Balance and dimensions of meaning

In Chapter 5, the concept of equilibrium and criteria for positive development were presented. In the present chapter, I first refer to models that I have discussed in part already to point out similarities in assumptions regarding processes that should be balanced (or should work well). I use the term balance, which is similar to that of ‘equilibrium’ or related terms such as integration (e.g. Karelitz et al., 2010; Labouvie-Vief et al., 2010; Piaget, 1977) and has been applied in several developmental models more or less explicitly to describe a state of optimal functioning within a specific domain. Second, I return to the issue of making mistakes. Avoiding mistakes or accepting mistakes that have been made is an intrinsic part of positive development. Human goals can, to a certain degree, be based on mistakes (although we are often convinced that we are acting correctly or sincerely). Third and finally, I draw attention to the interconnectedness of developmental goals with areas of human action and culture. I concentrate on a few dimensions of meaning and areas of human action that seem basically representative for many people. Of course, examples of central human concerns are not equally important to all people. While some prefer to contemplate the shortness of life, others recommend living it to the fullest (‘You only live once!’). As a whole, it seems to me, these attitudes reflect a spectrum of dimensions of meaning or human culture that touches on concerns that are, in part, several thousand years old, but are nonetheless relevant for intentional self-development (ISD). These fields of action are not truly psychological research topics; rather, they are dimensions that have a long tradition in other disciplines, such as cultural history, art history, and philosophy. They are intended to clarify themes that people have been dealing with for centuries and have been viewed as subject to their will.

Balance as a challenge

Positive experiences, such as feeling satisfied with one’s situation and what one has achieved, are temporary in nature and have to be renewed. Thus, positive development entails a lively evaluation process that can change as a consequence of mood and daily experiences. I concentrate on the concepts of balance (balancing), action errors, and evaluation biases in more detail to illustrate the ‘positive’ aspect of development with regard to its characteristic processes. According to several psychological theories, balance and other terms, such as integration and equilibrium, denote a state in which regulation processes seem to reveal their optimal effects in several domains (see social relationships, Heider, 1958; cognitive development, Piaget, 1977; wisdom, Karelitz et al., 2010).

The concept of balance in psychological models

Sternberg (1998) proposed a theory of wisdom entitled the ‘balance theory of wisdom’. He specified the processes, that is, the balancing of interests and of responses to environmental contexts in relation to the general goal of wisdom, that is, using one’s skills and knowledge to serve a common good. Wisdom is related to practical intelligence and is defined as the application of tacit knowledge, as mediated by values, towards the goal of achieving a common good through the balance of multiple and competing interests and balance among responses to environmental contexts (i.e. adaptation to existing environmental contexts, the shaping of existing environmental contexts, and the selection of new environmental contexts). According to Sternberg (1998), ‘Wisdom is involved when practical intelligence is applied to maximizing not just one’s own or someone else’s self-interest, but rather a balance of various self-interests (intrapersonal) with the interests of others (interpersonal) and of other aspects of the context in which one lives (extrapersonal), such as one’s city or country or environment or even God.’ (p. 354).

How can balanced judgement be attained, and which thinking processes are involved? Several forms of thinking (thinking styles) have been distinguished and are based on social interaction, learning, and practise. These forms of cognitive development have been associated with wisdom-related thought but are also important when individuals interpret their affairs, cope with difficulties, and act. I focus on a few thinking styles that are used in everyday problemsolving situations and that are assumed to lead to balance and possibly to wise solutions (for a detailed discussion, see Fischer & Pruyne, 2003; Labouvie-Vief, 2015; Sinnott, 2014).

• Dialectical and relativistic thinking: Through conceptual juxtapositions, complex problems or scientific terms can sometimes be illustrated vividly. Dialectical thinking (Basseches, 1984; Eckensberger, 2012) is associated with interest in debate (through arguments and counterarguments) and refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives. Although people may not able be to find the best solution for many life problems, they can share their alternative views and come to acceptable compromises. Similar to dialectical thought, relativistic thinking is based on the view that standards of right and wrong and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions. Sternberg (1998) assumes that wisdom is probably best developed through dialectical thinking (see, for example, Hegel’s dialectic of thesis, antithesis followed by a synthesis). ‘When dialectical thinking occurs with respect to place (or space), it involves the recognition that at a given point in time, people may have diverging viewpoints on problems that seem uniquely valid or at least reasonable to them.’ (Sternberg, 1998, p. 353). Relativistic and dialectical thought illustrates the complexity of argumentation structure but leads to additional questions (e.g. How much relativism is adaptive (effective) without allowing the individual to get lost in details? How much tolerance is necessary or adaptive?).

