The theory that is today the Model of Hierarchical Complexity was first presented by Michael Lamport Commons and Francis Asbury Richards in the early 1980s. It builds directly upon the Piagetian model and the work of Kohlberg and can be considered as neo-Piagetian (although some call it “post-Piagetian”), because it largely supposes that the Piagetian model (with cognitive stages) is correct, but that there are several stages above what a normal human adult achieves, higher stages that only a minority of the adult population reach. According to the neo-Piagetians the study of these stages can explain a lot about humanity and society.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter on cognitive development; a chapter that introduces the reader to the Model of Hierarchical complexity and the creator of this theory Michael Commons.
Commons first formulated the theory after having taken a year off from work to study mathematics, where the language of abstract algebra helped him to describe the formal relationships between the different stages.
Once this formal relationship was in place, the different stages could be described with generalizable orders of complexity. The order of complexity is the complexity of a certain task (such as getting three green balls, a task in which you must coordinate the shape, number and color with the verb “get” – this is stage 5, Sentential, in the model below). The MHC research program is based on task analysis and is thereby dependent on the inventions of tasks and dilemmas to test people – it is a branch of experimental psychology. But once you know the stages well enough, you begin to be able to understand at which stage people operate when they do things in everyday life as well (and, yes, you also begin to be able to see which stages your fellow researchers operate at and what order of complexity their work is).
All the other theorists had built their theories by observing the development of children or adults. Commons and Richards mapped the stages mathematically – and then found that the data mapped their theory much more elegantly and precisely than any of the other theories. Besides, you could use the same models for animals. Clearly, they were on to something important.
Initially, Commons and Richards themselves failed to see the wider implications of their theory. They had primarily devised it as a response to criticism of Kohlberg, as some scholars did not believe in there being higher stages than what a normal adult human being reaches at ages 11-14 (the formal-operational stage). But Commons and Richards’ model, in all its reductionist crudeness, took on a life of its own, and impressive results started appearing: people – and their behaviors – mapped onto the different stages with an almost frightening precision and consistency.
I am not going to discuss the evolution of the model, but just skip to the latest version of it, now in 2017. The model covers everything from germs and amoeba right up to Einstein. But it does not, as we will see, describe existential depth, i.e. it doesn’t account for the Buddha or Kierkegaard.
The Stages of the MHC
So – sixteen stages, let’s go baby (we’ll revisit the four most relevant ones, stages 10-13, in the next chapter; in this list I have underlined them):
0. Calculatory Stage (molecules)
- Can distinguish between 0 and 1 (something versus nothing), much like a digital computer.
- Can only react to stimuli without any distinguishing for strength of reaction; “organisms at the edge of life”, like DNA itself.
- Humans pass this stage long before we are born; indeed, before we are even conceived.
1. Automatic Stage (cells)
- Can react to stimuli depending on different quantities, but only by automatic response and never through learning.
- No coordination of different stimuli, there is just a single stimulus-response.
- Single cell organisms; humans pass the stage before we are born.
2. Sensory or Motor Stage (amoeba)
- Can react in different ways to different stimuli, and can coordinate two stimuli responses (but not invent new responses). Move body parts.
- For instance a leech, if you both shine on it with a lamp and shock it with electricity several times, you can get it to respond to just the lamp as if there was an electric shock.
- Amoeba, slugs, mollusks, early human fetus.
3. Circular Sensory-Motor Stage (insect, fish, newborn human)
- Can reach, touch, grab, shake objects, babble, make single sounds (phonemes).
- Can move body parts after having perceived objects and can recognize things.
- Most predatory fish, insects, newborn humans. (Note that cognitive stage can be the same even if brain size, cognitive speed and perhaps the degree of “sentience” vary greatly. Counter-intuitive but true!)
4. Sensory-Motor Stage (rat, small baby)
- Can do a series of movements that are calibrated after one another and build upon one another to achieve something.
- This includes putting several sounds together so that you can form a morpheme, at least in the language-prone species of humans (you can use combinations of sounds to “express something” but not yet use a full word consistently).
- Rats, young baby humans.
5. Nominal Stage (pigeon, one-year-old toddlers)
- Can find relations among concept and make them into words: single words, exclamations, knowing the meaning of a word. “Nominal” because you can name stuff.
- Can begin to understand what other organisms “mean”.
- Laboratory pigeons, one-year-old toddlers.
6. Sentential Stage (two/three years old)
- Can put words together into sentences, and see a series of simple tasks that need to be coordinated, imitate a sequence.
- This allows for the use of pronouns like I, mine, you, yours it, etc.—these being more abstract than names of things.
- Parrots (as famously described by Irene Pepperberg; trained parrots can go up to this stage), cats, toddlers around two to three.
7. Pre-Operational Stage (three to five year olds)
- Can make simple deductions (but not spot contradictions), follow lists of sequential acts, and tell short stories (by coordinating several sentences).
- Can use connectives (in humans): if, then, as, when, etc. Puts together several sentences into a “paragraph”.
- Dogs and small children, three to five years old.
8. Primary Stage (five to seven years old)
- Can do logical deduction and use empirical rules; adds, subtracts, divides, multiplies, proves, does series of tasks on its own.
