In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 2 Jun 98

The Theory of Levels of Emotional Development

by Lisa Matthews,

followed by discussion among Colloquy members

LM:   Folks, here is something I submitted to Gift of Fire**. I thought I'd send it to this group as well, because I've talked about Dabrowski several times (and had promised that I'd outline the theory). I'd be very interested in people's reaction to this... if you believe, don't understand it, want to hear more, etc.

The theory of levels of emotional development, a theory outlined by psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski following the world wars, is of interest to a high IQ audience for a number of reasons. First of all, some scholars have attempted to broaden definitions of giftedness beyond a score on an IQ test to include various dimensions of emotional functioning (Piechowski, 1979). For example, some have seen the intensity and drivenness that comes with a deeply emotional or imaginative nature as a defining element of genius (Piechowski & Colangelo, 1984). A second reason is that some scholars have asserted that there is a correlation between a high score on an IQ test, and a high potential for advanced development in the emotional levels defined by Dabrowski. Thus, people who are intellectually gifted, and especially the highly gifted, may find much in Dabrowski's theory to be highly relevant to their own lives. In this paper, I will briefly outline Dabrowski's theory of emotional development.

Kazimierz Dabrowski was a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist who developed his theory of emotional development after personally witnessing the carnage of both world wars as a youth and young man. He observed that under conditions of extreme stress, some individuals degenerated, and became self-centered and inhuman, while others seemed to become more altruistic and self-sacrificing. These observations inspired his study of the development of human personality, and led to the theory of emotional levels. Dabrowski divided humanity into five basic levels. The first two have a unilevel personality structure. That is, individuals at Levels I and II conceive life as consisting of numerous, equally valid choices; they perceive life along a horizontal plane, and tend to take a relativistic stance. Individuals at Level I have a very rigid, shallow personality structure. They are characterized by egocentrism, absence of reflection, almost no inner conflicts, a tendency to blame others for conflicts (and never themselves), and a callousness toward other people. People at Level I have very stereotyped relationships with others, treating one individual much like another. Feelings of connection to others typically are engendered by participation in group activities, such as sports or political events. However, the brittleness of such connections are manifested by their dissolution when the event ends, or at any sign of conflict. One type of Level I is what has commonly been called the psychopath. The more common Level I, however, is a person who is limited in his or her emotional experiencing, and lives a very stereotyped existence.

Individuals at Level II show a breakdown of the rigid personality structure of Level I. People at Level II are very susceptible to social pressure. They are characterized by ambivalence in their feelings, thoughts, and behavior. They do not have an autonomously developed system of values, and so are reliant upon the opinions of others. As others' opinions are ever-shifting, people at Level II are often confused and uncertain. Since there is no clearly developed hierarchy of values, and since conflict is horizontal (that is, options are viewed as being of equal value), people at Level II tend to have trouble resolving difficulties. However, as the primary structure of Level I is starting to break down in Level II, there is the beginning of empathy, exclusivity of relationships, and some reflectiveness with regard to the self. This level characterizes the vast majority of individuals, with estimates as high as 95% of the population belonging to Level II.

Levels III, IV and V are multilevel. As people at Levels IV and V tend to be extremely rare, I will concentrate mostly on describing Level III. The defining characteristic of Level III is the existence of an autonomously developed, multi-level hierarchy of values. Conflict is viewed as taking place between "what is," and "what ought to be" and is more likely to be internal (for example, a conflict between what the individual views as his or her own selfish versus altruistic behavior). As people at Level III become more and more attuned to their internal hierarchy of values, they may come to feel more and more out of synch with the outside world, a phenomenon Dabrowski labeled "positive maladjustment" ("positive" because adjustment is to a higher level). People at Level III experience empathy, and exclusivity of relationship with others that transcends time and distance.

What determines what level an individual will attain in his or her lifetime? According to the theory of emotional development, the most important aspect of the developmental potential is the number, combination, and strength of an individual's overexcitabilities. Overexcitability (OE) is a genetic predisposition of the nervous system to respond more, and more intensely to life's stimuli. An OE can be conceived as a pathway through which information from the environment can influence the individual. Dabrowski identified five different types of OE: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional. The number and combination of OEs cause conflicts within the individual which stimulate emotional development.

