achievement to celebrate (until it isn’t, a theme that recurs throughout life).

Archibald's Subjectivity

Archibald is subject to his immediate impulses and perceptions. What does that mean? It means the world is as it appears to him through his senses, and it is all right here, right now. It means the cars and buildings on the ground shrink when the airplane takes off, because that is what he sees happening (duh - it's obvious, right?).

The shrinking building is not his perception of the building. “His perception” implies objectivity, something he has. For Archie, it simply is. Little Archie has no reason to question his experience (there’s that possessive “his” again) because he is not aware he is having one that differs from anyone else’s. That is what it means to be subject to something. If you can say that you have something, you are not subject to it.

Blanche the Biter

The sense-making of Archibald’s Impulsive Mind parallels his immediate, me-centered experience of the physical world. Blanche has some understanding of rules, for example, but she makes sense of them differently than adults. She might understand that hitting and biting are bad, but this is where we must again distinguish what she knows from how she knows it.

We tend to expect children at this age to refrain from biting because it causes harm to the bite-ee. This is not how it works. For Blanche, biting is bad because you get in trouble. End of story. If she follows a rule, it is because of the immediate impact of not following it on her.

Blanche might also know biting is bad because it makes other children cry, and that makes Blanche cry too. But critically, she is not crying because she realizes she caused the other child pain and she is now experiencing a crisis of consciousness, stricken with guilt and remorseful for her sins. And if your reaction is, “well, she should be,” no, she shouldn’t. Her me-centric reaction is developmentally appropriate. Guilt is an abstract concept for later stages.

Blanche is crying because witnessing the distress of the other child (not to mention the obvious upset of the adult witnesses to her crime), is distressing to her. We are hard-wired to feel distress when we see other humans in pain. That is the out-of-the-box wiring, no development required. Blanche cries because of how the bite-ee’s crying makes her feel.

Logical Consequences Assume Logical Thinking

“If you eat your broccoli, we will go to the playground tomorrow,” is gibberish to Archie. It is setting him up for failure, and you for frustration. His grasp of past and future is not fully formed, nor is the if/then logic.

“You can’t get up from the table until you eat your broccoli” is even more problematic for this early form of mind. For Archibald, this is a lose-lose situation. It is an unresolvable conflict. I want to get up. I do not want to eat broccoli. The Impulsive Mind cannot parse these conflicting impulses which are immediate and consuming.

The subjective experience of unresolvable conflict is extremely distressing at any age. Archie’s three-year-old expression of this distress has a name: we call it a tantrum, the result of overloading his sense-making capacity. Adults also feel great distress when our ability to make sense of a situation is overwhelmed. It just requires more complexity to overwhelm us, and suppress the tantrum. Usually.

Growth is inevitable... for now.

Archibald and Blanche will transcend their Impulsive Mind somewhere around second grade. The necessary subject-object shifts and restructuring of their knowledge are inevitable, because ultimately Impulsive Mind is incompatible with physical reality. Shrinking cars and buildings is simply not a workable understanding of what happens when we ascend in an airplane. Unresolvable conflicts will ensue, and unresolvable conflict is a clear call for growth in complexity.

Their realization that they have a perspective that is unique to them comes with an added “a-ha": if I have my own impulses, perspectives, and emotions, other people must have them too! This gives rise to a whole host of cognitive restructuring. It is a precursor to empathy.

As young children, everything is simpler for Archibald and Blanche, and all of this happens automatically. They grow in complexity not because they want to—none of us do, because it is uncomfortable—but because they have to. Physical reality insists.

As we will see, this will not always be the case, and further growth is not guaranteed. When it comes to the more nuanced constructive development required of adults, like recognizing that your view of morality is just one of many equally valid views, it is entirely possible to resist the call for the remainder of our lives. But we are not going to let that happen, are we?

Retexo’s coachingpeer groups, and workshops are all designed to support a lifetime of growing complexity to help ensure you do not get stuck. We hope you check them out.

Until next time,

Greg and Martha

These ideas build on earlier articles, specifically:

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