- Can relate to times, places, can count acts and relate to separate actors. Can construct relatively coherent narratives (“groups of paragraphs”); these create accounts and ideas about what’s going on.
- Chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys; in humans, five to seven year olds.
9. Concrete Stage (seven to eleven)
- Can do long division, follow complex social rules, takes on roles and coordinates self with others.
- Can create meaningful, concrete stories and keep the same story intact and consequential over time. Puts together groups of paragraphs into a story. Can thus keep track of interrelations (which is the best tool, and how would you test it, etc.), social events, what happened among others, reasonable deals, history, geography.
- Normal in humans at ages seven to eleven, but also a significant portion of the adult population. In the famous bonobo chimpanzee studies of Frans de Waal, there are examples of concrete stage behaviors, such as testing several tools to determine which is the best one.
10. Abstract Stage (ages eleven to fourteen)
- Can form abstract ideas and thoughts: single, generalized variables that fall beyond the concrete sequences of events in a story—can make and quantify abstract propositions.
- Relates to categories and uses “cases of events” to incrementally improve the understanding of these categories.
- Humans eleven and older, a significant part of the adult population, about 30%. No known non-human animals.
11. Formal Stage (ages fourteen to eighteen, if at all)
- Can identify relations between abstract variables and reflect upon these relations, devise ways to test them, etc. Solves problems using algebra with one unknown, uses logic and empiricism.
- Can speak a full, rich language with self-reflection, uses logical sequences of connectives: if this, then that, in all cases.
- Fourteen years and onwards. The most common stage in adult human beings, about 40% of the adult population—only a minority go beyond this stage.
12. Systematic Stage (eighteen and above, if at all)
- Can identify patterns among linear relationships, thus forming systems of relations among abstract variables and how these interact. Can thereby also solve equations with several unknowns. The first “postformal” stage, i.e. it was not described by Piaget, but implicated in Kohlberg’s work.
- Begins to discuss legal systems, social structures, ecosystems, economic systems and the like.
- Can be found in about 20% of adult humans, usually after age eighteen.
13. Metasystematic Stage (early twenties and above, if at all)
- Can compare and synthesize several systems with differing logics, put together “metasystems” or conclusions that hold true across different system, reflect upon and name general properties of systems.
- Understands that things can be “homomorphic”, “isomorphic”, etc. This means that you can see how one system can be changed in corresponding or differing ways to another system.
- Can be found in about 1.5% of the adult population, usually only after early twenties.
14. Paradigmatic Stage (mid-twenties and above, if at all)
- Can deal with several very abstract metasystems to create new ways of thinking of the world, new paradigms, new sciences or branches within sciences.
- Has a fractal way of thinking, so that the universal principles found are applicable to many different levels of analysis and phenomena.
- Prevalence unknown, but if the pattern holds and every stage seems to increase with about a standard deviation, it should be a little more than one adult in a thousand in a normal population, mostly at ages 25+. This makes it rare, but still some three million people in the world (one thousandth of the functional adults above 25). Although the stage is theoretically formulated, there is no reliable test for it.
15. Crossparadigmatic Stage (late twenties and above, if at all)
- Can deal with several paradigms to create new fields.
- Examples are: Newton’s reformulation of physics, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the invention of quantum physics, the invention of chaos mathematics and complexity, the invention of computing, the invention of postmodern philosophy, the invention of the holistic “integral theory” of Ken Wilber, the invention of string theory, the invention of the MHC theory.
- Prevalence unknown, found only in adults older than twenty and who have privileged circumstances. It most often shows up around 30. No reliable test for this stage.
What you get here is a model of cognitive complexity that places humans and other animals on the same scale. This kind of thinking leads us towards questioning some of the “speciesist” assumptions of our day and age: that there would be anything “special” about humans.
Admittedly, there are some things unique to humans, such as our propensity for language use – which appears to be a certain genetic property; in 2009, researchers transplanted such genes to mice and heard them make more interesting squeaks. This is also in line with what Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory would suggest; that we should view language as a biological property of humans.
Commons’ theory naturally focuses on language (words, sentences, increasingly complex grammar, narratives, concepts…) because it is mostly used to study humans. But the MHC stages or “orders of complexity” are perfectly possible to describe in non-linguistic terms, such as abstract algebra, which is what Commons initially did. So even animals that don’t speak (like the pigeon at stage 5 Nominal) can display behaviors at equal or higher orders of complexity than e.g. young human children, even if kids talk and pigeons don’t. Speech is a useful tool when it comes to accomplishing complex tasks, but it is not in itself necessary for cognitive complexity (or sentience, for that matter: having subjective experience, feelings, etc.). This should insulate us against linguistically based speciesism, where humanity’s “specialness” is legitimized by the fact that we have language use.
