Complexity vs Meaning-making

I’d like to offer a short illustration of the distinction between complexity and meaning-making according to the Model of hierarchical complexity and Robert Kegan’s subject-object theory, respectively. MHC is a content-free ordinal scale or theoretical construct by which we can evaluate the order of hierarchical complexity of a certain amount of information, which could be a text, a mathematical formula or a behavior, regardless of domain or content. MHC is based on three axioms that describe how an element of a certain order of hierarchical complexity is constructed by the non-arbitrary and successful coordination of two or more elements from a previous order. It is grounded in information theory and is typically used as a behavioristic theory where the stage of a person, or organism, is evaluated by means of that person being able to complete a task at a corresponding order of hierarchical complexity at a certain domain. Psychological or emotional reactions may come as consequences of taking on a task but is implicit to the theory, although it is used for mapping stages in the domain of attachment as well.

The subject-object theory, on the other hand, includes a subject, a frame of reference or meaning-making that the person is embedded in, and an object that the person has and can relate to. According to Kegan, the meaning-making is not only about information but is also about identification (subject) and has explicit affective and behavioral components. What we have as a subject will determine how we perceive and organize reality, how we identify and how we behave. As the subject at one order of consciousness becomes object of the subject at the next order, our meaning-making becomes increasingly complex. It can be described as a frame of reference, a holistic entity that captures our psychology and meaning-making, in contrast to MHC’s view on complexity as being something that varies depending on e.g. domain and support.

In order to further illustrate the difference between the two theories, of course in a very simplified way, I’d like to use a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting from 1997.

The youtube-clip is from an analysis of the movie from a perspective of masculinity, one that I recommend! There it represents a man speaking to a boy, but here I’m letting it illustrate the difference between a mature and experienced man (Robin Williams’ character Sean) and a complex thinker (Matt Damon’s Will).

And here is my, of course simplified, description of the difference between the theories and what they aim to capture, complexity and meaning-making:

Complexity is about organizing information, about which answers you can find and which tasks and problems you are able to solve.

Meaning-making is about organizing life experiences, about which questions you ask and which tasks and problems you find relevant to solve.

If you want to be a complex thinker, then read, listen, learn, think, evaluate, calculate, discuss and write. My suggestion is modern physics, philosophy, mathematics, why not history or any topic that you find interesting.

If you want to construct meaning in a complex way, then live, love, reflect, grieve someone you loved, face death yourself, dive into pain, joy, fear, conflicts, beauty, take on challenges, succeed and fail, lose and reinvent yourself, rebel against your parents and seeing your children rebel against you.

(It may appear as showing a disregard for MHC, but one should be aware that the subject-object theory is far more speculative, whereas MHC is more modest in its claims, better theoretically grounded and empirically supported. Only slightly more boring. 😉 )

And now for my main point. In the field of adult development we entertain ourselves with evaluating the stage or order of meaning-making or complexity, because it’s useful, because it’s cool and because we can (well, mostly because it’s useful). Some would argue that more complex ways of thinking or meaning-making is better than less complex ways. In this discussion I think it’s useful to think of it the following way:

The complexities of our thoughts and of our meaning-making are mainly consequences of the information we take in and of our lives’ experiences. They serve us by organizing reality in an appropriate way. Sometimes they are not complex enough for us trying to handle the tasks or life challenges we face, and then we sometimes see transformations taking place, something that could be supported as Sean does with Will’s. And sometimes this transformation leads to a higher stage of complexity or meaning-making. But we should always keep in mind that there is an appropriate way of organizing information and experiences, and it is not always and necessarily better to make it more complex.

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