Psychomotor OE is defined as an organic excess of energy, and may manifest in rapid speech, pursuit of intense physical activity, impulsiveness, restlessness, and the capacity for being active and energetic. Sensual OE is expressed in the heightened experience of sensual pleasure, and is demonstrated by the intense enjoyment of taste and smell, and physical pleasures such as eating, sleeping or sex. People with high levels of sensual OE may also enjoy being the center of attention. People with intellectual OE show a persistence in asking probing questions, an avidity for knowledge and analysis, and a preoccupation with logic and theoretical problems. I suspect that high IQ societies attract people with intellectual OE. Imaginational OE is recognized through rich association of images and impressions, inventiveness, vivid and often animated visualization, and use of image and metaphor in speaking and writing. Signs of imaginational OE are living in the world of fantasy, a predilection for fairy and magic tales, poetic creations and imaginary companions.

The number and combination of OEs determine the level that an individual attains. People at Level I are characterized by strong psychomotor and/or sensual OE, with none of the other OEs (or with another OE at a weak level of strength). People who are multilevel typically have imaginational, emotional, and intellectual OE. Although a high IQ and intellectual OE are not synonymous, it is likely that there is a robust correlation between the two. In addition, gifted people are often noted for their emotional sensitivity, and their lively imaginations. Thus, it is likely that people in high IQ societies individually possess several, strong OEs, and are more likely than the nongifted to be multilevel. Although less attention has been paid to OEs and the effect that they have on people's lives, I think that coming to understand what OEs a person possesses helps in the understanding of both oneself, and one's relationship to others. For example, I think that combinations of OEs and their relative strengths has a large influence on personality. For example, a person with strong emotional OE, and moderately strong intellectual OE will be a different sort of person than someone with strong intellectual OE and moderately strong emotional OE. I know that it has been my very strong intellectual OE, more than anything else (including my IQ), has made me feel out of step with others. The summary of the theory of emotional development that I have presented here is very brief and incomplete. Although this theory would probably be of great interest to people in high IQ societies, there have been few attempts to apply it to the personality structure of gifted adults. Hopefully, this attempt will be made in the future.


Dabrowski, K. (1977). Theory of levels of emotional development (vols 1 and 2). Oceanside, NY: Dabor Science Publications.

Piechowski, M. M. (1979). Developmental potential. In N. Colangelo & R. T. Zaffrann (Eds.) New voices in counseling the gifted. Dubuque, IA: Randall Hunt Publishing Co.

Piechowski, M. M., & Colangelo, N. (1984). Developmental potential of the gifted. Gifted Child Quarterly, 28, 80-88.


JCC:   Special thanks to Lisa for the article on Dabrowski's levels of personality; seems to mirror Maslow's observations somewhat. I'll want to read more of this, particularly on what is anticipated in the fourth and fifth levels of development. Perhaps this points the direction of future "inner" evolution of humanity; at least I'd like to think so.

LDL:  Shooting from the hip, I will take the risk of offering my first impressions... reserving the right to change my mind during the discussion and upon deeper reflection. I am not married to the thought I am about to express. With that said here goes...

Verrrry interesting... however, this theory seems a little self-serving, designed by someone who is highly intelligent suggesting high IQ means a high EQ, (emotionally advanced.) When I was young I thought much the same, and then ... I joined some of the high IQ groups. Observation of those in high IQ groups seems to suggest that high IQ has no greater correlation, and may have an inverse correlation, to emotional maturity. Admittedly my view is personal and highly subjective, but then it appears, to me, the conjectures in this theory are much the same. They seem to reflect some rationalizing by he who is theorizing.

In my experience, I have found "almost as many" emotionally stable people at lower levels of IQ, and consistently "more volatile ones" at higher IQs. This may indeed be the foundation of genius, because of the passion ... however, what do we mean when we speak of emotionally advanced? In more control, or in less control? More mature or less mature? Maybe emotionally advanced people with high IQs achieve greatness by being out of control, but run a severe happiness deficit.