Thinking integratively: The integration of new experience with what we already know is known as integrative thought. Integrative thought is characterized by subjective interpretation or intuition that influences communication, problem solving, and human action. Interesting age differences have been found when participants were asked to recall and summarize stories (Labouvie-Vief & Hakim-Larson, 1989). Mature adults interpret stories in terms of their meaning for them. The summaries produced by older adults tend to be shorter and more to the point. Their thinking is more flexible than that of younger adults, who summarize in a more step-by-step manner.

Reflective thinking: Reflective thought includes careful consideration regarding, for instance, the use of evidence and reasoning, the questioning of knowledge and beliefs, and the active pursuit of justifiable conclusions. It has been defined by John Dewey as ‘active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends.’ (Dewey, 1910/1991, p. 6). Reflective thinkers question supposed facts, draw inferences, make connections between arguments, and create a cognitive system that reconciles apparently conflicting ideas by putting various theories together into an overarching theory (Fischer & Pruyne, 2003).

Postformai thought: The concepts introduced above have been discussed as a continuation of Piaget’s cognitive development theory. According to Piaget (1950), cognitive structures are characterized in terms of universal, logical forms that emerge according to a developmental sequence. Children’s behaviour is predetermined by the logical structure associated with a specific time in their development. The last of Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development refers to cognitive problems (mathematical-physical tasks) that can be solved through formal operations; that is, the ability of adolescents and adults to act logically and to use abstract and logical symbols to arrive at solutions to right-wrong problems. A common critique of his theory claims that there is little in his model to improve our understanding of how logical structure helps guide everyday tasks. Postformai thought (Commons et al., 1984; Labouvie-Vief & Hakim-Larson, 1989; Sinnott, 2014) refers to everyday problems in social context with emotional and social implications, a realm that was not in the closer focus of the Swiss epistemologist.

Piaget did not completely ignore the dynamics of emotions and social relations. In some of his works, he explicitly acknowledges the value of such relationships for cognitive development (Piaget, 1950; 1973). He was aware of the interconnection between social, unconscious, emotional, cognitive, and biological structures, but he devoted his central interest to intelligence. Why is his theory important for the criteria of positive development and for ISD? Well, Piaget provides an example of developmental growth that does not necessarily increase during the transition from adolescence to adulthood or later. However, cognitive development is also relevant for ISD. Piaget (1977) proposed that cognitive development involves a balance (equilibrium) between the adaptive processes of assimilation (modifying the way one understands an object in order to fit it into an existing cognitive schemata) and accommodation (modifying one’s cognitive schemata in order to fit the way one understands an object or concept). Thus, a cognitive discrepancy stimulates adaptive processes, and development can occur as long as the adaptive processes work (and remain changeable). The dual-process model of assimilation and accommodation (Brandtstadter & Rothermund, 2002; see also Chapter 2 in this volume) refers to the regulation of goals. If logical tasks are the content of interest or are involved when individuals experience a goal blockage, the ability to solve these problems canalizes the tasks they will choose at a later time. The SOC model (Baltes et al., 2006; see also Chapter 2 in this volume) describes the interaction of three developmental regulation processes. Following concepts such as balance and integration, it has been argued that the orchestration of selective, optimizing, and compensating processes provides the basis for positive development.

Some authors stress the experience of a difference between the self, on the one hand, and others, the world, objects, on the other, that is, the problem of individuals feeling that they are different (e.g. specific, unique) entities from the collective mass and the material world. Mental processes mediate between these poles. Individuation, a key concept ofjung’s theory on personality development, refers to the process of becoming aware of oneself (Samuels et al., 1986). The individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious by transforming the personal and collective unconscious into conscious. This process can be more or less successful and integrated over time and includes the unity of opposites (e.g. the conscious - the unconscious, extraversion - introversion) and the connection between collectivism and individuality. Insofar as individuation describes a middle position - that is, a process of integration between unconscious and conscious processing - it can be regarded as an example of equilibration.

