5.1 Personal development

This section is based on section 2 of “Learning Autonomy in Two or Three Steps: Linking Motivation, Authority, and Agency, with Open-ended Development”

Personal development, although it is a basic process that happens in all of us, is generally not well understood. This is directly apparent from for example the way Wikipedia (accessed August 2013) describes personal development, namely in form of barely structures lists.

Personal development includes activities that improve awareness and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and facilitate employability, enhance quality of life and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations. The concept is not limited to self-help but includes formal and informal activities for developing others in roles such as teacher, guide, counselor, manager, life coach or mentor. When personal development takes place in the context of institutions, it refers to the methods, programs, tools, techniques, and assessment systems that support human development at the individual level in organizations.

According to Wikipedia at the level of the individual, personal development includes the following activities:

  • improving self-awareness
  • improving self-knowledge
  • building or renewing identity/self-esteem
  • developing strengths or talents
  • improving wealth
  • spiritual development
  • identifying or improving potential
  • building employability or human capital
  • enhancing lifestyle or the quality of life
  • improving health
  • fulfilling aspirations
  • initiating a life enterprise or personal autonomy
  • defining and executing personal development plans
  • improving social abilities

We can do better. Personal development is not just a list of activities and tricks to learn. It is definitely not an undirected process, or something that ones learns from books or teachers (although this plays a role). In fact it is an essential self-directed process of integrating knowledge with experience and planning of which much has been known for a long time.

This section shows that personal development refers to the capacity to ever extend and fine-tune one’s capacity to deal with life’s challenges and to co-create one’s environment. Put differently:

Personal development
the development process that allows people to gradually master more and more of the complexity of the world and to become more and more self-deciding, agentic, and autonomous.

How this become apparent from diverse domains of behavioral science is discussed in the rest of this section. The Development Spiral visualizes the process of personal development and it summarizes many of the results that we address in this section in as reported stadia of personal development.

Development Spiral
Development Spiral

This spiral development depicts phases in personal development and terms typically associated with different development phases. The inner rotation can be described as learning to master the body, the second rotation as making the mind a reliable tool and the third learning to effectively co-create an optimal living environment. This corresponds to a progression from right to left to right hemispheric dominance and associated strategies. See [two hemispheres].
- Based on the depiction in Arnold [1910, p 23]

The spiral development outwards makes about three turns that reflect, very roughly, three developmental phases. The first phase is physical growth and learning to control the body. In the second phase one aims to makes the mind into a reliable instrument. The third phase, depending on the success of phase 2, concerns learning to co-construct a world in which the inherent dynamics of the world are stabilized and made reliable and broadly beneficial. This leads to ever more extended (both in place and in time) environments in which one can self-maintain the condition for adequate functioning, which leads to increasing diversity and individual authority. This characterizes the outer (pre-conditioned) loop of the spiral development in Figure 1.

The figure has a number of functional components. The spiral is divided into a number of sectors that reflect aspects of personal development without being necessarily in the strict circular progression the spiral form suggests. The end-state of the spiral is referred to as self-actualization or wisdom. The solid-line part of the spiral reflects development up the level of the authoritarian personality, while the dashed part reflects an — in our culture non-standard — additional development towards the libertarian personality type (see Authoritarians versus libertarians. The main axes reflect behavior types and strategies horizontally and self-development and action readiness vertically. The diagonal axes reflect distinct development stages from diverse scientific fields: moral development, education research and epistemological development, and brain lateralization research. In the next subsections we’ll provide supportive evidence for each axis.

End-state: self-actualization and wisdom


Personal development in humans is a highly structured process that has been well studied in a variety of different domains that each shed more light on the phases in the development process. The development process begins obviously at conception and develops after birth in a number of stages towards what Maslow [1943] [1962] calls self-actualization. According to Maslow, self-actualization accounts for the highest possible forms of psychological health and self-development. As such it is a candidate for fully developed open-ended learning. Among the main characteristic properties of a self-actualized individual are 1) realistic perceptions of themselves, others, and the world around them, 2) a strong motivation through a sense of personal responsibility and ethics to help others and to find solutions to problems in the external world, and 3) a well-developed personal autonomy which is for example visible as an utter disregard of conformity if the situation demands this and an appreciation for private time to self-develop one’s potential further.

Compared to not (yet) self-actualized individuals they (according to Maslow’s synthesis)

  1. have learned the skills to prevent or overcome one’s own psychological problems that allow then to be rarely motivated by unfulfilled needs,
  2. have developed a deep and pervasive understanding of reality that they keep extending through life and that is apparent from a well-developed creative capacity to produce intended results with minimal adverse side-effects, and
  3. feel a moral obligation to contribute to an improved world.

