The Depths of Dabrowski’s Levels: An Interview with Michael Piechowski, Part II

Jessie Mannisto / October 30, 2020

Michael Piechowski shares why he’s updated the way he thinks about Dabrowski’s levels of development.

In our last issue, we shared the first part of our interview with Dr. Michael Piechowski, a psychologist and biologist who worked with the late Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski on research for the theory of positive disintegration (TPD).

In a pair of journal articles published in 2014 & 2017, Piechowski calls for us to update our understanding of the levels of development that are one of the hallmarks of Dabrowski’s theory. He focuses in particular on what’s really going on at levels I and II—and on the notion of a developmental potential, a core concept in the TPD that many consider elitist. In Part II of our conversation, we explored these questions and discussed how best to use TPD as a framework for one’s personal growth and for understanding others.

Jessie Mannisto: In “Rethinking Dabrowski’s Theory: Part II,” you seem to be proposing, essentially, that there are three developmental tracks—one for individuals at level I, which Dabrowski called primary integration; one at level II, unilevel disintegration; and another for levels III through V, which covers the process of multilevel disintegration and growth toward secondary integration. First, am I accurately representing your view here?

Michael Piechowski: Yes, you are.

JM: Let’s talk more about these tracks. First of all, rather than dubbing them as somehow “lower,” your frame seems like it should encourage compassion for people who fit Dabrowski’s level I, as they are there because they have somehow been damaged, if I follow correctly. Can you say more about this?

MP: I’d say that those who do not have the inner life that’s evident in other types of growth (i.e., other TPD levels) are not necessarily damaged but rather limited by life’s circumstances—the struggle for survival; authoritarian upbringing that demands orthodoxy, whether religious, social, or political; and the common deficiency in critical thinking. This goes together with limited developmental potential.

JM: You also have a much more positive view than Dabrowski did of level II, or unilevel disintegration. In a chapter you contributed to Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (ed. Mendaglio, 2008), you said,

I feel very strongly that emotional growth within the unilevel universe of Level II should not be underestimated but respected and explored further. This raises the question as to whether it is possible to facilitate a transition to multilevel emotional growth if a person’s developmental potential is limited. And is it possible to imagine a harmonious society without a multilevel majority? I feel it is possible—to imagine.

I feel very strongly that emotional growth within the unilevel universe of level II should not be underestimated but respected and explored further.

Michael Piechowski

Can you walk us through what you’re imagining here? What is the role of unilevel disintegration in a possible harmonious society?

MP: Let me share some examples I found in a longitudinal study of character development. I’ll give two contrasting cases.

One was Ralph, a boy who was considered by the end of high school to be mature, perhaps with potential for leadership because he had a sense of fairness and was able to stand up for others. In other words, he would make a good, honest citizen. But he lacked the elements of Dabrowskian potential—not much imagination, no intense emotions, no particular thirst for knowledge, no particular sensual aliveness.

The other boy, Arthur, was cynical and sarcastic. He told people what he thought of them, especially when relatives gave him gifts for Christmas as a thing to do, not because they liked him. He also had curiosity, imagination, sensual appetites (to soothe his frustrations), and lots of conflicting emotions—for instance he was capable of caring for his baby cousin. Yet the authors of the study deemed him “amoral.”

The first boy, Ralph, came from a caring, well-functioning family. The “amoral” boy, Arthur, had a life full of dysfunction. His mother disliked him openly and neglected him. The father lived apart and was indifferent to his son. And yet by the end of high school he matured and became more social and less prickly. These two cases illustrate how a good family environment can produce a good person despite limited developmental potential, and how a person with fairly strong developmental potential can overcome even extremely negative conditions of his early life.

Returning to your question: It’s just speculation, but perhaps a harmonious society without a multilevel majority could be a society in which the majority would be people like Ralph.

JM: In the following passage, you talk about Milgram’s famous experiment, in which an authority figure ordered subjects to administer electric shocks. You note that even people who didn’t experience harsh early life circumstances—the experiences you said contribute to low developmental potential—nevertheless continued to follow orders to the end:

The high proportion of people who obeyed the authority figure to the end demonstrates that the concept of primary integration does not fit reality. It is the response to the situation, and the person’s assigned role in it, that for a period of time leads to harming others. Does this make people part-time psychopaths, as Dabrowski would have it? (Piechowski, 2014a, p. 16)

This passage made me think of that quote from Solzhenitsyn, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Maybe part of being level III-IV is knowing this and responding to it effectively—autonomously inhibiting what is lower in yourself and encouraging what is higher. What do you think?