Before we go on, let’s just note again that cognitive stage according to MHC is not a moral order – we have noticed for instance that human newborns can be described at the same stage as an insect (stage 3 Circular Sensory-Motor), but we’d hardly ascribe the same moral value to the two. Moreover, you can see variations of MHC stage in animals of the same species. This goes for newly born cubs versus fully developed adult dogs, as well as individual differences where some dogs out-stage their fellow canines. Irene Pepperberg’s parrot was trained, after years of hard work, to go up one stage from 5 Nominal – where it could get a ball (out of several options, with cubes, rings, etc.) in order to claim a reward – to 6 Sentential, where it could get “two yellow balls”, etc. The parrot just had to think for a very long time to figure it out, its brain being much smaller than a human one. This means that a human at the same stage, but having a far “higher IQ”, would reach the same conclusion as the parrot, just at a much faster pace.
So we are not taking anything away from the fact that members of two different species, who are at the same stage, can still be very different from one another. Just consider the fact that some species have mate selection by means of bloody tournaments, like baboons (and a relatively short-lived rock n’ roll lifestyle alpha male gets all the punani and offspring, before he is violently dethroned), and others through pair-bonding, like bonobo chimps (most of the population procreates and guys help out with the kids) – with humans being somewhere in between, judging from our physiological traits such as moderately larger males than females and medium sperm competition (as implied by testicle size, and, uhm, I guess by our sexual behavior). These species (baboons, bonobo chimps and humans) are behaviorally and psychologically quite different from one another even if their cognitive stages partly overlap.
Of course, such species-specific traits shape behavior, and of course there is plenty of evolutionary psychology to account for much of what goes on in humans and other animals. But still, the complexity of those behaviors can be described with the help of our new friend – the MHC – and that puts all animals on the same scale, a scale on which adult human beings, surprisingly perhaps, differ vastly from one another.
This last part is both counter-intuitive and controversial. So let’s examine it closer.
Stage 10 Abstract
Who? Emerges at ages 11-14. Observed only in humans.
How many? About 30% of a normal adult population in modern countries reach and stay at this stage throughout their lifetime.
INTRODUCTION TO STAGE 10 ABSTRACT
To “be at this stage” means to display only behaviors and cognitive operations of this order of complexity or below – i.e. that you produce original thoughts, reasoning and behaviors which are maximally this complex. However, of course, your development doesn’t stop at age 14 just because your MHC stage does. You still learn, develop and change in other ways throughout your lifetime.
INTUITIVE EXAMPLE FROM THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE
Remember: in terms of language use, stage 9 Concrete means that you can put together many different paragraphs into one overarching narrative and name that narrative: the Iliad, etc. But whereas Homer’s Iliad contains a lot of succinct and interesting human understanding, you don’t find it abstracting variables and defining them.
The pre-Socratic natural philosophers, however, did exactly that: the essence of the world is water, suggested Thales; Heraclitus held that only change is constant, and so on. The ancient Greeks obviously could perform many actions that were of stage 10 Abstract or beyond: ship building, planning trade and conquests, administration, navigation and so forth. But philosophy that corresponds to stage 10 Abstract was not yet present in early literature and drama, and only showed up with the pre-Socratics (about 6th century BCE).
I chose the example with Greek literature and drama and the birth of Western philosophy simply because you here have a clear shift from explicitly expressed thoughts at stage 9 Concrete to stage 10 Abstract ideas or variables. Of course, this shift is possible in many other non-explicit and non-linguistic forms.
YES CAN DO
At stage 10 Abstract, we can invent our own abstractions: not just chairs and tables, but furniture; not just furniture and domestic appliances, but “all movable objects you put in a home”; not just home and office but all indoors environment – and so forth.
This is not just mimicking words like “furniture” used by others, but actually creating novel abstract concepts or variables themselves.
The stage 10 Abstract thinker can then use quantification of these variables: some of the furniture, some of the time. This can refine the variables, make new distinctions and let the abstract concepts acquire new meanings.
The abstractions are taken from stories about concrete things, people and events. These abstractions – furniture, love, justice, animosity, weight, volume – take on meanings that go beyond the particular story they are a part of.
Let’s invent a variable to try this out: the ruggedness of mountain cliffs. We can have more or less of it, relate it to time, say that this variable causes mountains to be difficult to climb, etc. We can name the variable a new word: blefuscity (it’s a made up word).
Unlike the word “ruggedness”, blefuscity only denotes ruggedness in the way that mountains are rugged – not the way that a person can have a rugged look. “High blefuscity” means that the cliff range has many sharp edges and “low blefuscity” means it has fewer such edges and that it is smoother.
Now blefuscity takes on a life of its own, beyond the singular, concrete story. But in the next story we tell (let’s say it’s a story about mountaineering), we notice that the cliffs are hard to climb but undeniably have “low blefuscity”. The mountain slope was steep and smooth. So we make a distinction between “blefuscity” and “steepness”. We have thus refined the meaning of “blefuscity”, but it can always be further refined or challenged.
And so – the world we live in soon becomes a world of abstractions, a world of abstract concepts that have definitions and quantifiable properties. When we conceptualize reality at this stage, narratives still matter (this and that happened, I am from that place, etc.), but they are hinged on abstractions: “a story about love”, etc.
Whoa. So that’s pretty good. And the only creature that has ever been observed to do this is Homo sapiens (but we can probably count in the Neanderthals and other hominids). We can name, relate to and quantify a world of abstract things.
