Boy Stealing Candy

What We Know Vs. How We Know It

adult development

Jean Piaget characterized discrete stages of childhood cognitive development. Robert Kegan studies adult development, and has identified ongoing stages that can emerge throughout life (more on that here).

These different “forms of mind” are not about personality, general intelligence, belief systems, or level of education, formal or otherwise. When we discuss forms of mind, or constructive-developmental stages, what matters is how people make sense of the world. These stages of development are not about what you know but how you know it.

But what does this mean? How is what you know different from how you know it?

Consider the following: from early childhood through old age, across languages and cultures, people know they are not supposed to steal. Yet how they know it can vary greatly depending on their form of mind—their way of making sense of the world.

Imagine you are at a snack bar operating on the honor system. Right there, front and center, you spot your favorite candy bar. It sounds pretty good to you right now. How might someone in each form of mind explain why they didn’t just steal it?

(In all these examples, age 2-6, for instance, means age 2-ish to age 6-ish. Timing varies, more so in later stages.)

Impulsive Mind (age 2-6):

I want the candy bar, but if I take it, mom and dad will yell at me / take away my favorite toy, etc., and I don’t want that to happen.

How They Made Sense: Impulsive Mind is subject to immediate impulses and consequences. They do not make sense of stealing as morally wrong. They choose not to steal the candy bar to avoid immediate consequences to them. Impulsive Mind is not reflecting on past events, nor do they grasp societal norms yet. Their world is right here, right now, and almost entirely "me" oriented. Impulsive Mind cannot hold the perspective of another person, and yesterday’s rule may or may not apply today.

Self-Sovereign Mind (age 6 through adolescence, and some adults):

I wanted the candy bar, but I didn’t take it because that would be stealing, which is against the rules. People who steal are bad and I’m not bad.

How They Made Sense: Around age 6, children begin to make sense of “do not steal” a little differently. They are no longer entrained in their immediate impulses, subject to their desire for the candy bar. Their sense-making remains very self-oriented and transactional, but they begin to understand that others have separate, and potentially different needs and desires. Importantly, although they are not yet able to hold their own perspective and that of another at the same time, they begin to recognize that other people have their own viewpoints. It is still all about them, but this recognition is a big growth step to be congratulated!

Socialized Mind (late teens, 40-50% of adults):

I wouldn’t steal the candy bar because it’s against the law / my religion / company policy, etc. If I steal it would disappoint my family / friends / boss / church community, and that would feel awful.

How They Made Sense: Socialized Mind is subject to the expectations of their groups and authority figures. They identify themselves through their roles and relationships. Violating rules and norms jeopardizes those roles and relationships, and is thus avoided. It is as if one has installed an internal board of directors made up of representatives of their various groups.

Self-Authoring Mind (20-35% of adults):

I wouldn’t steal the candy bar for many reasons. Yes, it’s against the law and my religious beliefs, but it’s more than that. I value fairness, respect for others, and helping create a healthy, safe society. Stealing would violate all of those.

How They Made Sense: Self-Authoring Mind has weighed the options, tried them on, and formed a personal ideology. They might go along with the group, but they will have much more agency regarding when—and when not—to follow the herd. They are the author of their beliefs. The board of directors is still there, but Self-Authoring Mind has promoted themselves to Chairperson.

Self-Transforming Mind (a small percent of adults, rarely before midlife):

I wouldn’t steal the candy bar because it would harm others and go against the values I have developed for myself. I think most cultures come to the same conclusion about issues like honesty and theft, which explains why pretty much every society prohibits stealing. But even with something as simple as stealing, right and wrong is not always simple. I can see how some people would view stealing differently, maybe even as a necessity because of their circumstances, and I’m sure that I would do the same if I were in their position.

How They Made Sense: Some people reach a point where even their own belief systems can be examined as external objects. Their hypothetical answer is much longer because their sense-making is much more complex. For Self-Transforming Mind, “do not steal,” is likely too mundane an example. Most agree that theft is problematic, but Self-Transforming Mind would be intensely curious, even excited, about the apparent contradictions of more complex issues. Their positions would be quite malleable (but well-thought out) and full of shades of gray.

Many Paths Up the Same Mountain

In this example, everyone arrived at the same place—grand theft Snickers avoided—but via totally different sense-making routes. The observable behavior was the same, but how they knew was different. This becomes more interesting when people arrive at different decisions, especially when they made the “wrong” choice and the “right” choice was obvious to you. How did they make sense of the situation? Perhaps they were operating from a less complex (but also developmentally appropriate) form of mind. Or maybe their sense-making is more complex?

What we know and how we know it are two different things. Developing ourselves involves an ongoing process of remodeling the structure of our knowledge to accommodate greater levels of complexity. And as long as our lives continue to get more complex, there is more work to be done for all of us.

Retexo’s coachingpeer groups, and workshops are all designed to support a lifetime of growing complexity. We hope you check them out.


These ideas build on earlier articles, specifically Practicing the Fundamentals: The Subject-Object Shift and Glitches in The Matrix: A Demand for Lifelong Development.


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