MP: I think Solzhenitsyn is just restating the old saying that everyone is part angel and part devil. This does not apply to people who do the positive disintegration work—that is, inner transformation—but it applies to the ways that Albert Bandura identified as ways of getting around our conscience while retaining the sense of being a respectable person.

JM: Do you mean that these people who do the work never had those impulses—that their developmental potential meant they had no evil in their heart—or that, in doing the work, they successfully conquered this part? It sounds like people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Peace Pilgrim acknowledge having had that in them, but worked to overcome it.

MP: The work of inner transformation is about the elimination of the “devil” part—but this is too simplistic because the main task is to develop strong positive qualities, and it is this process that does most of the reduction and elimination of the “devil” part. Some of that can be extremely challenging, as in Peace Pilgrim’s program of 4 Preparations, 4 Purifications, and 4 Relinquishments. Just think of the effort needed to carry out her fourth relinquishment—the relinquishment of all negative feelings! She gives one example: to give up worrying, which is unproductive, and makes a distinction with having a concern about a situation, which is seeking a solution.

JM: That makes a lot of sense—and shows how demanding this process truly is.

That brings me to what you said about Bandura and his work on how people justify themselves and protect their self-concepts. It can surely be said that Dabrowski’s theory could be used as the kind of cover Bandura discussed, couldn’t it? Surely there have been wounded or righteously angry people who have told themselves they are at level IV+.

MP: I don’t know what to say except that we have seemingly inexhaustible ways of deceiving ourselves.

JM: Yes. So, with that in mind, based on all your work with gifted students and with exemplars, is there any advice you can give us on making proper use of the levels? What are the risks we face in using this frame?

MP: The obvious risk is that one can easily be wrong. It is always important to remember that Dabrowski looked at and described the process of inner development; consequently, applying levels to oneself and to others is the false step of labeling and categorizing. The question to be studied is whether people undergoing a unilevel development can recognize in themselves that it is unilevel and that the multilevel process has no appeal to them.

It is always important to remember that Dabrowski looked at and described the process of inner development; consequently, applying levels to oneself and to others is the false step of labeling and categorizing.

Michael Piechowski

JM: The various ways that this sort of development can unfold is something you’ve also talked about. You even went so far as to say that “[t]he descriptive term of disintegration is too extreme and too limiting to enclose the diversity of processes at each level that also include partial integration.”

And Peace Pilgrim, one of the exemplars you studied, seems to have agreed. You quoted a great passage in your article about her:

During the spiritual growing up period the inner conflict can be more or less stormy. Mine was about medium. The self-centered nature is a very formidable enemy and it struggles fiercely to retain its identity. . . . It knows the weakest spots of your armor and attempts a confrontation when one is least aware. (Peace Pilgrim, 1982, p. 8, quoted in Piechowski)

It seems you’re saying that people don’t need to go through severe crises to reach high levels of development. Can you say more about the diversity of processes you see under the umbrella of “positive disintegration?”

MP: I think the severe crisis is what precipitates inner growth. Either the crisis is prolonged and repeated or one takes up the challenge. Etty Hillesum’s diaries illustrate this magnificently.

JM: What would you like to see done next to develop the theory of positive disintegration, or to expand its influence and usefulness?

MP: There has been hardly any research on the types of development represented by the levels. Only one study did that—Bailey, C. L. (2011). An examination of the relationships between ego development, Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, and the behavioral characteristics of gifted adolescents, which was published in Gifted Child Quarterly, 55, 208–222. I remember Mary Christensen in Chicago reporting at a conference on cases of positive disintegration in gifted adolescents—a valuable study that was never written up. Sue Jackson (1998) did a study of gifted adolescents going through a crisis, and found that some clearly went through inner transformation while others did not. It is this kind of work that needs to be picked up.

There also needs to be work to bring the theory into current psychology—to update the antiquated terms and to recognize work that illuminates in detail what the theory tries to explain. For instance, Robert Enright’s work on forgiveness represents psychology at a very advanced level because of the deep empathy and respect for every human being, and that includes those who do us harm.

Positive psychology developed without any recognition of the work that Dabrowski did, and no one as yet has attempted to bring the two together.

It is also clear from the work that Chris Wells has been doing that there has been little growth in understanding of overexcitabilities. There have been many studies measuring them, but none to probe the nature of each overexcitability.

JM: Thank you so much for talking to us. I’m certain your thoughts will really be valuable to Third Factor readers.

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