Leaving the Herd
Developmental psychology is the branch of psychology that studies, well, human development; how and why we become what we become. There are many, many developmental theories, some deeply complex and consisting of dozens of stages, some simpler and consisting of only a few stages. Some of the more famous developmental theorists/psychologists include Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson, and Jean Piaget. As you may imagine, it’s a study I find fascinating.
One of the more eloquent theories on moral development, which I see as synonmous for how self-actualized we become, has been put forth by Lawrence Kohlberg. His theory divides moral development into three main stages: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Preconventional morality is egocentric: a person is largely unable to take the view of the other. Examples of preconventional morality include young children (this is how we all start out), criminal personalities, and narcissists concerned only with their own interests. In conventional morality, considering the views of parents and other authority figures becomes important, and gaining approval and fitting in become the moral focus in a person’s decision-making process. Examples of conventional morality are all around us in the form of any organization that stresses group conformity over the individual (religion, business, most schools, girl scouts, VFWs, etc.). In postconventional morality, finally, a person develops a logical decision-making process based on internal standards of right and wrong independent of societal approval. Examples of postconventional morality include the Founding Fathers, Walt Whitman, and existentialism.
Each stage is more advanced than its predecessor; all of us start at preconventional and must become conventional before we can become postconventional. While theorists use different names and divide these stages up a bit differently, they all agree that these stages exist and are as necessary, unavoidable, and uni-directional as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The difference is that while biological development is a given, moral development is not.
Most people’s moral center of gravity is at conventional, which makes sense, considering a society is held together by its norms and rules. In this sense, conventional morality is healthy and necessary. It means paying your bills, showing up for your job, obeying traffic laws, respecting the rights and property of other people; all the necessary conventions for a society to function properly. Living within the rules of society is an important part of being a responsible, conscientious person. People who don’t make it this far often end up living on the fringes of a culture, such as criminals and vagrants (or if they’re talented, as rock stars, movie stars, or professional athletes. I’m not saying all rock stars, movie stars, and athletes are preconventional, but some of them certainly are; if you’ve ever marveled at outrageous celebrity behavior, I offer preconventional morality as an explanation.)
What does all of this have to do with leaving the herd? Well, by herd, I mean conventional morality, or at least, its seedy underbelly. When conformity takes precedence over individuality, conventional morality becomes the herd mentality. The herd mentality can be a brutal obstacle to developing internal ethical standards (that is, to becoming postconventional), exerting shame and guilt to keep people within its boundaries. If you’ve ever felt held back or pulled down from what you really wanted to do by social pressures—family, career, religion, sense of duty or obligation—then you know what this means.
So it isn’t that conformity in itself is wrong or unhealthy. But aspects of it are, and it’s your job to figure out which ones. To figure out, essentially, where societal obligations end and obligations to your own growth begin; where and how to leave the herd behind in search of self-actualization.
In a very real sense, gaining enough momentum to leave the herd is like a rocket gaining enough thrust to leave the earth’s gravitational pull. Not only does the herd hold us back, often we hold ourselves back. It’s scary to venture out on your own, and becoming postconventional means doing just that. It means entering uncharted territory, exploring the unknown, often in the face of disapproval, and having enough trust in yourself to brave the fear and keep going.
Is it any wonder so many people don’t make it past conventional?
Whether we make it or not, though, we are indelibly drawn to the postconventional. It’s in our spiritual and psychological makeup to continue growing and developing. We romanticize symbols of uncompromising individuality like the cowboy and James Bond because we intuitively sense the rightness in them; we intuitively sense that being an individualist first and foremost is honorable and desirable, that this is where we are supposed to get, even if we don’t exactly know why. In fact, we are so eager to see ourselves as postconventional that we’ve developed all sorts of ways to fool ourselves into thinking that we are when we really aren’t. I wrote about this in The Illusion of Nonconformity. If expressing your individuality involves buying a product or wearing a costume that declares your affiliations to the world, then it probably isn’t postconventionality, but rather the illusion of it. And this is true whether it’s tattoos and piercings or T-shirts with bible verses on them (and everything in-between). Consider this seriously, because such an illusion will hold you back from real growth! If your sense of individuality means being wild, naughty, or “different” for its own sake, it says nothing about your internal standards, nor does it provide you a moral compass with which to lead your life. (I know the bible-verse wearers will disagree, but such displays indicate a conformity and dogmatism that almost never have anything to do with true critical thinking or mature spirituality.)
Postconventionality is an inside job. Thinking critically about what’s important to you, what values you hold, how you want to live your life, how you choose to be creative. It’s about strength of character, moral fortitude, a solid sense of who you are. It’s about believing in yourself enough to choose your own path, dancing to the beat of a different drum, following your bliss, enduring the attacks of those who don’t understand. You respect societal norms, but you rely on yourself to determine your own happiness.
There’s much more to say about this topic, which I hope to get to in future essays. For now I’ll stop with this: Leaving the herd is tough. And yet leave it we must if we are ever to reach our full potential. I think we all know this intuitively, and I’m not really saying anything new or revolutionary here. But maybe having a more formal way to look at personal growth will help you clarify some things and keep you moving in the right direction. I sure hope so.