Positive Disintegration (Level 5): Functioning With Controversial Insights

The Theory of Positive Disintegration is a dynamic theory. In order to gain the most from this post,  check out key vocabularylevel 1, level 2, level 3, and level 4

Level Four Sounds Great. Who Bothers With Level Five?

Level five was actually left under-explored by Dabrowski (the theory's creator).  Many theorists hypothesize categories within categories.  Piechowski, in particular, has offered several additions and subtractions from the theory that are thought-provoking, including some interpretations of level five behavior discussed shortly.  

(Before that, if you reach level five, please track me down on social media and tell me about it... Unless of course, you’re too busy being awesome somewhere else. Maybe a theory that divides people into different levels doesn't even appeal to you?)

Diving Into the Mysteries of Level Five

The cut off between level four and level five behavior seems to be a conundrum for many researchers.  They often start by mentioning standout VIPs in history.

Jesus. Buddha. Gandhi. Mother Teresa. Peace Pilgrim. Millions invisible on purpose because it allows them to perform their best work.

How could any of us achieve this level of service to other beings in the modern world?  Why bother trying to research a distinction between level four and level five if it applies to so few people?  

Even more perplexing, why do level one and level four (or five) people sometimes appear the same; integrated?  

The Big Difference: Intention

While a person at level one lacks internal conflict because they lack self-reflection and self-awareness on how they impact people, the person at level five lacks internal conflict because they are leading a life that matches with their highest personality ideal.  

Basically, a person at level one and a person at level five can look the same to the outer world, while their internal worlds are completely opposite.

I needed to read this quote a few times to let it sink in:

“Love and aggression at the lowest level of development differ less than the lowest and highest level of love or the lowest and highest level of aggression” - A. Mroz

Life is Not a Show

This theory states that plenty of level one people know how to put on a show; a surface level reflection of concern for others because they think such behavior is what they should do or what will get them liked.

A person at higher levels doesn’t have to go through such mental gymnastics. They go straight to offering their skills and compassion where needed. They don’t even think about doing it for show or attention. Any attention that comes to them is secondary in nature, meaning it comes because of an idea or service they have provided.

Laughter, Pleasure, and Suicide: “Functions” at All Levels

As you’ve probably noticed, a lot of this theory operates as abstract vocabulary.  We can objectively learn about the characteristics of each level by approaching its broad ideas in a reductionist manner. However, we are often left to decide for ourselves what characteristics of each level would look like if they manifested as specific behaviors in ourselves or others.  

When Dabrowski defines the term “function” in a more specific way, he provides some guidance.  For example, he details what pleasure, laughter, and suicide might look like in each of the five levels of personality development.

As a level five illustration, he cited an incident at Auschwitz where a small group of concentration camp victims infuriated a Nazi.  Someone was going to be executed and made an example.  A priest volunteered and took the place of a man who had children. Obviously, a suicide like this looks completely different than suicide at level two due to drug overdose or self-violence.

Similarly, cardiac arrest due to extreme self-starvation at level two would be different than starvation at level four due to a hunger strike for a meaningful cause.  

It is always intriguing to find books that go deeper into the theory and outline what a person might look like at different stages.

Motivation Matters More Than Surface Behavior: The Act of Giving

Dabrowski’s research challenges us to look deeper instead of looking for simple right and wrong answers.

For example, we’ve probably all witnessed some people giving to charity publicly so they can talk about it or try to look like they are richer (or better) than others.  This could be a celebrity, someone running for office while trying to appeal to the general public's higher nature, etc.  

In essence, some people might try to use their act of giving as a manipulative quick example of how they think they are a good person (when in fact they treat everyday people like dirt). 

Also, as a personal example, I know there were times in my life when I didn't think I deserved anything, so my excessive giving was actually a socially acceptable form of self-abuse.  It was not coming from a healthy place no matter how nice I looked on the outside.

Maybe at the top level of Dabrowski's theory, we would find someone donating a large amount of money and time anonymously because they know such an act is not about them?

The point is, with this theory, it isn’t possible to view behavior in absolute terms. As a result, I’m a big fan of its ability to prompt critical thinking and create different approaches to life’s hard questions (especially when discussed with youth).

For some final reflection on the levels, it’d be interesting to think about what some modern functions (or life activities) might look like.

  • What would someone’s relationship with money and debt look like at levels one through five?  
  • What would someone’s behaviors and intentions be regarding social media?
  • How would someone handle self-promotion for their entrepreneurial work?
  • How would someone handle increasing success with broader societal work if it was negatively impacting their immediate relationships?

I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

"There's a fine line between giving and clever matching, and this line blurs depending on whether we define reciprocity styles by the actions themselves, the motives behind them, or some combination of the two. It's a deep philosophical question, and it's easy to identify with a range of views on how strategic matchers should be evaluated. On the one hand, even if the motives are mixed, helping behaviors often add value to others, increasing the total amount of giving in a social system."

- Adam Grant in Give and Take

As I wrap up this series on Positive Disintegration, stay tuned for some final posts on traditional success, Dabrowski's biography, and the role of the World Wars in developing his theory.

Mroz, A. (2009). Theory of positive disintegration as a basis for research on assisting development. Roeper Review, 31(2), 96-102. doi:10.1080/02783190902737665

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