The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Stage Fright

published November 2008
From the stages of grief to the stages of moral development, stage theories have little evidentiary support
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Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. So annealed into pop culture are the five stages of grief — introduced in the 1960s by Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross based on her studies of the emotional state of dying patients — that they are regularly referenced without explication.

There appears to be no evidence, however, that most people most of the time go through most of the stages in this or any other order. According to Russell P. Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and co-author, with John W. James, of The Grief Recovery Handbook (HarperCollins, 1998), “no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss… No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”

Friedman’s assessment comes from daily encounters with people experiencing grief in his practice. University of Memphis psychologist Robert A. Neimeyer confirms this analysis. He concluded in his scholarly book Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (American Psychological Association, 2001): “At the most obvious level, scientific studies have failed to support any discernible sequence of emotional phases of adaptation to loss or to identify any clear end point to grieving that would designate a state of ‘recovery.’”

Nevertheless, the urge to compress the complexities of life into neat and tidy stages is irresistible. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud insisted that we moved through five stages of psychosexual development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Developmental psychologist Erik H. Erikson countered with eight stages: trust vs. mistrust (infant); autonomy vs. doubt (toddler); initiative vs. guilt (preschooler); industry vs. inferiority (school-age period); identity vs. role confusion (adolescent); intimacy vs. isolation (young adult); generativity vs. stagnation (middle age); and integrity vs. despair (older adult). Harvard University psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg postulated that our moral development progresses through six stages: parental punishment, selfish hedonism, peer pressure, law and order, social contract and principled conscience.

Why stages? We are pattern-seeking, storytelling primates trying to make sense of an often chaotic and unpredictable world. A stage theory works in a manner similar to a species-classification heuristic or an evolutionary-sequence schema. Stages also fit well into a chronological sequence where stories have set narrative patterns. Stage theories “impose order on chaos, offer predictability over uncertainty, and optimism over despair,” explained social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of The Mismeasure of Woman (Touchstone, 1993) and co-author, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007), in an interview with me. “One appeal of stage theories is that they tell a story — they give us a narrative to live by (‘you feel this now, but soon…’). In cognitive psychology and also in ‘narrative psychotherapy,’ there has been a lot of work on the importance of storytelling. Some therapists now make this idea explicit, helping clients change a negative, self-defeating narrative (‘look at all I suffered’) into a positive one (‘I not only survived but triumphed’).” What’s wrong with stages? First, Tavris noted, “in developmental psychology, the notion of predictable life stages is toast. Those stage theories reflected a time when most people marched through life predictably: marrying at an early age; then having children when young; then work, work, work; then maybe a midlife crisis; then retirement; then death. Those ‘passages’ theories evaporated with changing social and economic conditions that blew the predictability of our lives to hell.”

Second, Tavris continued, “is the guilt and pressure the theories impose on people who are not feeling what they think they should. This is why consumers of any kind of psychotherapy or posttraumatic intervention that promulgates the notion of ‘inevitable’ stages should be skeptical and cautious.”

Stages are stories that may be true for the storyteller, but that does not make them valid for the narrative known as science.

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7 Comments to “Stage Fright”

  1. Ric Says:

    Bravo!!! Dr. Shermer,

    Twenty years ago, I almost failed a grad class in Human Relations, because in my term paper I quoted Piaget (I actually went out and read his work) who used a fancy French word (which I have by now forgotten) as a caveat stating that development was not necessarily linear but often circular. The Prof. want to fail me for this blasphemy. The same thing happened in a Life Span development class, when I was assigned a paper on IQ tests and use Mr. Gould’s Mismeasure of Man as a reference.

    Which brings me to my second point. In your book on Capitalism, you made several examples, such as, “I feel comfortable driving on this road and bridge because…” etc. Then the bridge in Minnesota collapses and Route I-95 almost collapses, etc. For one, in my years in forensics it is assumed that most people are not angels, which is why Marx is still the most read economic thinker to this day. For two, I believe stuff like my Prof insulting my work is in the way people disagree; when we are too confident in our knowledge we tend to be very disagreeable to other side.
    Anyhow thank you for bringing attention to this important fact on development and finally- would you feel safe driving over a bridge in Newark, New Jersey? LOL!

  2. Harold Mantle Says:

    One does not necessarily feel safe assuming all people are angels; nor should one necessarily worry assuming some people are not. The I-95 bridge failure was the results of incorrectly sized gussets (original design error not caught by checker) combined with local overloading of bridge surface with construction materials intended for bridge maintenance. A domino-effect ensued. Neither error suggests venality on the part of the humans involved.

    BTW, my guess for most read dead ecomonist would have been Adam Smith.

  3. Moet rouw in fasen verlopen? Says:

    […] over dit onderwerp, hier: Stage Fright /* ‘); /* ]]> */ /* […]

  4. Donna Trussell Says:

    I applaud your challenge to these popular notions. I am a cancer survivor who is still waiting for my anxiety and fear to subside and turn into a beautiful butterfly. It’s been seven years, but I’m still not one bit grateful I got cancer.

  5. Theo Dawson, Ph.D. Says:

    Michael Schermer’s concerns about many stage theories are well founded, but he makes a serious mistake when he lumps all “stage” theories into the same category. Cognitive developmental stage theories, like those of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Fischer are very different from the “armchair” theories that have informed clinical psychology. They are backed by thousands of refereed research articles. Cognitive developmental researchers disagree on the details, but there is a strong convergence with respect to the general structure and trajectory of cognitive development. New academic disciplines–like Mind. Brain, and Education–incorporate a cognitive developmental perspective, and theoretical perspectives–like Kurt Fischer’s skill theory–increasingly inform clinical practice, teaching practice, curriculum development, and student assessment.

  6. Pat McKnight, Nurse Educator Says:

    Thank you, Dr. Shermer. One of the examples given above, Kohlberg’s theory of “moral” development, has been effectively challenged by Carol Gilligan. She demonstrates that Kohlberg’s model does not apply to all, even to all in Western society. She hypothesizes that women value the welfare of the community over abstract justice, and postulates this is a higher level than abstract justice. Neither Kohlberg nor Gilligan acknowledge that different cultures develop differently and may have different values. For sceptics neither offer an adequate model for a theory of “moral” development which would apply to all cultures.

  7. Augustus F. Kinzel,M.D. Says:

    I am a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. I noticed that with
    psychodynamically accurate psychotherapy patients had spontaneous growth into subsequent phases, at times in areas never touched on in the therapy. It was like lifting a rock off the sapling.

    It is more likely that mature and advanced developmental phases do exist but that unconscious anxiety is holding back development in many so they never get there. The naysayers on development may have not seen it in themselves or their patients and then use this as an absence of evidence for development. That’s like saying elephants don’t exist because you have never seen one.

    Also, the notion that biologically hard wired developmental phases would disappear because of contemporary social and economic conditions is unlikely. That’s like saying menstruation disappears in some women because women in these times are too busy for it.

    The more likely current condition is that many have inhibited development, not that development has disappeared or was just bad theory. It is not good science to dismiss all the available evidence for consecutive developmental phases and stages because one doesn’t see it.

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