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Jane Loevinger’s theory of ego development (Loevinger 1976, Hy and Loevinger 1996) has provided an approach to personality, emotion, and values that is distinct from approaches that are concerned with the assessment of stable dimensions or traits. Instead, ego level theory focuses on how individuals organize meaning and information relevant to the self or ego. Loevinger suggests that such organization of meaning changes as a function of the conceptual complexity of individuals. She distinguishes several ego levels, which are derived from developmental theory. However, these levels not only serve to assess time-related or age-related aspects of personality organization, but also are important in understanding individual diﬀerences.
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1. Deﬁnition Of Ego Levels
Loevinger’s theory borrows from both cognitive developmental theory and from psychodynamic approaches (Loevinger 1976). From cognitive-developmental theory, it borrows and develops the notion that more mature levels of ego functioning emphasize aspects of complex and abstract thinking—and thus are oriented towards objectivity and impersonality. From psychodynamic theory, it introduces the assumption that abstract thinking is not merely impersonal, but that others and reality in general are approached in terms of the relation or meanings they have for the individual—with his or her needs, anxieties, and goals, with the impulses and methods of controlling them, personal preoccupations and ambitions, interpersonal attitudes and social values (Blasi 1998). All of these aspects are described in terms of a series of less to more complex levels of ego development.
Ego levels are assessed through the sentence completion test (Hy and Loevinger 1996). This test consists of 36 sentence stems such as ‘Raising a family … ,’ ‘Being with other people … ,’ or ‘A girl has a right to … .’ Individuals are asked to complete these stems, and responses are coded along several dimensions such as (a) impulse control and character development; (b) interpersonal style, such as independence, manipulativeness, need to belong, autonomy; (c) conscious preoccupations; and (c) cognitive style, such as tolerance of ambiguity and tendency towards objectivity. Table 1 presents coding criteria and sample responses for the item, ‘A girl has a right to … .’ At lower levels, responses are dictated by impulsivity, egocentrism, and bodily feelings, while at the higher ends they are characterized by acceptance of conﬂict, the realization of interdependence and a cherishing of individuality, and a focus on self-realization and psychological causes.
2. Ego Levels And Age Development
Since ego levels are derived from developmental theory, an obvious question to ask is how they relate to age or development. Research indicates that from childhood to adulthood, age is positively related to ego level. However, throughout adulthood, the relation between age and ego level may vary; depending on the circumstances, ego level may even decline. This is to be expected if one accepts that age and development are not necessarily identical. Thus individuals may grow older but not necessarily more mature or complex. Hence, one would expect patterns of change to vary with the conditions in which individuals age.
In support of the notion that age and development can diverge in adulthood, Loevinger et al. (1985) suggest that the pressure towards conformity in adulthood can actually lead to a lowering of ego level. In general, one would expect that ego level is enhanced by experiences that challenge one’s adaptive strategies. If individuals are in stable niches, no ego level growth may be observed. As Block (1982, p. 289) stated, ‘The passage of time does not mean development.’
Helson’s work (e.g., Helson and Roberts 1994) has paid particular attention to the contexts that may encourage or discourage growth in ego level in her long-time study of women’s development. While in general ego level is strongly predicted by such variables as intelligence and education, women’s life path (life stimulation and diﬃcult experiences) additionally aﬀected ego level. For example, with respect to life stimulation, women who had remained in traditional family roles or who had never made a commitment to family or career roles were the lowest in ego level, whereas women who had careers had the highest levels. Women high in ego level also were more likely to tell diﬃcult stories about issues of abandonment or searching for an independent identity.
3. Ego Levels, Values, And Beliefs
Loevinger’s theory maintains that ego levels assess a particular conceptual style by which individuals integrate self-relevant experience. Research has provided ample evidence that this notion is valid. Individuals of higher ego level have been found to be more open-minded than lower ego level individuals, and to hold less conventional beliefs and values (McCrae and Costa 1980). They are also more likely to question fundamental religious beliefs and values, and to be open to diﬀerent religions. Overall, they are more tolerant, less authoritarian, and less compliant. They are also more likely to engage in complex thinking about new events and situations (Helson and Roberts 1994), and are less traditional in their endorsement of gender roles (McAdams 1985). They are more likely to display patterns of unusual creativity (Helson and Wink 1987).
