Ego development refers to the evolution of a personality construct that synthesizes experience into a coherent sense of how individuals view themselves. In this way, the ego development is at the center of the investigation of human experience. In another, it is an attempt to fathom the organization of one’s own mind; a process one scholar suggested was analogous to “shoveling smoke.”
Psychoanalytic thinkers were first to pursue a notion of the developing ego. Highlighting a multifunctional tripartite mind, Freud simultaneously proposed the ego as both helpless mediator of aggressive and libidinal impulses and director of personality functioning. From these seemingly contradictory perspectives, two schools of thought emerged—object-relations theory in Britain (Fairbairn, Klein, Winnicott) and ego psychology in the United States (Erikson, Hartmann, Horney). Both failed to propose a comprehensive theory of ego development and instead relied on the general idea that ego develops via interactions between id and societal realities.
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In the work of Piaget and Kohlberg, ego development is dealt with in a far more cognitive and subtle fashion than with psychoanalytic thinkers. Piaget’s focus on the development of intelligence—specifically symbolic reasoning—as the ultimate achievement of the species suggests itself as a primary ego demonstration. That is, for Piaget, how one sees the world is a function of intellectual development. Kohlberg proposes similar claims regarding moral reasoning and the expression of ego. Though these descriptions did not bare the hallmark of psychoanalytic interest of the ego as the unifying characteristic of personality, their construction of the ego as a cognitive entity, in part, offered an alternative framework from which development can occur.
Loevinger (1976), a self-described psychoanalytic iconoclast, was first to offer an explicit structural model of ego development. Merging psychoanalytic interest of ego with a notion of development built on adaptation, she proposed that ego development was a singular, cognitively seated activity demonstrated through impulse control, character, interpersonal relations, conscious preoccupations, and cognitive complexity, among other traits. For Loevinger, ego development occurs through an evolution of stages, each named for functions or characteristics most prevalent for an ego level. First is the Presocial Stage followed by the Symbiotic Stage, Impulsive Stage, Self-Protective Stage, Conformist Stage, Self-Aware Level: Transition from Conformist to Conscientious Stage, Individualistic Level: Transition from Conscientious to the Autonomous Stage, Conformist Stage, and Integrated Stage. That is not to say that ego development occurs in a singular direction from the Presocial Stage to the Integrated Stage. Instead, ego development is an individualized process—though most people are recognized at the Conformist, Self-Aware, or Conscientious Stages. Though Loevinger rejected age norms for stages, earliest stages are largely unseen in adult populations, whereas higher numbered stages are unattainable by children. Most notable of this research agenda is the degree to which stages are supported by empirical data. Using the Sentence Completion Test (SCT), they established a theory as empirically grounded as any other in personality literature.
Challenges to Loevinger include calls that her model, built on interviews and psychometric analysis, is too limited as an approach to the study of something as encompassing as personality and arguments that the stages lack philosophical grounding. Broader criticism is aimed at the use of stages over trait perspectives in the study of personality in general, including ego development. It has been of interest for nearly a century, and its attendants should take comfort in the fact that any psychology claiming to capture human experience cannot exist without a rendering of its current roles and current notions of ego fulfillment, however smoky that may be.
- Ego Development Research & Applications Network, http://owebster.edu/egodev.htm
- Hogan, , Johnson, J., & Briggs, S. (Eds.). (1997). Handbook of personality psychology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development: Conceptions andtheories. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Westenberg, P. M., & Gjerde, P. F. (1999). Ego development during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood: A 9-year longitudinal study. Journal of Research in Personality, 33, 233–252.