Shakespeare would have said: “Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world. That has such people in ‘t! MIRANDA. How amazing!”
NO CAN DO
What the stage 10 Abstract cannot do, however, is to describe regular relations between different such abstract ideas.
We can still, however, by means of a shared language, take part of the ideas that other people produce at higher orders of complexity. (We can also, if guided through the sequences of actions, perform tasks that are up to two stages above; we’ll get back to that).
By definition, if we never ourselves have displayed original behaviors higher than this stage, we are said to “be at” stage 10 Abstract.
Let’s return to our example with steepness and the invented abstract variable “blefuscity”. For instance, very high steepness tends to create an even slope, which then means low blefuscity (few sharp edges) – which still makes for a very difficult climb (whereas our stage 10 Abstract thinking would have us believe that low blefuscity should make the climb easy).
This means that we easily land in false conclusions because we alternate between using steepness and blefuscity in our thinking, but fail to clearly and distinctively formulate the even more abstract rule which guides how we should use the two variables. We fail to see the formal relationship between the different abstract variables.
Why is this a problem? Because, as it turns out, the world around us – and inside us – behaves in ways that are so often not sufficiently and productively described by a single abstract variable. This means that, as stage 10 Abstract thinkers, we will very often respond to the world around us in simplified manners: in black-and-white, either-or ways. In everyday life that may be more than sufficient. But unfortunately modern people, at least as a collective, have to deal with much more complex issues than creating, choosing and quantifying single variables.
SOME STAGE 10 ABSTRACT TASKS
As mentioned earlier, the MHC research is based on “task analysis”, i.e. the idea that every task has an “order of complexity” that can be analyzed: getting through a maze is more complex than walking down a road and so forth. The order of complexity is not the same as “difficulty”, which is much more context bound. Now let’s look at some tasks in everyday life that would require stage 10 Abstract thinking. We will get back to a corresponding list of tasks when we discuss the higher stages.
- Writing a conclusion in an essay that ties the whole thing together.
- Pointing out the common denominator in a few different stories (love story, story about deceit and revenge, the same moral of the story).
- Inventing new words for things that are not concretely present.
- Driving a bus (following traffic rules and keeping in mind the length of the bus and other factors that are out of your sight).
- Simple nursing (categorizations of patient behavior and reporting back to doctor, quantifying several medical variables, relating to these rather abstract variables, etc.)
- Non-investigative journalism: reporting events and abstracting what “the story” is.
- Accurately drawing 2D objects (without conceptualizing new styles or art forms).
- Artisanship or building that requires a planned idea (but no engineering or physics calculation).
- Creating a map, or reading one without assistance.
- Teaching kids to read and write.
SOME STAGE 10 ABSTRACT REASONING ABOUT POLITICS
Our stage of hierarchical complexity also affects how we think about politics and society. Regardless of political persuasion, we can think more or less complexly about political issues. Let’s look at some stage 10 Abstract arguments of different political hues.
- Anti-racist argument: Racism is bad: it is a self-contained and self-explanatory essence that spreads by itself unless you stop it, causing discrimination and possibly tyranny and war.
- Conservative argument: The Arabicness inherent to Arabs gives them traits that are irreconcilable with Western civilization.
- Feminist argument: Feminism means to stand up for women and crush patriarchy.
- Libertarian argument: The less state control, the better.
- Green argument: Human greed causes crises and destroys the environment.
- Day-to-day politics: I am frustrated both by high taxes and low spending; by both high unemployment and low starting wages.
HOW TO SPOT A STAGE 10
As stage 10 Abstract thinkers, we cannot see the general rules that govern when our abstractions should apply, when they can be expected to have certain properties and so forth. This means that we will tend to focus on one single variable and want to either increase or decrease its quantitative value: less immigration, lower taxes, more love, more dialogue, less greed etc.
If confronted with a counter-argument (e.g. that more dialogue also means more time-consuming squabble, which in turn may not serve the purpose) the stage 10 Abstract thinker will simply insist upon having both: more dialogue and less time-consuming squabble. This is the less complex form of both-and thinking: not accounting for a productive tension between both sides, but simply denying that one’s argument has trade-offs or downsides.
As stage 10 Abstract thinkers we can sometimes insist upon doing things that to others is apparently counter-productive. For instance, the management department at a (modern, computerized) hospital can decide to cut the budget and make a decision to close down many of the printers. In effect, this may cause the nurses to walk much longer stretches to the printers farther away, in effect costing much higher wages if seen per hour and reducing efficiency – just to save some ink. In this case (which is taken from real life) the management uses the singular variable (“saving costs”) but fails to coordinate it with other variables (“cost per effective hour of work”) and in effect make budget cuts that are directly wasteful.
Have you ever been in an argument where you patiently and politely address the inconsistencies of your counterpart’s argument, but they seem to repeat the same phrase or concept as if it were an answer in itself? This is probably a stage 10 Abstract thinker. At this stage we can spot obvious factual inconsistencies, but we cannot spot inconsistencies in how we apply abstract variables: for instance, lower taxes and higher welfare, please! And if you point out that there may be a trade-off, the stage 10 Abstract thinker will think that you are being vague and just playing with words.