TABLE 6.1 Structuring processes and dimensions of equilibrium, balance, and orchestration

Balance and equilibrium: Adaptive processes and content

Cognitive development through assimilation and accommodation

ISD and self-regulation through assimilation and accommodation

Wisdom and self-other balance through life reflection (personal vs. general wisdom)

Balance among interests (intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal); balance among the selection of, shaping of, and adaptation to environments

Individuation; unconscious - conscious transformation according to C.G. Jung

Cognition - emotion (affect optimization and affect complexity)

The orchestration of selection, optimization, and compensation

Piaget (1977)

Brandtstädter and Greve (1994);

Brandtstädter and

Rothermund (2002)

Staudinger and Kunzmann (2005), Staudinger and Glück. (2011)

Sternberg (1998)

Samuels, Shorter, and Plaut (1986)

Labouvie-Vief et al. (2010)

Baltes, Lindenberger, and

Staudinger (2006)

Similarly, personality growth concepts that conceive of self-other reflection as a developmental task (Staudinger & Kunzmann, 2005) but pay less attention to and speculate about the unconscious can also be an example of an ongoing balancing process. Table 6.1 summarizes several theories in which terms such as balance and equilibrium have been used to describe human development.

A common feature of these otherwise quite different mental processes arises from the developmental nature of man: development implies continuous adaptation, and every state of balance is only momentary and preliminary. These selected approaches provide interesting explanations of the basic characteristics of mental development and its structure. They revolve around a fundamental problem of psychology in general from different perspectives and try to shed more light on our insufficient knowledge about the interaction processes that shape the course of psychological development across the lifespan. Table 6.1 shows that development is a process of adaptation (Brandtstadter, 2006; Staudinger et al., 1995) that in turn consists ofa bundle of mental processes (e.g. intentional, cognitive, socio-emotional). Social and biological factors are also involved but are not described in detail in the table. The concept of balance can be used to illustrate the structure of developmental adaptation. The basic processes are interconnected. How much each process contributes to developmental outcomes cannot be isolated. We are used to making inferences about regularities through observation and experiments, but we cannot simply observe the underlying regulating factors the way we observe a goose with goslings. From a developmental point of view, life is in flux; its challenges and crises cannot be stopped. At best.

life includes temporary phases of subjective breaks, but that imbalance never comes to a standstill. Within this flux, however, we tend to see and appreciate many dimensions that can be used to evaluate human actions with their discrepancies.

Balance from an intentional point of view

Given that balancing is a lifelong process of adaptation that refers to many, partially unconscious mental processes, successful balancing is a utopian preliminary end state rather than a concrete life task that can be intentionally pursued. Several concepts of balance have been discussed, for instance, the balanced dialogue between logical and more subjective forms of information processing; the integration of affect, cognition, motivation, and life experience; and the integration of affect with cognition. From an intentional point of view (ISD), human action and areas of action mark the point of reference for balance: ‘...action is not simply behaviour, but rather self-planned behaviour that can be interpreted as a means to achieve certain goals, to express certain values and to solve certain problems and that is - within certain boundaries - freely (or at least subjectively freely) chosen on the basis of certain beliefs and values.’ (Brandtstadter, 1984, p. 10). From an ISD viewpoint, one can argue that the concept of balance refers to the interplay of goal dynamics, that is, pursuing and adjusting one’s goals (see the processes of assimilation and accommodation in the dual-process model; Brandtstadter & Rothermund, 2002).

A closer look reveals that intentions (e.g. developmental goals) are closely linked to socio-cultural artefacts. Goals and actions refer to the material world and to mental artefacts (e.g. social norms, laws, symbols) and give value to them. Boesch’s concept of action field is based on this assumption and illustrates how environmental factors and human affairs can become meaningful through rituals, ceremonies, and symbols (Boesch, 1991), From this viewpoint, balance refers to man in his or her cultural area of action, which includes material/physical, as well as social, factors. The term of action field denotes the centre/field in which individuals are faced with cultural diversity. Culture influences people and shapes their life paths within biological constraints and biographical experience. The concept of balance or adaptation (through integration and differentiation) refers to intentions in terms of creative possibilities and limits. It is important to note, however, that although we make mistakes, we can still retain intentional freedom.

Mistakes and freedom of interpretation

As a consequence of our limited insight into the nature of a good balance at the level of mental processes, we are prone to several ‘action’ mistakes and evaluation biases. Sometimes we overestimate our action competence or underestimate our responsibility for a failure. In many situations, people do not know the optimal strategy for solving a problem. The acceptance of mistakes and their potential to trigger efforts to compensate for unpleasant consequences are part of positive development. On the one hand, mistakes can have the consequence of making us feel annoyed about or regretful of previous actions and consequently can motivate behaviour. On the other hand, it seems to be important to differentiate between outcomes and evaluations. Because human action consists of making mistakes to a remarkable degree, a closer look at their nature can be interesting. In the following, I argue that errors are important for understanding what positive development means.

