7/21 — Differentiating and Integrating Developmental Judgments and Symbolically Generalized Media

Robert Angerer

Roman Angerer

Robert Angerer

Hi, I am Roman. I have spent more than ten years now on using adult developmental theories in various settings like one-on-one coaching and developmentally oriented group experiences with and without using developmental assessments in advance. However, what is of interest here is working with adult development in dynamic contexts, without having a prior developmental assessment of the persons you are facing. It brings with it a whole lot of sources of error one can learn to become aware of. Generating awareness of these biases can help us to reach a new level of understanding of both our judgment habits and the human environments we are interacting with. This leadership tip is not meant to deliver a coherent argument about the matters presented but rather intends to provoke thoughts and introduce a simple reflective practice. By this, I hope, we can become better leaders allocating resources more efficiently.

One of the sources for erroneous stage judgments is going to interest us in the following leadership tip. It is the interaction of so called symbolically generalized media and our perception of others` value. Within Ken Wilber`s AQUAL model symbolically generalized media fit best into the category of types. Generalized media are typological gradients that determine the value of a human actor within an interaction or social system and supposedly have been introduced into social systems in order to simplify social interactions through generalizations that reduce contingency and uncertainty. The term was coined in the mid-1960s by the American systems-thinker Talcott Parsons and further developed in the context of communication by the German sociologists Niklas Luhmann and Jürgen Habermas. The three components of the term can be defined as follows:

  1. Symbolically relates to the fact that these media are communicable through utterances but also through other forms of communicative actions e.g., physical attention, withdrawal, punishment, relational or material reward, and so on.
  2. Generalized suggests that anyone would be expected to react remarkably similar once faced with their symbolical expression which makes a reciprocal coordination of needs and their satisfaction more likely.
  3. Media implies that they can show up in different forms e.g., are sensitive to cultural differences. This might become clear by the example of air: air can carry soundwaves and thus is a media for sound but not sight which is carried by the media of light. However, air can be a media for all kinds of sounds. Likewise, the symbolically generalized media can appear in various ways and serve as a means for various ends.

The four original symbolically generalized media proposed by Parsons are:

  1. Money or any other form of capital as a means of the value of utility judged by solvency;
  2. Power as a means of the value of effectiveness judged by success;
  3. Influence as a means of the value of solidarity judged by consensus;
  4. Commitments as a means of the value of integrity judged by pattern-consistency.

We further can relate to the earlier two as means of social status which includes a unilateral causation: in the case of money with positive motivation (e.g., paying a wage or bribing) and in the case of power with negative motivation (e.g., withholding of material or legal resources and material or legal punishment). Contrary, the latter two can be seen as means of social belonging which includes a more reciprocal causation: in the case of influence with negative motivation (e.g., persuasion including social exclusion as withholding of affection based on consensual value criteria) and in the case of commitment with positive motivation (e.g., promising oneness and rewarding with loyalty or seduction).

Neurologically status dynamics based on money and power are rather registered by our right hemisphere e.g., through structure of facial muscles, physical posture, language cues, energetic transmission of hormonal and neural activity and can strongly enact control over our body movements and neural functioning. They therefore enable or restrict the proper and dynamic functioning of our awareness, focus, and abilities. Social belonging and collective norm compliance are rather regulated by the left hemisphere and can lead to overidentification, soothing of objectivity through appetitive emotions like love, compassion, and forgiveness as much as through the synchronization of brainwave patterns of specifically social brain areas. Whether being externally regulated or internally overidentified our judgment of developmental stage starts to get erroneous for the benefit of both biological achievements and culturally conditioned standards that serve the functioning of interaction and social systems but surely with some sort of opportunity costs e.g., when it comes to creativity, flexibility, and renewal which are bound by existing forms of the respective media.

Given these assumptions on the subtle influence symbolically generalized media have on our ability to accurately place developmental judgments we can envision stage assessments in dynamic contexts as a matrix of horizontal and vertical influences. The horizontal axis is made up of the influences proceeding from symbolically generalized media and the vertical axis is proceeding from our attempts to objectively apply developmental measures and metrics in a specific situation.

Figure 1

When we look at the matrix, several possible combinations of developmental altitude and symbolically generalized media show up all of which have their downsides if we don`t recognize them as what they are. Here are some examples:

  1. It can be assumed that being high on both dimensions leads to accurate judgment of a person as being highly developed but it might make blind for the dynamics of social status and belonging that might have made the person sociopathic or narcissistic. We might mistake these characteristics as general aspects of later stages or downplay them because of the seeming perfection perceived.
  2. Being low in development but having succeeded in successfully using symbolically generalized media might lead to a misjudgment of a poorly developed person as an advanced thinker. Behavior that is actually based on a blindness for and misperception of later stage realities might be interpreted as postconventional genius, and the simplicity in their self-expression applauded as perfect masquerade as it happened with Donald Trump. This might slow down the overall developmental trajectory through generating false idols as much as it might destabilize late-stage structures that had been previously established in self, other, systems, and society. An overall downgrading of the worth of late-stage development can take place as the stabilized complexity of the lifeworld that would have been the foundation for later stages is diminished while the overall uncertainty in systems increases, paradoxically feeding the need for later stage development that could successfully cope with the new challenges.
  3. Contrary, someone at a late stage with a lack of attainment in symbolically generalized media might not necessarily be recognized as highly developed. The lack of status in terms of money and power might lead to constant mechanisms of submission under less developed and maybe even less capable persons through the neuronal and automated means we are living from. This in reverse generates an instable personality tending towards regressions and aggressive breakouts. This might especially play out in the combination with perceiving social inequality from a late standpoint including forms of justice and fairness that don`t even exist for the maturity of humanity in a certain culture while simultaneously being even cut off from the most basic satisfaction of needs.
  4. On the other hand, being at a late stage without influence and commitments has its downsides as well. Later stage expressions and values that are incomprehensible and even inexistent for most of humanity right now can easily lead to being perceived as threat. People are moving into aversion and even ridicule towards that person. The outcome is a lack of synchronization which makes the judgment of unconventional, preconventional, or even antisocial more likely than perceiving expressed maturity and postconventional thinking. This then again might feed forward into degrading social capacities that again make a person appear less developed because of unbalanced skills in different developmental domains.

The importance of accurate developmental judgments cannot be overemphasized in dynamic situations. Too easily humans tend towards the lowest common denominator regardless of the social costs and in blindness for the overall benefit that springs from a match between complexity at hand and the complexity of a chosen leader capable of facing that complexity accurately.

If we look at development from the perspective of efficient allocation of complexity at hand and leadership-complexity, human development is much like money. Namely, a currency that determines solvency in a situation as the possibility to respond properly and pay with the amount of complexity the situation expects. However, in order to integrate adult development with the scheme of symbolically generalized media human development must first become well differentiated from it. Only when we recognize our loyalties to certain stages or loyalties to commitments, influence, power, and money that vail our developmental judgments can we start to integrate both sides in a more conscious and beneficial manner. This differentiation can be started by any leader and become part of their daily practice.

1. Set Intention: Consciously decide to learn a discriminating awareness between developmental assessment and symbolically generalized media of both types: social status and social belonging.

2. Get Self-Knowledge: Create an understanding of symbolically generalized media as they show up in and for you. You can do this through a voice dialogue with each of the media. Some possible questions in this process are:

a. May I speak with the voice of the media …?

b. Media … what is your function in self, other, systems, and society?

c. Media … how do you fulfill your function in self, other, systems, and society?

d. Media … whom do you serve in self, other, systems, and society?

e. Media … how is your relationship to self, other, systems, and society?

f. Media … where, when, how, and why do you influence my judgment of self, other, systems, and society?

g. Media … where, when, how, and why do you generate positive or negative effects for self, other, systems, and society?

3. Create Inquiry: Search for situations where you interact with the attempt to identify another person’s level of development. Try to be aware where you move away from stage parameter that you took from any model and start to think about:

a. Are there moments when you think about money or any other resources the person has that can positively influence your life?

b. Are there moments when you fear the withdrawal from resources through the other person`s power?

c. Are there moments when you are aware of interpersonal solidarity as in shared values and the scope of the other person`s social influence?

d. Are there moments where you are pondering to make commitments or where you recognize commitments to uphold a shared identity?

4. Reflect Outcomes: When you have applied this with multiple persons start to compare how these questions interact with your developmental assessments of these person. You might draw a matrix and draw bubbles into it where you see them developmentally and how much your thoughts during the conversation circled around increasing or decreasing the worth of the other person based on symbolically generalized media. Then ask yourself:

a. Is it easier or more complicated to judge persons where any or all of these media are strongly present?

b. Do you generally judge people as less or more developed where any or all of these media are strongly present?

c. What unintended consequences for self, other, systems, or society your judgments could have?

The preceding four step process can support the process of differentiating human development from the perceptual influence exerted by symbolically generalized media. Afterwards, both can be consciously integrated again by considering development as either another symbolically generalized media that point towards a different type of solvency in terms of complexity or as a second axis of consideration.

Ultimately moving from the confused identity towards differentiation and then integration of human development and symbolically generalized media can make adequate complexity more easily feed forward into commitments, influence, power, and money and the increasing scopes of complexity – ideally accompanied by increasing morality, emotional maturity, and sociability –  that come to bear in dynamic contexts function like the wing beat of a butterfly that is spirits self-enactment and self-enchantment benefitting the all of humanity and sentience as much as the biosphere and the underlying materialized energy.

About the Author

Roman Angerer holds a master’s degree in Theological Anthropology and Value Orientation and is currently Director of Vertical Assessment Model at the New Human University. Too, he is board member at the New Human Research and Development Non-Profit where his model of adult development is used in research.

Leave a Comment