Also, I have known "more than a few" high IQ individuals who are solid level I and II types. And I have known "some" mentally retarded people who were level III without question. In all sincerity ... two of the most caring, outward looking, altruistic men I have ever had the privilege of knowing had IQs less than 80. They were in the Special Olympics, had many friends who they cared about, they were able to provide for their own care, and they loved making pottery. They worked as dishwashers at Good Sam Hospital. The older brother was a little smarter and was sometimes angry, because he knew he was of less than normal intelligence. He controlled his anger by swimming in their pool. Pretty solid sublimation!

On the other hand, some people with high IQs that I have known have no concern for their fellow man, control their temper poorly, and they DO see all choices as equally valid, favoring only those that feed their egocentric lives. Could there be a correlation between high Q and emotional advancement ? Maybe, but I doubt it is any stronger than the correlation between high IQ and emotional degeneration.

I have far more sympathy with the OE portion of his theory. It is much more impressive. However, I also don't see a heavy connection with IQ, high or low. It is certainly a good idea to know oneself, and to have some idea of the manner in which you relate to others ... in that the definitions of OEs serve reasonably well. Are we self-actualized, are we intellectual, emotional, creative, imaginative, physical, and how do these characteristics mix and match in our presentation. Important things to know about oneself, without question.

However, I think any individual can tell you much more about that mix, than can be determined by some dubious correlation with high IQ.

I look forward to hearing other comments and, making adjustments in my own after I hear other views ... uh-oh, does that make me level II, "reliant upon the opinions of others", "ever shifting", "confused","uncertain" ... gee, and I just thought it made me an honest human being. {GriN!}

A good start, perhaps, but then a little too much theory and not enough science... Lisa, thanks for the offering, it should generate lots of interesting discussion.

EM:   I will reserve comment for the moment on Dabrowski's psychological theories and note that they focus on the small high end of whatever gets measured by tests that measure such things. If there is a population base in the US at present of around 260 million, 2.6 million =1%, 5.2 million =2%, Mensa level. Mensa has more or less 50,000 (ballpark figure). Thus, Mensa appeals to about 1% of those eligible, despite having been on the scene for 4 decades or more. I visited for the first time in 1960, and knew about it some years before that.

Intertel, the last I heard, had about 1500 members as did ISPE. We now get down to a vanishingly small number of people with i.q.'s high enough to qualify for such groups, and who care enough about the matter to affiliate with such groups. There is a minuscule group within the extreme high end groups concerned with refinements of tests to measure the ultimate extremity of intelligence, or whatever collection of aptitudes one wishes to regard as characterizing this abstraction. I would be much interested in psychological theories of why anyone joins high i.q. groups, why so few qualified people do so, and why there is an urge to form and join ever more restrictive such groupings.

Also, why is such an overwhelming majority averse to joining such groups? And, why do so many drop out after the first year? The answer to that one is easy, unmet expectations, though the expectations were never formulated clearly upon initial entry or affiliation. One might say the same thing about marriage.

CW:   This is great. I have noticed the opposite however. That is, a contingent of people in hiq societies who are extremely inflexible but also very "intellectual" and obsessive. Could it be the variety of input and not the type that makes the difference. Also, how does this differ from Maslow?

LM:   Cal, Dabrowski outlined the manifestations of the OEs at different levels of emotional development. This is what he said about Level I and Level II people with intellectual OE:

Level I
"Intellectual activity consists mainly of skillful manipulation of data and information ('a brain like a computer')..."

Level II
"...We observe erudition which can be extensive and brilliant but without systematization and evaluation of knowledge. There is no felt necessity to penetrate into the meaning of knowledge, to analyze in order to uncover the 'hidden order of things,' or to arrive at a deeper synthesis..."

When I read the description for Level II, I thought....MENSA!! It sounds like the people you knew who were obsessive were unilevel... possibly even Level I.

LDL:   I think Maslow suggests that highly intelligent people who are emotionally advanced CAN be self-actualized... maybe even suggesting that emotionally advanced people ARE likely to be highly intelligent. (My interpretation, of course, and I still consider him the best of a bad lot... psychologists, I mean.)

Dabrowski, as suggested in this snippet, appears to be saying that high IQ people ARE emotionally advanced and therefore ARE self-actualized. In short, they approach the elephant from two different ends. One claims the head is more important then the other... (oh rats, back to the bum again. Sorry.)

