keganIn over our headsKegan, Robert. In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

The Author – Robert Kegan

Kegan is a professor of Adult Learning at Harvard, specializing in cognitive developmental psychology. He has dedicated his career to studying what he has come to call “the evolving self.” Prior to his quest, which began in the 1980s, the conventional wisdom regarding human cognitive development was that all significant cognitive development ceased in late adolescence. In other words, a person’s ability to change the way they think stops at the onset of adulthood. The only type of change that an adult can expect is technical change. Adults can learn more, but they can’t change the way they learn or perceive the world. Kegan’s research has demonstrated that this is not true. He studied hundreds of people over a number of years and discovered that adults can and do develop—evolve—cognitively beyond adolescence.

Kegan’s work is derived from the previous work of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Each of these researchers, in their own way, also discovered that humans develop cognitively in stages. Kohlberg focused specifically on moral development in the human being. He is credited as being the first significant professor of a “stage theory” of human development. It was upon this ground that Kegan expanded Kohlberg’s notion of stages and applied it to cognitive development within the adult learner.

 My summary

This video is my attempt to visually describe Kegan’s 5 Orders of Consciousness.

Here is a Prezi that contains the above video and also displays the still images of each order.

Kegan has constructed a model that maps five levels or “orders” of consciousness through which the human being evolves over time. The first three orders are similar to the stages discovered by others like Piaget and have to do with neuro-typical cognitive development of children.

Kegan-1st-order1st Order. A young child’s cognition operates through direct perception. For example, a young child might stand at the top of a tall building and observe the people below. “Look at the small people,” they would say, believing that the people were actually small. First order consciousness blends reality and fantasy and acts on impulses.[divider]

Kegan-2nd-order2nd Order. The older child begins to realize that other objects in the world stand on their own. They can begin to perceive their own perceptions. Now, when the child stands on the top of the building, they may say, “look, the people look so small.” They are able to distinguish that the people remain constant and it is their perception through distance which has changed. They live in a concrete world of facts and objects. [divider]

Kegan-3rd-order3rd Order. The adolescent and young adult reaches a level of mutual perception. They now have the ability to perceive that the object they perceive is also a subject that has her own perspective and opinion. They can process abstract ideas and understand their identity to be part of a larger system.

Kegan’s breakthrough discovery was that there are two more orders of consciousness that humans can move into as adults. There is an important distinction between the first three orders and the last two orders. The first three orders evolve naturally in the neuro-typical child. Most neuro-typical human begin adulthood functioning at a 3rd order of consciousness. Unlike child development, however, not every adult will progress to 4th and 5th order consciousness. [divider]

Kegan-4th-order4th Order. The twentieth century has brought the “modern person” into constant contact with multiple cultures and a never-ending stream of data. This barrage of data has caused us, in the modern era, to feel “In Over Our Heads” (thus the title of Kegan’s book) and unable to cope with the competing cultural perspectives. The 3rd order consciousness, when faced with another cultural system different from her own, would naturally create “us” and “them” boundaries, naturally declaring her “us” to be the correct way of perceiving the world and the other’s “them” to be wrong. These harsh boundaries have led to violence and bloodshed throughout the centuries of cultural interaction. 4th order consciousness develops the ability for the individual to step outside of her own system and perceive that her system is simply one system among many. She then becomes an objective observer of systems. She is a free agent in the world, able to negotiate between systems, voluntarily interacting and valuing other systems. This consciousness allows the individual to pursue peaceful transactions with the other and manage the multiplicity of the modern, pluralistic reality. [divider]

Kegan-5th-order5th Order. There is a blessing and a curse in the 4th order consciousness. The blessing is that the individual is able to find peaceful transactions between multiple systems. The curse, however, is that the individual becomes and isolated, atomistic, monad in the universe, objectively observing the other system, but not participating in it. This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and nihilism. 4th Order consciousness has inherent flaws. First of all, it is impossible for an individual to stand outside of her own system and observe it objectively. She is a part of the system, and her part of the system is the lens through which she observes. Objectivity is a myth and—in Gadamerian terms—we all bring our own horizon to the exchange. Secondly, not only is it impossible for the individual to stand outside her own system, it is also impossible to be completely whole as an atomistic monad. 5th order consciousness begins to realize that the Other is not a completely separate monad with whom one can have voluntary interchange, but, rather, the relationship with the Other is necessary for constituting ones own self. All things are interwoven and mutually constitutive. Peace is, for the 5th order consciousness, not an option to be negotiated, but a necessity for the preservation of self.

A sketch of Kegan's 5 Orders of Consciousness analogous to geometrical nodes.

A sketch of Kegan’s 5 Orders of Consciousness analogous to geometrical nodes.


Kegan has attached metaphors to the 3rd, 4th and 5th orders that are helpful. He relates the 3rd Order to Traditionalism. This hearkens to an era when geographical areas were predominantly culturally homogenous, as in European Christendom. When everyone around you is the same, you believe your world accurately reflects all of reality. Kegan relates the 4th order to Modernism. The modern dogma claims that the individual, autonomous self is the object observer of reality. The modern self is a free agent in the universe, able to make transactions with other free agents, using reason as the guide. Kegan relates the 5th order to postmodernism. The postmodern turn has deconstructed the objectivism of 4th order thinking and has led us to either retreat to 3rd order enclaves or seek a fusion of horizons with the Other, thus constructing a broader understanding of reality.

Recently Kegan has developed what some are calling “Bob’s big idea.” One key observation that Kegan has made is that 5th order consciousness is usually only achieved by older adults. It takes a lifetime of negotiation, pain, and disappointments for the individual to realize that life is bigger than they can perceive. Kegan notes that, in the 20th century, the human life expectancy has expanded to the point where more people are living long enough to perhaps reach 5th order consciousness. He wonders if evolution has brought humanity to a place where we have developed medical science to keep us living long enough so that enough people will reach 5th order consciousness that we’ll figure out how to actually live at peace with one another before we destroy the planet.

Kegan has made another, less speculative discovery. His most recent work in Immunity to Change has discovered that the human being can actually work toward advancing into 4th and 5th level consciousness. Prior to this work it was thought that only those rare people happened to evolve to 4th and 5th order while the rest of us wallowed around in 3rd order consciousness. Kegan and his team have discovered that it is possible, through reflective personal and communal critique, to discover the underlying fears and assumptions that make the typical adult immune to change. Through this disruptive discovery the individual can move past the blind spots and begin to actually think differently and perceive reality from a 4th or 5th order consciousness.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This