Thinkers of each stage have this kind of complexity bias. Complexity bias means that we intuitively prefer forms of reasoning that correspond to our own stage of complexity. Explanations of lower complexity seem crude and simplistic to us, whereas higher stage explanations seem vague or counter-intuitive.
Stage 11 Formal
Who? Adolescent and adult humans. Emerges, if at all, at ages 14 and older.
How many? About 40% of adult humans in a normal, modern population.
INTRODUCTION TO STAGE 11 FORMAL
This is the most common adult human stage and where Inhelder and Piaget’s original model ended (this is somewhat of a simplification, but never mind). That someone is at this stage means that they perform tasks of this order of complexity – original behaviors not guided by others. Again, we don’t know what this means in terms of the organism internally, but we can certainly observe behaviors at this stage.
Even if this stage emerges in adolescence and relatively few people grow beyond it, people of course continue to change and develop in other ways throughout their lifespan.
INTUITIVE EXAMPLE FROM THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE:
In the history of science, understanding Newton’s three laws of motion is an example of stage 11 Formal thinking. To successfully coordinate the three laws, however, requires the next stage (stage 12 Systematic) – not to mention inventing these laws in a time before natural science was clearly established (which requires a much higher stage).
This is just to give a clear example of stage 11 Formal when formalized in scientific theory. Of course, outside of science, a lot of people were performing stage 11 Formal tasks: coordinating prices with demand, investments with risks and rewards, setting up rules and legal systems, building advanced structures, handling relationships between people with different interests by means of fair rules, creating ways to compare different measure units and currencies, and so forth.
YES CAN DO
We can now invent our own rules or principles that describe or guide the relationship between several abstract variables. The relationships can be linear or not, but they make us see some kind of plotted line.
This means that our thinking and our actions become guided by such rules or principles: if this, under these circumstances, then that.
It also means that, because we know the rules guiding the relationships between different abstract variables, we can guess the value of an abstract variable simply by knowing the values of the other related variables. We can “see around corners” and think ahead in ways that children cannot.
Let us return to the invented variables blefuscity (the ruggedness of cliffs) and steepness. We concluded that blefuscity and steepness both cause the climb to be more difficult.
But let’s assume that, on a very steep cliff, you can only climb it if it also has high blefuscity: otherwise there is simply nothing to hold on to.
If you only study blefuscity, you don’t notice this: all steep cliffs with high blefuscity are difficult to climb, as are all not-so-steep cliffs with high blefuscity. It is only when you compare different steep cliffs, that you notice that high blefuscity makes for an easier climb.
So what we assumed was a property, an essence, inherent to the variable, was in fact only true under some circumstances. We have gone from a thinking with “blefuscity and steepness” to one where we relate to “blefuscity and/or/if steepness”. And our whole view of the situation changes.
We have invented a rule that describes the relationship between three variables: blefuscity causes greater difficulty under low steepness and lower difficulty under high steepness. We call it “the general rule of blefuscity”. An elegant rule of the universe. And the stars glisten.
NO CAN DO
What we cannot do as stage 11 Formal thinkers, and what most adult people actually never quite do during our lifetimes, is to relate several such formalized rules to one another and form one coherent system of thought.
This is partly where the MHC theory becomes so counter-intuitive that it loses many adherents: it just seems implausible. The simplest systems are such things as a “catch-22” or a feedback cycle, or a balance of two simultaneous processes. Could it really be that almost 80% of all adult humans never think such thoughts or perform the corresponding actions? I will discuss this in a section after the four major stages have been presented. Suffice to note, at this point, that we are speaking of the ability to create original thoughts and behaviors of that stage. This means that, in a civilization that is global and has many, many millions of people inventing behaviors and concepts above stage 11 Formal, there will simply be so many higher stage actions and concepts around, which can be taught and performed with help, or simply misunderstood. So we tend to not notice that a minority of people are actually doing most of the more complex inventing.
If recognizing the “catch-22” as a concept is so easy, how come there wasn’t even a word for it before John Heller’s 1953 novel with that title? You may have read or heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, which points out the great significance that unusual, exceptionally talented people called “outliers” have in society’s development – although he quickly and famously points out that such people always have good circumstances, that they put in 10 000 hours of practice, and always rely upon some help of their friends.
Or you may know of Clay Shirky’s 2008 book on the participatory potentials of the internet Here Comes Everybody, where he points out that, after all, only a small minority of the users of e.g. Wikipedia actually create the content. This may also be because relatively few people have complex enough understandings of many of the topics.
I agree with Michael Commons: it appears as though most people never construct complex systems of thought or behavior. But then again, most tasks in everyday life can be successfully managed with stage 10 Abstract and stage 11 Formal behaviors or below.
The challenge to stage 11 Formal thinking comes primarily when we deal with systematic issues of society, ecology, economy, organizations, social psychology and the like. For instance, we may have problems with seeing how the messiness in the college kitchen dorm is a result of systemic properties of sharing a kitchen, rather than as someone’s breach of the rules. We tend to think that a single rule, or breach thereof, explains issues that indeed require us to consider the system as a whole.