Actually, Dabrowski and Maslow may not even be talking about the same group of people... after all, there is no strong evidence that high IQ people are highly intelligent. High IQ people assume a correlation. {Smile!}

However, I would like to read his work. Lisa's article makes his work sound worth a careful read.

If Dabrowski is focusing on high IQ alone ... how does he determine that those with average high IQs are Level I and Level II? I got the impression he was examining a wide variety of people across a wide spectrum. Did I err? Is my name Groo, the Wanderer?

I think most people who join the high IQ groups, and the higher the group the more it is true, have massive feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and need to boost their self-image in the one area where they feel they might have some competence, intelligence.

As members, and with advancing age, they become more emotionally advanced. I speak of those I have met and from personal experience. I joined thinking I was inadequate in many areas of human behavior, needing to know, if nothing else, I was reasonably bright. I discovered I am not nearly as bright as I thought, but that's okay ... because most members are also not so bright as I thought, with a few notable exceptions. High IQ groups are a means of negatively boosting self-esteem at the expense of others trying to do the same thing.

Hey, what works... works! It may not sound like it, but I consider the high IQ groups a positive experience, but not for the usual or even the expected reasons.

LM:   There have been quite a few interesting responses to my GoF article on Dabrowski. It appears to have stimulated some discussion! Here are my responses to the various points:

I have to start by pointing out that Dabrowski's theory is quite complex.

I only outlined a part of it, and definitely was not able to do justice to the part that I did outline (because of time/space constraints). Consequently, it seems that I didn't communicate some basic things about the theory very well. Because I was writing for a HIQ audience, and wanted to elicit the most interest possible, I slanted the article in terms of the [hiQ = high emotional level] angle, and it is this point that seems to have attracted the most criticism. The reality of the connection between IQ and emotional level is quite complex.

First of all, both Laura and Eric pointed out that equating hiQ and high level seems self-serving. In one sense, you are absolutely right. In my reading of Dabrowski's books and articles, I never saw any mention of a relationship between giftedness and emotional level. Dabrowski applied his theory to everyone, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, never tried to claim that people with hi IQs were more likely to be a higher level.

LDL:   Now it begins to make more sense... thank you.

LM:   However, Dabrowski's followers, especially Piechowski, have gone so far as to state that OEs should be a defining aspect of giftedness. I think that there is a good (albeit self-serving) reason why these scholars have made this claim. One of my favorite books on intelligence is a book by Leslie Margolin called "Virtue Personified," which is about the social construction of the gifted child. Margolin claims that the concept of the "gifted child" (gifted in the sense of having a POTENTIAL for high achievement, rather than having demonstrated achievement as the proof of genius) was invented in order to justify giving more educational resources to white, upper-middle class children than to working-class, immigrant children.

The psychologists making this claim (and Margolin mentions Hollingworth and Terman) faced a conundrum, however. How can you say that a child is more able, but somehow needs more resources than less able children? After all, if gifted children are so smart, wouldn't they need LESS resources than less the less able? In order to justify this claim, Hollingworth and Terman built a case that gifted children were tormented by overage bullies and insensitive teachers, or, in later years as the rhetoric softened, that they were simply misunderstood. A large part of this argument was that gifted children differ not only in intellectual ability, but that they are also inherently more SENSITIVE, or more emotional than nongifted children.

Through the years, gifted child educators have continually emphasized this aspect of giftedness because it helps them to maintain their discipline. That is, it helps them to stake out and maintain their academic turf. Someone has to justify the expenditure of money on children who, one would think, would need LESS money than other children. I believe that Dabrowski's theory has been used by gifted child scholars for this purpose. After all, despite the empirical and theoretical rigor of Dabrowski's theory, NO ONE has picked it up other than gifted child scholars.

Now, after getting THAT out of the way, I also have to say that there also seems to be some empirical evidence that people with high IQs are also more likely to have intellectual, emotional, and imaginational OE. Studies comparing hiQ individuals with nongifted people have consistently found this. However, the presence of OEs does not guarantee that a person will be multilevel. The number and strength of OEs are supposed to cause conflicts that may, given a good environment, etc., lead to a person becoming multilevel. As many of us have noted, people in high IQ societies don't seem to be more mature - in fact the opposite seems to be the case. The OEs may make a person more volatile. Dabrowski did say that much of what passes as psychoneurosis is in fact developmental processes that lead to a higher level of development.