These properties reflect deep realities concerning the nature of agentic life. Interestingly the term self-actualization arose from Maslow’s work on motivation [1943], but he refined and defined the term self-actualization later on the basis of case-studies of individuals of whom he thought that they represented examples of self-actualization [1962]. This intuition-driven (dangerously circular) process is vindicated by results later in this paper that dovetail with Maslow’s conclusions while being based on entirely different evidence.


Another way to approach open-ended development comes from gerontology and especially the role of lifelong learning and continued education for older people which allows them to stay involved in a rapidly changing world [Ardelt 2000]. This led to a distinction between intellectual knowledge and wisdom-related knowledge, of which the wisdom related knowledge develops on a basis of intellectual knowledge. Wisdom-related knowledge inductively reduces the quantity and complexity of intellectual knowledge in favor of what is deeper and more essential. Wisdom researcher Sternberg [1998] defines wisdom as follows:

“the application of tacit knowledge towards the application of a common good through a balance among intra-, inter-, and extrapersonal interests to achieve a balance among adaptation to existing environments, shaping of existing environments, and a selection of new environments, over the long term as well as the short term.“

One might summarize wisdom as “the ability to produce broadly beneficial intended results while taking the full consequences of behavior into account.” Again we find a combination of skill (tacit knowledge), and (implicitly) a pervasive (long term) understanding of reality, in combination with an urge to improve and shape the living environment. We consider this developing urge to improve and shape living environments an essential aspect of open-ended development and propose an explanation for that below in the section on a complex world.

Authoritarians and libertarians

The solid part of the spiral is the development up to the level of the authoritarian personality as defined by Stenner [2005][#2009][9]. Authoritarians “are not endeavoring to avoid complex thinking so much as a complex world [Stenner, 2009, p 193].” It is the authoritarian’s underdeveloped cognitive capacity that “reduces one’s ability to deal with complexity”. This personality-type seeks, appreciates, and even demands external authorities to maintain the living conditions in which they can function adequately: normalcy. For authoritarians ‘authorities’ are the processes or agents that they perceive as responsible for maintaining normalcy (and with that their sense of adequacy). Authoritarians display ‘bounded autonomy’ because they exhibit autonomy only in a suitably controlled environment. Authoritarians actively help their authorities in a particular and highly characteristic way: by reducing the perceived complexity of the environment; in particular through intolerance of diversity and by supporting some perceived central authority (an agent or process) with the same surmised aim.

The dashed part of the spiral progresses beyond this level to the libertarian personality [Stenner 2005]. Libertarians have gradually developed the autonomy and skills to co-create living conditions in which they and others feel and act adequately without the need for external authority to maintain and create these conditions. Libertarians have internalized the role of authority and prefer therefore individual authority to centralized authority. As such libertarians become local centers of development and growth in their (social) environment and consequently centers of diversity. Compared to authoritarians who can function adequately in standard situations and tend to exhibit norm-complying and norm-returning behavior, libertarians (have learned to) understand the world to a degree that they can cope effectively with deviations from normalcy and they use the benefits this provides to enhance their lives.

Stenner used a very simple “child-rearing values test” [Stenner 2005] to determine whether individuals were authoritarian or libertarian (she only used the extremes in her analysis). Participants that clearly preferred children to be raised as obedient conformist were deemed authoritarian and those that preferred children to be raised as independent self-deciders were deemed libertarian. Apparently this simple six two-option test was enough to separate people into a group that aims to avoid (a more) complex world and a group that can comfortably deal with some more complexity. Stenner specifically identifies the reaction to ‘normative threads’, perceptions of leadership failure and diversity in public opinion, as key difference between authoritarians and libertarians.

Authoritarian behavior depends on whether or not the situation might develop beyond coping capacity. This entails that “individuals with a certain level of authoritarianism may manifest entirely different attitudes and behaviors from one occasion to the next, depending upon the presence or absence of normative threat [Stenner 2009 p 189][#Stenner:2009ul p. 189].” And “normative threat only invites this kind of fear, cognitive unravelling and out-bursts of intolerance among authoritarians, whereas in fact these very same conditions (i.e., the public dissension and criticism of leaders that are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy) induce only greater tranquillity, sharper cognition, and more vigilant defense of tolerance among libertarians” [Stenner 2009 p 193]. This leads to two attitudes towards a complex world.