Individuals of higher ego levels are also more diﬀerentiated from others than are those of lower ego levels. For example, high ego level women were found to have more appreciation of others as autonomous and independent beings (Helson and Wink 1987). In a related vein, research by Labouvie-Vief and coworkers (e.g., Labouvie-Vief et al. 1995) also reported that at lower ego levels, individuals describe their parents primarily in terms of the immediate emotional bond and the global quality of the relationship (such as ‘My mom is the greatest mom in the world, I love her!’) or in terms of their parental roles (e.g., ‘he is a good provider’). In contrast, individuals of higher levels of ego development are better able to view parents as persons separate from the immediate parent–child bond.
Ego levels also imply that individuals diﬀer in the way they modulate their impulses. This is shown in research (Labouvie-Vief et al. 1989) in which individuals described diﬀerent emotional states: happy, sad, anger, and fear. At lower ego levels, individuals described their emotions statically in terms of concrete actions, bodily symptoms and their concerns to modulate them along conventional and role-deﬁned ideals. However, more mature individuals explored the tension between conventional standards of emotion regulation and what they feel is a deeper self which was deﬁned in terms of contrasts and transformations over time and across contexts.
4. Ego Level And Adjustment
Loevinger claimed that ego level and adjustment are completely independent dimensions. Indeed, when adjustment is measured in terms of subjective wellbeing (Helson and Wink 1987, McCrae and Costa 1980, Vaillant and McCullough 1987), ego level appears to be independent of adjustment, at least where adult samples are concerned (Noam 1998). For a wide range of adults, ego level does not appear to predict such indices as life satisfaction, emotional adjustment, positive aﬀect, or well-being. Why should ego level not be predictive of adjustment? Helson and Wink (1987) suggested that two forms of maturity characterized adults. The ﬁrst, ‘ego level,’ is primarily related to growth in cognitive complexity, tolerance of ambiguity, objectivity, and intrapsychic diﬀerentiation; this form is related to measures of individuality and creative expressiveness, including such variables as recognition for work, interest in self-understanding, and philosophical and religious interests. The second indicator, ‘competence,’ was deﬁned as the ability to align with social norms and to regulate behavior by reducing friction and obtaining rewards in social life. This indicator was related to such variables as emotional security and lack of defensiveness and it was negatively correlated with use of drugs and medication and positively with conﬁdence and lively engagement. Similarly, Vaillant and McCullough (1987) found that ego level appeared to be part of a cluster completely distinct from a psychosocial maturity cluster.
Labouvie-Vief (1999) explains such evidence in her theory of self and emotion. She proposes that ego level and adjustment result from two independent core emotion regulation strategies. One of those, aﬀect optimization, is a strategy aimed at maximizing positive emotions and damping negative ones; the second is a strategy of aﬀect ampliﬁcation, or aﬀect complexity, in which individuals are open to negative aﬀect. This strategy is strongly related to ego level and conceptual complexity. Individuals adopting this strategy process and explore information with the general aim of achieving a more balanced, objective view of self and reality.
Ego level represents an important approach to understanding individual diﬀerences and development in adulthood. Ego levels are meaningfully related to how individuals organize their experience in terms of their life stories, their values, and their emotions. They emphasize the ability to be open, to engage in complex thinking, to be tolerant and/oriented towards objectivity. Although ego levels mature with development in early life, in adulthood their further development appears to be dependent on the context; indeed, constraints of institutions may even hamper further ego development. In addition to adjustment criteria that primarily emphasize individual well-being and positive aﬀect, ego levels provide a broader view of adjustment. They add to positive aﬀect an emphasis on openness, tolerance, and objectivity as additional criteria for mature adaptation in the life course.
Despite the demonstrated importance of ego levels, many approaches to personality and adaptation have not yet made the dimension of complexity that underlies ego level an integral part of their assessment. To integrate ego level and other cognitively based approaches with general theories and assessment approaches to adaptation will constitute an important domain of future research.
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