So, what we are observing may be strong OEs in unilevel people. As I said in the article, the vast majority of people are unilevel. I probably should have put the most emphasis on the OE aspect of Dabrowski's theory, which is what is most relevant to most people. Also, Dabrowski determined that his Level IV personality was a direct match to Maslow's self-actualization, so you guys were right about that, too.

I'll stop here, but probably write more as we get more responses.

JCC:   Yes, this is a worthy issue, the implications of social theory for resource allocation to Gifted & Talented educational programs... self-serving? Perhaps, but in an enlightened way, considering that one goal of public education would be to help every student develop potentials to the fullest extent. Why should those who are potentially "more able to learn" not be left largely to their own devices? No question that there are great needs in all segments of the population, but a child's high IQ hardly assures a practical built-in knowledge of the adult world.

If not for humane concerns, one might consider that society has some vested interest in the careful cultivation of exceptional talent of every flavor. I recall a sad statistic of years past, that about half of all students in the 140+ IQ ranges basically failed within the "system". Perhaps it's better now, or the information was slanted to a gloomy perspective, but it would seem a great waste. I had many, perhaps too many, childhood dreams which never came close to fruition. Could be that I'm just lazy or perhaps lacked in stamina, clarity of direction, and some of the value imparted by making fortunate connection with a network of mentors ... some wiser voices who could recommend the most efficient paths from idle hopes to career goals.

I'll say at this point that Eric probably did more for me than any other individual, just by informing me of a entry job opening as a computer operator. Back to the subject, I feel the most horribly neglected area in education is guidance counseling ... the need to really spend some time individually with each child, opening up awareness of vocational and avocational interests... getting them some time to explore directions. Yes, it would cost something to do a better job of it, but there are savings somewhere justifiable to the infamous bottom line. Oh heck, if reincarnation exists, I'll try not to waste time next life, heading on direct career path to curator of Assyrian antiquities at a prominent European museum. Always had a thing for Ashurbanipal & Co.

LDL:   A gifted child has more imagination, more potential for making wrong choices, and often sees the world as a more fearful place than less gifted children. What do we mean by more sensitive? Certainly, I would agree, gifted children tend to be more sensitive, in the sense they get hurt more easily. What we, as a society want from them, is to develop an "outward sensitivity" to the problems of others and to use their problem solving abilities for the betterment of our world. It may be "common sense" to think that gifted children need less help, but "common sense" is neither common, nor sense. A more powerful engine needs more careful tending, or it can explode on you.

In the work environment, Peter Drucker, wrote that the trouble maker, the one causing the most commotion, is the most difficult employ to harness, and the most rewarding when it is accomplished. Gifted children are like that. They can be very difficult, get into more, not less, mischief, and a wider variety of mischief. If we want to harness them, direct them, they DO need more attention, not less.

Now, with that said, there are individuals who are gifted and ALSO genetically inclined to become self-actualized. They are rare and, if left to their own devices, can accrue all manner of accomplishments. But what they achieve will be unpredictable and may or may not be of any practical value to society. If they achieve things of value in our world we call them genius, and if they don't, we call them failures.

Personally, I have always been self-actualized and have often made the statement that I have lived more in my life span than any ten people I know. In my youth I spanned intellectual, emotional, and imaginational OEs and I was passionate and hot as a pistol. After a time I learned to ride the bucking bronco of discussion, because my desire has always been "to learn and to teach." Conflict is a barrier to both. What I learned was to be careful, particularly on-line where there are no body language clues to soften a statement. I learned to make disclaimers, and to qualify my statements both before, during, and after they are presented.

Some of the things I write are still provocative, and can appear aggressive, if not hostile. They are never meant to be. {Disclaimer} I try to use humor to help keep them in perspective, and as a replacement for missing body language, and to expect and forgive, on the heavier subjects, strong replies without response in kind. So, with age, the potential for maturity increases ... but then maybe it's just the lessening of the "hot blood" of youth. {GriN!}

Again... great subject matter. Thanks, Lisa... this statement in place of a charming smile. {GriN!}

** Gift of Fire, the journal of the Prometheus Society. Our main page contains links to the online copies, q.v.

Return to Colloquy main page