Development Spiral
Development Spiral

Main Axes

The axis from the center leftward in the [development spiral] reflects increasingly more advanced responses to environmental challenges developing from innate (e.g., sucking), via emotional (e.g., happy or frustrated), to appropriate (e.g., culturally sanctioned) and even proactive responses (e.g., preventing future problems or creating a better society). Protruding downward is an axis denoting autonomy development. This axis develops from no autonomy at all, via the bounded autonomy of authoritarians, to the autonomy of libertarians. Extending rightward is an axis reflecting strategies developing from voluntary movements and direct perception-action relations, via coping strategies for the here and now, to advanced co-creating strategies that define and shape the environment (i.e., the agent as authority).

The axis extending from the center upwards reflects a development from a dependent self, to an immature and mature self. This development of the self has two separate but related facets: social and personal maturity. “Social maturity is defined by measures of adaptation such as life satisfaction, environmental mastery, or positive social relations. Personal maturity, however, is indexed by openness to experience and indicators of personal wisdom such as personal growth and ego development [Staudinger 2011][#Staudinger:2011vf p. 213].” Development of the self moves people increasingly away from egocentric, dependent, and self-centered modes of being (in the figure referred to as ‘immature self’), towards the capacity to take perspectives on the self and others, and to experience positive, helpful, responsible, and mutual interaction with others (referred to as ‘mature self’) [Richardson 2005 p 145].

Diagonal axes

The lower left diagonal in Figure 1 simply reflects the development from a baby, which is preoccupied with discovering its body and its immediate environment, to childhood in which it is preoccupied with the exploration of the neighborhood and the acquisition of habits, skills, and knowledge, and to adulthood in which one’s potential can develop and be utilized in full.

The upper left diagonal shows the three main stages of moral development as described by Kohlberg [1971]. Kohlberg calls the first main stage ‘pre-conventional’ in which the child only understands the consequences of its behavior in terms of direct effects on self in terms of (un)pleasantness and in which it knows that obedience is a way to avoid punishment. At this stage right action concerns mainly the satisfaction of one’s needs. In the second, ‘conventional’, phase the individual’s attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it. It actively maintains, supports, and justifies the order and identifies with the persons or group involved in it. This phase corresponds closely to the description of authoritarianism. The third stage is called the ‘post-conventional’, ‘autonomous’, or ‘principled’ level. Individuals at this stage make a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual’s own identification with the group [Kohlberg 1975]. This stage corresponds closely to the description of libertarians. A 20-year longitudinal study in Chicago found moral judgment development to be positively correlated with age, socio-economic status, IQ, and education. In addition development in childhood predicted development in adulthood. At age 36 only about 10% had reached a moral development at post-conventional level [Colby 1983]; this suggests indeed that it is more an option than a default in modern Western cultures.

The upper right diagonal reflects words from the field of epistemological development (see [vanRossum 2010] for an overview) and in particular from Kuhn [2000] who separates four levels of beliefs about the world. In the first ‘realist’ level, assertions exist only in direct reference to a state of the world. In the second ‘absolutist’ level assertions are authority derived true or false representations of the world. In the third level assertions are opinions that can be freely chosen, are accountable to their owners, and that, apart from authority support, cannot be compared. In the fourth level assertions are judgments that can be evaluated and compared according to criteria of argument and evidence. This fourth level has passed what van Rossum and Hammer [2010] call the watershed between reasoning in terms of ready-made things (facts, procedures) existing ‘out there’ to independently constructing meaning. Since this is, again, a transition between dependence and independence of authority we associate (but not equate) the “watershed” with the transition from authoritarianism to libertarianism.

The last diagonal, in the lower right, describes typical activities associated with different life-phases. A baby is typically involved in all forms of senso-motor explorations in which it gradually learns to separate the whole of perceptual and motor experiences into meaningful units. This parts-from-whole approach of participatory discovery is typically associated with the right brain hemisphere [McGilchrist 2010]. The second phase is typically culturally, technically, and representationally driven. In this phase the main sources of knowledge are represented and conveyed via languages (of diverse forms) and technologically and culturally constructed objects and environments. This is a phase in which — in our Western cultures — the left hemisphere is dominant. It is also a world in which knowledge and skills are constructed from parts-to-whole. Knowledge and skills are typically not self-discovered but directly derived from others (authorities). In the post-watershed phase the participatory co-creation that characterizes self-actualized individuals takes again the effect of behavior in an ever-extending context into account. This suggests a return to right hemispheric dominance.


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