Paul Haggis’ 2004 movie Crash focuses on issues of race and class in Los Angeles. It’s the darling film of sociologists, even with direct references to sociological research (the lines from the opening scene are directly taken from the American sociologist Jack Katz’s ethnography on road rage). The movie shows how the many characters are by themselves relatively innocent, each being a victim of their respective circumstances – but the collective result of all the characters’ perceptions and actions create a tense, racist and violent society.
Let’s just say that if the script writers were at stage 11 Formal, this movie would have looked quite differently, with a much more linear plotline and single-cause explanation of racism.
SOME STAGE 11 FORMAL TASKS
- Writing a conclusion in an essay that ties the whole thing together and fruitfully compares it to other texts.
- Pointing out the patterns of how plotlines evolve in stories of different genres and explaining the logic to why this is so.
- Inventing new words or expressions for processes, rules or general principles.
- Driving a large truck with multiple trailers (meaning, you have to consider how the trailers affect one another when you drive backwards out of a garage, etc.).
- Medical work with independent decision making (qualifying diagnosis, weighing, choosing and applying one or several treatments, etc.).
- Economic journalism: how businesses are affected by changes in the economy, etc.
- Accurately drawing 3D objects (without designing novel styles or art forms).
- Artisanship or building that requires a planned idea and engineering or physics calculations.
- Creating a map, and providing correct instructions on how to read it.
- Teaching kids to read and write, using different methods for depending on the characteristics of the children.
SOME STAGE 11 FORMAL REASONING ABOUT POLITICS
- Anti-racist argument: Racism results from economic and social inequalities in society and causes further inequality and discrimination.
- Conservative argument: Some cultural norms followed by Arabs may be irreconcilable with Western civilization.
- Feminist argument: Feminism is to apply the principles of gender equality and to make these principles prevalent throughout society.
- Libertarian argument: The less state control, the better, except that maintaining law and order is necessary. To establish law and order may temporarily require increased state control in “failed state” areas.
- Green argument: The lacking proportionality between our emphasis on human interests, especially those of rich people, and the interests of animals and ecosystems, is what causes crises and destroys the environment.
- Day-to-day politics: I see a trade-off between high taxes and high spending, between low unemployment and high starting wages.
HOW TO SPOT A STAGE 11
Generally, because of cognitive bias, stage 11 Formal thinkers will tend to like to stick with certain principles. Of course, sometimes finding the simple principle or rule that guides the apparent messiness of reality can be a mark of much higher cognitive stages (think Newton). But if people like to stick with rules and principles not invented by themselves and they tend to make linear plans about the future and tend to focus on single if-this-then-that principles, you are probably dealing with stage 11 Formal thinking.
In politics, stage 11 Formal thinkers generally have a penchant for clear ideologies or doctrines: socialism, libertarianism and the like. They are likely to repeat one common wisdom, e.g. the conservative idea that things often go wrong when you try to be utopian or the radical idea that most social change has come through struggle.
Remember, this is the most common stage. Adult middle class people in a modern society will very often be of this stage of cognitive complexity. At this stage we don’t really produce our own theories or solutions, simply following the rules and habits set out by others. We can of course still be intelligent (high IQ), artistic, imaginative, skilled and so forth.
Stage 12 Systematic
Who? Adult humans, or late adolescents.
How many? About 20% of a normal adult population in modern countries.
Intuitive example from science? Darwin’s theory of evolution (Darwin himself was higher stage, of course).
YES CAN DO
As stage 12 Systematic thinkers we can coordinate several formal rules or simple equations (not necessarily in formalized, mathematical language, of course) to see how they form a larger system.
We can hence solve equations with several unknowns. You may remember equation systems from high school math. This is a simple form of system, where we relate two linear equations to one another and thereby solve them (or determine that they cannot be solved or have different possible solutions).
But most people can pass these tests? Yes, of course: under the circumstances where someone is walking us through the steps. But does our brain spontaneously and repeatedly create thoughts that relate to such systems? In about 20% of us, it does. In most of us, it doesn’t.
If you look around at how our politicians and the electorate reason on various issues, or indeed even how much, if not most, of academic research is conducted, you notice that it does not really reason beyond stage 11 Formal models.
So we had the thing with blefuscity (ruggedness of cliffs), steepness and the difficulty of the climb: “the general rule of blefuscity”. Now let’s add another rule: the climber’s characteristics. The climber can be tall or short (with corresponding length of arms) and she can be a good or bad climber.
Are we just adding more factors to our equation? Is this not just more of the same? No. We are looking now at something completely different: how the entirety of the system (the climbing of the mountain) is affected by the interactions of two quite different sets of variables.
Let’s say that the climber generally is better at climbing if she’s taller. But then it turns out that this only holds true under some circumstances: sometimes shorter arms and legs are better. Shorter legs are better when there is very small distance between each crack and protrusion in the cliff.
So now we have to break up the variable “blefuscity” into three constituent parts: the frequency, sharpness and size of the cracks/protrusions of the rock. At very high frequency (low distance between the cracks), shorter arms make for a better climber, and at medium or low frequency (greater distance between each of the cracks), longer arms are advantageous.
