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Introducing Clare Graves’ Pioneering Model

In this article we look at the work of, Clare Graves, one of the pioneers in developmental psychology. He invented a new psychological framework which knits together many hitherto separated fields. Buffs of developmental theory now take his work for granted, but in his day he was a visionary.

We’ll unpack Graves’ findings, giving us a new perspective on psychology and a solid understanding of human development.

The Origins Of Clare Graves’ Work

In 1951, professor and researcher Clare Graves began the research which a quarter of a century later would lead to a new theory of human development – ECLET theory.

At that time, psychology was in a state of turmoil. Two noted psychologists, Rogers and von Bertalanffy, noticed that conflicting theories abounded in psychology in the fifties and sixties. There was little agreement between theorists as to how to best understand human beings. Practitioners were confused as to the goals of therapy given the abundance of theories.

Clare Graves questioned the assumptions present in all the major psychological schools of the time – humanism, behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Each of them assumed that humans are either mature or immature, and that human immaturity represented a breakdown in values. Look out for this view in politics and social media!

After years of working with adult behaviour problems, he concluded that the inadequate psychology of the time was producing more problems than it solved. He also sensed flaws in the basic assumptions of each of the three major schools. He thought there was a deeper complementarity which could unite them.

Interestingly, Graves witnessed Maslow‘s theory being torn apart at a seminar in the 1950s. This stayed with Graves, and from that point on he sought to perform rigorous research and create a theory that could stand up to hard-nosed criticism, unlike Maslow’s theory of the time. In his early days of research, Graves actually tried to confirm Maslow, but discovered his approach to be limited.

He sought to provide a framework with enough explanatory power to pull together a range of knowledge on human behaviour. His theory spans different disciplines. He moved beyond the traditional academic divisions of his time in an attempt to unearth the deeper complementarity of different theories.

His theory incorporated psychological information that no other framework had incorporated. For example, it included information that development continues throughout the lifespan. It also incorporated evidence that humans have both objective and subjective aspects. Graves also took evidence of the hierarchical and systematic structuring of the brain into account. He even provided a possible explanation for its inordinate size, a conundrum that Darwin couldn’t explain adequately.

Let’s look at how Graves created ECLET theory. First we’ll delve into the studies he performed.

Clare Graves’ Original Research

Picture of Abraham Maslow, an astronomical figure in psychology.
Abraham Maslow

To test whether psychological maturity existed, Clare Graves researched what people believed the mature human being to be. In doing so, he hoped to discover that maturity was a process rather than a state. If he could, he would clarify much of the confusion present in psychology at the time and corroborate Maslow’s work.

Clare Graves’ empirical studies began in 1951 and lasted 12 years. He sought to find how adult human beings conceived of the mature personality, if there was only one conception of the mature personality or many, and, if there were many, whether there was a way to classify them.

He asked several cohorts of psychology students to create their avatar of a mature human being. They were to use only the ideas and information they had available to them at the beginning of the course. Graves assumed his subjects would project themselves into their avatars. He assessed their conceptions, and students then modified them using feedback from peers and from the literature.

Groups of between seven and nine judges then categorised the conceptions, first alone, then as a group. His only instruction to the judges was to sort conceptions into the fewest categories possible. Graves then studied the groups of people with similar conceptions alongside non-experimental groups. He gave problem-solving tasks to some groups and standard psychological tests to others.

This penultimate phase gave him a slew of data data on how students with different conceptions of the mature human behaved in problem situations. He observed how they organised themselves in a group, how they interacted with one another, how they worked together to solve the problems, as well as the quality of their solutions and the time they took to find them.

Graves repeated this procedure several times with different groups of students over several years. He then looked for a model to explain his findings. His conclusion on adult psychological maturity was startling. He concluded that it didn’t exist and that any theory defining it was illusory.

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What Did He Find?

In short, the results of his studies called for a revised conceptual framework of adult behaviour. The judges reached a strong consensus as to the categories the conceptions fell into.