  • 1. Levels of meaning of the concept ‘mistake’. Spaemann (2000, p. 7) differentiates among three categories of mistakes and illustrates their interconnectedness with action goals.
  • • Objective, socio-culturally preformed action goals: Objects denote, for instance, an imperfect car that does not, or only suboptimally, fulfils its purpose. The manufacturer did not do a good job.
  • • Subjective action goals: An individual who commits an ‘objective’ mistake does so either unintentionally or intentionally. If the individual does not attain his or her action goal because of a poor understanding of his or her ‘art’, his product is not limited because of this limited intention. One who intentionally makes a mistake (e.g. a deficient product) achieves a subjective goal while missing the objective goal.
  • • Objective-subjective action goals: Mistakes allow one to judge the intention of those who do something intentionally right or wrong. An engineer can intentionally construct an imperfect bomb, and a medicine can intentionally contribute to a patient’s illness. Thus, the individual can plan to have good or poor performance according to his or her wishes.

These distinctions make it clear that human action is prone to error in a variety of ways. Facets of failure or success in life can be evaluated on the basis of the accomplishment of purpose (e.g. the suitability of a product), the accomplishment of goals, and the good or bad intentions of an acting person (lack of wisdom). Within a concrete action context, all of these mistakes can occur. The criterion of positive development is limited if one considers that we make many mistakes. It is possible to assess the results of an action positively, even if those results are based on mistakes.

  • 2. Interconnected goals and goal hierarchies. It should be mentioned that actions can be identified in different ways and that identifications can vary in their level of abstraction (Carver & Scheier, 2000). High-level identifications (e.g. becoming a cultivated man) are abstract and tend to convey a sense of‘why’ an activity is done. Lower-level identifications become increasingly concrete (e.g. attending a ballet) and tend to convey a sense of‘how’ the activity will be accomplished. Specific goals are associated with more distant goals, for the sake of which the act is completed (Aristotle, 1987; De Anima, II, 4). If we differentiate between levels of abstraction, it is possible that we can fail at a concrete (lower) level (e.g. failing an exam) but continue to pursue a general career goal. The decisive factor for further action is how the errors are interpreted. We can also accept failures to achieve more distant (or higher) goals. We can reinterpret our mistakes positively: I accept sacrifices to achieve higher goals (the end justifies the means!). It is not predetermined whether we will regret certain decisions. Notably, the same events can be appreciated and rejected. Action mistakes (e.g. nonintended effects) can be revalued as gains and can lead to positive results even though they are based on wrong assumptions. The mediating mental processes reveal a dynamic that influences development through a mixture of intentional efforts and causal processes that are still poorly understood.
  • 3. Non-unambiguity of events. Both mistakes and actions, or events in general, include an openness of interpretation that makes a positive life a many-sided and somewhat ambivalent construction. Such openness was illustrated by the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1943), who reminds us that humans are wont to regard historical events, their personal fate, and that of their ancestors under two categories: ‘fortunate’ or ‘unfortunate’. He conceded that judgement may change radically with age and experience but claimed that we have pronounced historical judgements of good or evil fortune for isolated events and for whole epochs and life conditions:

We, however, judge as follows:

It was fortunate that the Greeks conquered Persia and Koine Carthage; unfortunate that Athens was defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, unfortunate that Caesar was murdered before he had time to consolidate the Roman Empire in an adequate political form;

unfortunate that in the migrations of the Germanic tribes so many of the highest creations of the human spirit perished, but fortunate that they refreshed the world with new and healthy stock;

fortunate that Europe, in the eighth century, on the whole held Islam at bay; unfortunate that German Emperors were defeated in their struggle with the Papacy and that the Church was able to develop its terrible tyranny; unfortunate that the Reformation triumphed in only half Europe and that the Protestantism was divided into two sects;

fortunate that first Spain, then Louis XIV were eventually defeated in their plans for world dominion, etc.

Burckhardt, 1943, p. 350

For the moment, it is not important how much one approves of these claims. Rather, this historical example demonstrates that our opinions diverge. The human quest for happiness can be observed in several epochs and is still relevant. Sometimes, and not only in heroic epics, we are inclined to decorate personally relevant events in life stories with self-enhancing metaphors to give meaning and value to life and perhaps to build our resilience. In the last part of this chapter, I introduce contents of meaning that are used as reference points for many people when they act and evaluate the consequences of their own behaviours and those of other people.

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