Also, the better the climber, the more she can use blefuscity to her advantage. In fact, the best climbers actually are demotivated by long, easy climbs, thus in practice climbing the more difficult mountains with greater vigor and skill.
This makes us re-evaluate the “general rule of blefuscity” that our friend at stage 11 Formal formulated (that blefuscity makes for a more difficult climb unless it’s a very steep climb, in which the reverse is true). It turns out to be not-so-general after all: even steepness can make for an easier climb, because, together with the right kind of blefuscity, it motivates the climber and breaks up the climb into manageable and interesting parts.
Here, at a view from stage 12 Systematic, we see that neither blefuscity, steepness nor indeed “difficulty”, were what they seemed. They are all so much more contextual than we would have thought.
Of course, in a discussion, the stage 10 Abstract thinker may appear more certain and common sense: blefuscity makes for a difficult climb! The systematic stage 12 thinker may seem less sure of herself, having to think longer, to explain herself more technically and wordily, but she has nevertheless a much deeper understanding. And she can make for the best mountaineering. And she alone can formulate “the theory of mountaineering”. Glory days.
NO CAN DO
But even as stage 12 Systematic thinkers, we are limited to thinking of one system at a time. We don’t see that systems follow fundamentally different logics.
So at the stage 12 Systematic we tend to want to squeeze everything one and the same coherent system, not being able to compare different systems with quite different properties. If we are engineers, we tend to believe that the world consists of systems resembling engineering, if we are sociologists we believe it is made up of social constructions and tend to misinterpret and undervalue e.g. biology and psychiatry – and so on.
The main problem of many of the adult development theorists, from Jane Loevinger and Susanne Cook-Greuter to Robert Kegan, stems from the fact that their authors are at this cognitive stage. This is why their minds smash development into one unified model of one-dimensional development. They fail to see that there are different forms of developmental systems and that the logic of one such dimension cannot unproblematically be applied to the others. These thinkers tend to have great existential depth (as discussed in the following chapters), but that does not cancel out their cognitive shortcomings.
So stage 12 Systematic cannot solve deep, wicked issues that span across sectors of society and the sciences. The high esteem that “interdisciplinarity” holds within academia these days is really a vaguely formulated grasp for stage 13 Metasystematic solutions. Simply mixing panels with different scientists is only lip-service to the complexity of our day and age.
SOME STAGE 12 SYSTEMATIC TASKS
- Writing a conclusion in an essay which criticizes and goes beyond the thinking presented in other comparable essays (teaching at university level, I can say that only a few students manage to do this, even among the ones who study very hard).
- Inventing a new form of plotline or genre within literature.
- Inventing new words for theories, systems or “principles about principles”.
- Overseeing the traffic system in a city, reducing risk, bottlenecks and pollution.
- Medical work with applied critical thinking within science, comparing different research results and perhaps putting forward novel theories and methods.
- Critical investigative journalism: being able to see cracks and loopholes in the system and putting these in focus.
- Accurately drawing or otherwise representing multidimensional objects (including by successful use of the multiperspectivalism of (post-) modern art).
- Artisanship or building that requires the creation of novel methods, applying physics or engineering in unconventional ways.
- Providing instructions for creating good maps and how to provide instruction for reading them.
- Comparing and inventing different methods for teaching kids to read and write.
SOME STAGE 12 SYSTEMATIC REASONING (POLITICS):
- Anti-racist argument: Racism is an emergent property of all societies and interacts with things like inequality. Blaming and pointing fingers is generally unproductive and one should instead try to address the long-term issues that may be causing ethnic tensions under these particular circumstances.
- Conservative argument: There are challenges in reconciling Western and Islamic culture which depend on how these categories interact, rather than flaws inherent to either category.
- Feminist argument: Feminism means to work towards a long-term equilibrium where self-reproducing inequalities have petered out and people of all sexes and genders have less reason to feel insecure and frustrated.
- Libertarian argument: State control and policy implementation tend to have unexpected and unwanted consequences as society is always more complex than we recognize. It is therefore good to be restrictive with regulation and policy.
- Green argument: There are serious systemic flaws in our economic system that cause crises and may lead to ecological collapse.
- Day-to-day politics: Public spending should carefully follow and counter international trends – this optimizes the labor market. But the labor market can unfortunately not be expected to function perfectly; it always lets some people down.
HOW TO SPOT A STAGE 12
Stage 12 Systematic thinkers will tend to have less rigid opinions but more rigid argumentations. So one way to spot them is simply to ask them questions about their opinions: if there are few rules of thumb and clear conclusions, but much weighing of different factors, it may be stage 12 Systematic.
The stage 12 Systematic thinkers are often more inventive than others, so if the person has made unconventional innovations, this may indicate this stage.
But perhaps the easiest way may be by means of their cognitive biases: stage 12 Systematic thinkers tend to believe that the world consists of systems and their properties. So you find a strong bias towards explanations of this kind: structures, patterns, regularities, the economy, the biological body, Darwinian evolution, the gender norms and so forth.
Stage 13 Metasystematic
Who? Adult humans from early 20s and onwards.