1. Subjects had different conceptions of maturity. Conceptions were either Express-self or Deny-self oriented. Each of these categories had subcategories.

In its earliest stages, Graves’ research revealed clear categories among conceptions. It wasn’t what the subjects thought that defined their view, rather how they thought. Over 60% of conceptions fell into either “Express-self” or “Deny-self” categories.

Express-self conceptions defined a mature person as someone who imposed themselves on the world, denied external authority and attempted to adjust the world to themselves, while Deny-self conceptions claimed the opposite.

Judges found each of these categories to have two subtypes, and Graves would discover more with further research. Graves summarised these four subtypes as “Express self but don’t bring down the wrath of others,” “Express self but not at the cost of others,” “Deny self now for reward later,” and “Deny self now for reward now.”

This is intriguing. You may think that a person is either selfish or unselfish, denies themselves or expresses themselves, adjusts to authority or listens to the beat of their own drum.

But what Graves found is that there are levels to self-expression and self-denial and to adjusting our desires to the world. This is a feature of many theories of human development. That the Express-self/Deny-self component emerged as a key difference between conceptions at all is also curious. More on this to come.

2. Subjects’ conceptions of maturity changed in a predictable way.

And we’ve barely begun. As he performed his research on students – having them refine and revise their conception over 12 weeks after feedback and criticism – he noticed that some students’ conceptions radically changed. But they didn’t change randomly – they changed in a particular way. This is reminiscent of Carol Gilligan’s research into attitudes on abortion.

When people who had produced a Sacrifice-self conception significantly altered their conception, it always changed to Express-self. And the opposite was also true. Furthermore, each of the two DS subtypes changed to a specific ES subtype, and vice versa: subjects’ conceptions of mature personality changed predictably.

It seemed that the four subtypes formed a hierarchy in which movement was predictable.

3. There are eight unique conceptions of maturity.

Graves’ empirical work uncovered six subtypes Library research lead to the two other levels and the positioning of the levels in the hierarchy he’d discovered. He observed that the first six levels (AN-FS) were deficiency motivated, while levels 7 and 8 (A’N’ and B’O’) were abundance motivated.

clare graves' stages of human development

All this research together showed that eight central ways of being human had existed, and each of them has a related conception of mature personality. Graves found four express-self types (AN, CP, ER and A’N’) and four sacrifice-self types. This research would lead to the levels shown.

Graves argued there was no such thing as psychological maturity, only further steps along a never-ending chain – steps he called “existential levels”. And while people can grow into greater maturity and this change is predictable, he observed that their development can also become blocked and closed.

4. Some human traits varied wildly between subtypes, others remained relatively stable.

After his students had completed their conception, Graves then performed further studies on them. As an example, he compared the intelligence of people of each the subtypes using standard tests. To his surprise, he found that intelligence didn’t vary among subtypes.

He did find a strong decrease in rigidity and a corresponding increase in the number of degrees of freedom with each subtype in the hierarchy.

In group situations, each subtype organised themselves and communicated amongst themselves in a unique way. The “Express self but not at expense of others group” found more and better solutions than all other groups combined.

Clare Graves’ Ground-breaking Claims

Graves made a series of ground-breaking discoveries into the nature of adult psychology:

  1. adult psychology is an infinitely emerging series of hierarchically ordered systems
  2. systems alternate between Express-self and Sacrifice-self themes
  3. they show little variation over personality traits like intelligence and temperament
  4. each system is unique and specific and has its own general theme for life
  5. variations on these general themes for life branch off into infinitely many expressions
  6. each stage has a higher degree of behavioural freedom than the previous one
  7. life is a process in which humans solve problems from one level of existence, and in solving them create the existential problems from the following level.

And, perhaps most importantly, Graves concluded that no models of human behaviour could explain his data. This lead him to develop his ECLET theory of human behaviour.

Discover Graves’ Eight Stages