Robert Kegan is a contemporary developmental psychologist who developed the concept of meaning-making. 

Professional Life

Robert Kegan was born in 1946 and was raised in Minnesota. Kegan attended Dartmouth College as an undergraduate and was involved in the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s. He later described these experiences as critical to the formation of his thought.

He graduated from Dartmouth in 1968, and he began teaching high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Kegan discovered a passion for teaching, and he realized that he was intrigued with how children learned and developed. Fascinated by children's minds and learning processes, Kagan decided to enroll in Harvard University to study developmental psychology. He pursued a degree in education and psychology, graduated in 1976, and promptly began teaching at Harvard. He is now the William and Miriam Meehan Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard.

Kegan codirects the Change Leadership Group, the Harvard-Macy Institute for the Reform of Medical Education, and he is the educational chair for the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education. He was named teacher of the year in 1992 by the Massachusetts Psychological Association, and he received the National Leadership Award in 1999 from the Association for Continuing Higher Education.

He has contributed to many articles and books on psychological development and he has published three of his own books, including:

  • The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (1982)
  • How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (with Lisa Lahey, 2001)
  • In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (1994)

Kegan also wrote The Sweeter Welcome, Voices for a Vision of Affirmation: Malamud, Bellow, and Martin Buber, a literary analysis.

Contribution to Psychology

Kegan’s Constructive Development Theory suggests that individuals develop in six stages, as outlined in his book, The Evolving Self. Each of these stages outlines the development of identity and social understanding. The six stages identified by Kegan are:

  1. Incorporate stage, which is focused on sensory information and reflexes, and during which the child lacks a sense of self.
  2. Impulsive stage, which emphasizes perception and impulse. Objects begin to have meaning for the child. 
  3. Imperial stage, which marks a period of self-centeredness and the awareness that the child can act on his or her desires. 
  4. Interpersonal stage, which emphasizes empathy, reciprocity, and compassion, and the awareness that other people have needs that should be taken into account.
  5. Institutional stage, during which ethics and values develop. Autonomy and the self develop and the person acts on principle, rather than impulse.
  6. Inter-individual stage, which emphasizes both autonomy and tolerance, with an understanding and acceptance that different value systems exist.

Kegan believes that each stage revolves around and is shaped by the preceding stage. For instance, the incorporative stage is based on an individual’s reflexes and instinctive reactions. The next stage, impulsive, is formed by the perceptions and manifestations of reflexes. These perceptions and manifestations, also termed impulses, become the object of the following stage, imperial. As the stages progress, development continues through desires that lead to relationships, which lead to identity. Ultimately, the final stage of inter-individuality is formed based on the identity discovered in the previous stage of institutionalism.

Kegan argues that the process of development is a process of meaning-making. As the individual moves through each stage of development, he or she is charged with the task of understanding the world and solving problems. Evolutionary truces, during which a person balances self with another person or institution are important landmarks in development and the process of meaning-making. Through evolutionary truces, individuals both gain knowledge and insight and develop a constraint upon the meaning-making process itself.


  1. Illeris, Knud (Ed.). (2009). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists … In Their Own Words. New York, NY: Routledge. Pp 35-52. 
  2. Robert G. Kegan. (2002). Contemporary Authors Online. Biography In Context. Retrieved from