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Dabrowski's Levels.

William Tillier

The following web article by Elizabeth Mika is a very balanced and excellent summary of Dabrowski's Levels. Mika2010

Controversy: From the very beginning, there has been a conflict over the interpretation of level I versus level II. Piechowski did not philosophically agree with the Dabrowski about level I and II. Piechowski has said he did not have such a negative viewpoint on the average person and did not believe that the average person should be at the same level as the lowest individual (both at level I in Dabrowski).

In Dabrowski's work, he separated level I into two primary divisions, the lowest, characterized by the most rigid integration and the higher division, characterized by strong integration and being represented by the average person. Thus, for Dabrowski, this was a large group. At the Florida conference, 2002, Dr. Kawczak indicated that Dabrowski said that about 85% of people were at Level I. I recall Dabrowski saying that about 65% were at Level I and that he felt that this was a tremendously positive feature as it meant that about 35% of people were able to break out of this primary integration and enter into higher development.

In his subsequent writing and presentations of the theory, Piechowski presented level I as a very small group representing only a few percent of the population. Piechowski presented the average person at level II. This created confusion because Dabrowski characterized level II as a transitional level and had indicated that if you spent too long at level II, you would likely end in psychosis or suicide.

At the Dabrowski conference in Florida, November 2002, Piechowski said that he did not believe that Level I even existed and that it should be dropped from the theory altogether. He apparently feels that everyone is in some stage of disintegration. Unfortunately, he has not yet written anything to expand his new theory of development.

Quantification: In the early days, Dabrowski described the levels but did not number them. Dabrowski was initially against assigning numbers to the five levels and had little interest in quantification; however, an empirical approach was called for by the criteria of the Canada Council grants which Dabrowski used to pay the salaries and costs of the research team in Edmonton (Dabrowski, 1972b, p. vi). Piechowski (1975, p. 267) indicates that data collection and analysis began in 1969 and that "it fell to him" to quantify the levels and to develop the empirical aspects required (Piechowski, 2006, p. 15). This was a role that Piechowski believed in, he felt that his background as a scientist (microbiologist) prepared him to provide an empirical foundation to the theory; a task that he felt he had accomplished by 1975 (see Piechowski, 1975).

Material collected from autobiographical and verbal responses was divided into small sections called response units. To facilitate analysis, Piechowski (1975, p. 270) developed and presented nine possible level values that reflected "the descriptions of dynamism and definitions of levels." The nine levels were comprised of five main levels and four "demi-levels" describing individuals between levels. This system was summarized in Piechowski (2008):

The first numerical assignments to the five levels appeared in print in Dabrowski (1972b).

Heuristics: Dabrowski was very clear that the levels he presents "represent a heuristic device" (his words) and he was always reminding us that these levels and descriptions of people are conceptual abstractions. As such, there is no "average person" lurking around waiting to be discovered. Nor is there an exemplar of any given level as such. On the other hand, in the vernacular of everyday language we do talk about the Level I person and the Level V person, etc. as if they exist.

Continua: Dabrowski used the levels and their descriptions to outline and describe the conceptual prototypes of the different kinds or types of humans that we see in life. He wanted his theory to be able to account for the lowest seen in humans (as he personally observed in the Wars) and also for the highest human actions and achievements as well. Dabrowski said he tried to write a theory that would "explain both the lowest acts we see in humans and at the same time also the highest actions we see in humans." Dabrowski felt that these diverse human behaviors could be understood using a hierarchy of levels (a Platonic approach) and what he called multilevelness. To this end, he described various continua of both integration and disintegration (growth). I think it serves us to view the levels with this in mind.

Level I: Primary or primitive integration. Represents a level characterized by varying degrees of integration. A continuum from severely integrated to moderately integrated to loosely integrated. Dabrowski referred to the most rigidly integrated individuals as psychopaths (a small number of people) and the less integrated individual as the average person. Dabrowski placed both of these subtypes under Level I.

These quotes describe his approach: "A fairly high degree of primary integration is present in the average person; a very high degree of primary integration is present in the psychopath. The more cohesive the structure of primary integration, the less the possibility of development; the greater the strength of autonomic functioning, stereotypy, and habitual activity, the lower the level of mental health" (Dabrowski 1964, p.121).

"Individuals with some degree of primitive integration comprise the majority of society" (Dabrowski 1964, p. 4).

"Among normal primitively integrated people, different degrees of cohesion of psychic structure can be distinguished" (Dabrowski 1964, p. 66).

Level I is characterized by no or very little internal conflict. The individual is content that their actions are proper and they do not experience inner conflicts over their values or their actions in life. Thus, Level I is characterized as a harmonious level, "ignorance is bliss."

Note: In her presentation at the conference in Florida, November 2002, Dr. E. Mika said that in Dabrowski's Polish works, he further differentiates Level I into even more subtle sub-levels. She presents a nice graphic of this idea as follows:


From: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/positive_disint.htm

As shown by the shading Dr. Mika used in her diagram, there are several shades of Level I, from the darker, more integrated, to the lighter shades of the less rigidly integrated, individuals who are more prone to "break" into Level II and possibly higher development.

Michael Stone presented a similar approach in describing moral development. Stone described a hierarchy of moral levels and illustrated several pathways of development involving the interaction of genetics and environment. As Stone illustrated, individuals with strong genetics will be little impacted by environment, whereas, those with equivocal genetics will be greatly influenced by environmental influences.