How many? Only about 1.5-2% of a normal adult human population.
In the history of science and philosophy you might find ideas that embody this stage of complexity in relative recent branches such as general information theory, cybernetics, complexity science, chaos theory, the systems sciences, metatheory (theory about theory), Wilberian integral theory and perhaps epigenetics. Of course, just studying these sciences doesn’t mean that the student is automatically a stage 13 Metasystematic thinker. And most of the innovators within these fields are of still higher cognitive stages (14 Paradigmatic or 15 Crossparadigmatic).
I will present this stage more briefly. The point is that the stage 13 Metasystematic thinker is capable of comparing the general properties of systems, naming these properties and reasoning about when they generalize or not. Let’s jump right to the invented example.
We can observe then, that it is not blefuscity (and its sub-factors), even combined with steepness, that determines how good a climb (how much value, recreational or practical) we get. Nor is it the characteristics of the climber that determines the climb. Rather, it is a property of the system as a whole: how well-aligned the different variables, across both systems (cliff and climber), are to one another, with regard to value created by the cliff/climber system as a whole. So the overall alignment of the system determines the climb: not any single variable like blefuscity. Our previous ideas about blefuscity reveal themselves as “true, but partial”.
So we have added a term, alignment, to describe the system as a whole. Let’s expand that term: how much can you adjust the different variables so as to increase their alignment? We are now introducing an invented meta-systematic term: alignability.
The cliff/climber system has low alignability (a property of the system): it is difficult – or it has high cost – to change any one variable (to, for instance, make the cliff less rugged), and the different variables effect almost no change upon one another. The low alignability of the cliff/ climber system will only produce value in relatively few cases.
Compare this to another system: the market economy. Each of its parts is much more dependent on the other parts. Things like supply, demand, distribution systems, and legal frameworks change all the time. Because of the market system’s high alignability, it aligns into value-creating (and thereby behaviorally self-sustaining) equilibria all the time. It is not logically necessary to have a market to produce food or to create other value – so there is no logical necessity for why markets should be so much more central to most humans than is mountaineering.
The reason that markets are much more prevalent and important is that there is a certain property of this system that e.g. mountaineering does not have: high “alignability”. If it were mountaineering that had such high alignability, it would be more central: we could just align its different parts in ways that created more value. The market can steer the right people to the right mountains, with the right equipment and most other people to other activities, such as skiing.
There is a long stretch between the stage 10 Abstract concept of “blefuscity” and the Stage 13 Metasystematic concept of “alignability”. We have made a major climb, into more abstract heights, viewing the world from a much more elevated conceptual vantage point. We have traveled away from concrete reality: whereas “blefuscity” is an abstract concept, you can still see it with your eyes, feel it with your hands. And we have arrived at a much less tangible world: the “alignability” of systems and how it creates value.
We have also made conceptual leaps: from discussing relatively concrete and small matters, to grasping a wider world.
And we have abandoned the topic (mountaineering). That’s what a cognitive advance often looks like: that which seemed so important at an earlier stage seems less so – and more contingent – when viewed from a higher cognitive vantage point.
From here, let’s go straight to the political reasoning examples.
SOME STAGE 13 METASYSTEMATIC REASONING ABOUT POLITICS
- Anti-racist argument: Racism emerges as different cultures and status hierarchies interact, where ethnic markers are used in order to increase one’s position in the status hierarchy. It should be prevented by the creation of both greater psychological security and by the facilitation of productive dialogue about cultural differences.
- Conservative argument: Liberal values prevalent in Western countries may be more functional in late modern society than the more traditionalist values of many Arab Muslims, but for the successful integration of these different cultures one must take the perspectives of all parties seriously.
- Feminist argument: Feminism is an interest group movement as well as a social justice movement. As an interest group movement it must be weighed against other interests and perspectives. As a social justice movement it must be coordinated with other social justice issues such as class, ethnicity, global inequality, other gender issues (including men’s issues), and the exploitation of animals and nature.
- Libertarian argument: State control and policy implementation always interact with other societal systems and are dependent upon these for their successful functioning. It is thus important to carefully weigh state regulation and policy against other possibilities: markets, culture, and civil sphere. State regulation is often not the best path ahead.
- Green argument: The logic inherent to the economic system is fundamentally alien to the logic of the ecosystems of the many biotopes. This means that there is no self-regulating feedback cycle directly present between our economic and technological expansion and the ecosystems upon which we depend. This lack of feedback means that we have to drive the ecosystem to collapse before the market self-adjusts. We must thereby create some other feedback, e.g. by means of policy, public awareness or cultural development.
- Day-to-day politics: Public spending can be high or low, where higher spending is generally made possible by strong institutions such as rule of law, policing, democracy and free press. This keeps corruption down and allows for public support of spending and makes spending less wasteful. There is no one answer about high or low taxes; you have to coordinate it with the other societal systems.
Note that the different political stances at stage 13 Metasystematic generally have more in common with one another than with the corresponding ideological positions at the earlier stages. This has important implications for metamodern politics.
And that concludes our brief guide to the four most important stages of cognitive adult development. There is more to it, but that’s all you need to know the basics.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.