I would add color to Dr. Mika's diagram to show that Dabrowski emphasized both the quantitative and qualitative divergence of the Multilevel levels from the lower unilevel levels. In this sense, there is a pretty clear line of demarcation between Level II and III (between unilevel and multilevel). Multilevel is to unilevel as color is to black and white. Between III and IV and IV and V, there is less of a sharp line and these levels tend to shade into one another - and they are qualitatively similar to each other.

Dabrowski's Level
Type of experience
Dabrowski's description (with Stone's in brackets)
Degree of Self-Direction
Internal Conflicts Present
Hierarchy of instincts
Plato's Divine Level SECONDARY INTEGRATION A continuum of multilevelness represented here as shades of color
And so on?
Self-Perfection Instinct


("Morally Invincible")



("Morally Strong")




Creative Instincts Emerging

ML Conflicts Emerge


Qualitative shift into multilevelness
Third Factor beginning to emerge
Developmental Instinct Emerges
Plato's Human Level
A continuum of unilevel integration and rigidity represented by shades of black and white
UL Conflicts
"Average Person" ("Morally Weak")

None: Control external (socialization)

Second Factor

Self-Preservation Instinct

Antisocial / Criminal but not psychopathic
("Morally Weak")

None: Controlled by lower instincts

First Factor

"Psychopathic" but not criminal
Psychopathic and Criminal

Level II - unilevel disintegration: This is the first level characterized by disintegration, the process whereby development occurs: Development requires a breaking down of the initial integration of Level I, usually through crisis: "Every authentic creative process consists of 'loosening', 'splitting' or 'smashing' the former reality. Every mental conflict is associated with disruption and pain; every step forward in the direction of authentic existence is combined with shocks, sorrows, suffering and distress" (Dabrowski, 1973, p. 14). And again, "we are human inasmuch as we experience disharmony and dissatisfaction, inherent in the process of disintegration" (Dabrowski 1970, p. 122). Finally: "The term positive disintegration will be applied in general to the process of transition from lower to higher, broader and richer levels of mental functions. This transition requires a restructuring of mental functions" (Dabrowski 1970, p.18).

[Note: Dabrowski uses a unique definition of personality and presents a distinct approach to what constitutes a human individual. Individuals at lower levels are "not yet human" in Dabrowski's context and based on his definitions. Dabrowski says "we are human inasmuch . . ." For Dabrowski, authentic human traits are associated with autonomy (third factor) and are not yet seen at the first level, authentic human traits only begin to emerge with disintegration and higher development. In this context, many individuals at lower levels would be described as not yet possessing human qualities. Dabrowski goes so far as to use the expression "anti-human." In Dabrowski's terminology, personality is a term reserved for individuals who have obtained a high degree of personal autonomy, usually seen at Level IV and V.]

At Level II, the disintegrations are horizontal. "Internal conflicts exist but are usually externalized. They lack a direction, they occur as if on one plane only (hence called unilevel)" (Dabrowski, 1970, p.111). This level is characterized by ambivalences (the person has no real preference between choices and could choose one thing or another) and ambitendencies (the person is pulled and pushed equally toward competing choices and alternatives).

Dabrowski said that Level II is a transitional level and it can not be tolerated for long: "Prolonged states of unilevel disintegration (Level II) end either in a reintegration at the former primitive level or in suicidal tendencies, or in a psychosis" (Dabrowski 1970, p. 135).

Level III: Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration: Two features distinguish Level III, It has vertical conflicts that signal multilevelness and they occurr spontaneously. Once Level III is achieved (multilevelness), the person can not regress back into unilevelness or primary integration. Level III is the first level of vertical or multilevel conflict, the real engine of human development because the contrast between lower and higher conflicts suggests a developmental direction -- vertical development. Contrast this with conflicts at Level II - they are horizontal and in this sense there is no developmental solution, one can choose to go left or right but not up, this developmental choice is not yet seen by the individual at Level II.

Multilevelness is characterized by two features: it is quantitatively different from unilevelness and it is also qualitatively different as well. So, to invoke Plato again, ML shows a difference of degree and of quality that makes it unique -- we do not just see more, we see life differently.

Level IV: Organized Multilevel Disintegration: The major feature distinguishing this level is the operation of the third factor and the increased role of the self in development. Conflicts are no longer driven by life experiences (and thus are spontaneous), the individual comes to volitionally and actively seek out contridictions in life and in their own value structure and behaviour. Dabrowski also called this level "Directed" Multilevel Disintegration.

Level V: Secondary Integration: The distinguishing feature of Level V is a harmonious integration. The conflicts of development are over and the individual is content in their self and in their personality ideal. The person is fully human and possessing a unique individual personality. Their internal conflict is gone because they are confident in their chosen value hierarchy, in their chosen hierarchy of aims (goals) and their behavior conforms to this value structure. Internal vertical conflicts have stopped. External conflicts are met with a positive and developmental orientation.

Development is uncommon: The sequence of transformations "occur only if the developmental forces are sufficiently strong and not impeded by unfavorable external circumstances. This is, however, rarely the case. The number of people who complete the full course of development and attain the level of secondary integration is limited. A vast majority of people either do not break down their primitive integration at all, or after a relatively short period of disintegration, usually experienced at the time of adolescence and early youth, end in a reintegration at the former level or in partial integration of some of the functions at slightly higher levels, without a transformation of the whole mental structure" (Dabrowski 1970, p. 4).


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