William Perry

After reviewing Piaget’s theory in his review of Human Growth and Development perspectives for the NCE, Rosenthal, (2005) then discusses the work of William Perry, who builds upon Piaget’s insights.  In his 1970 book, “Forms of Intellectual & Ethical Development”, Perry describes a stage theory of intellectual and moral development in adolescent and adulthood.  His theory describes a transition of moral and ethical development of students in higher education settings “from absolute adherence to authority to beliefs founded on personal commitment, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 364).”  His study involved a series of extensive interviews of students in the 50’s and 60’s.  He describes a nine of growth from dualistic to relativistic thinking.

Stage #1: Strict Dualism

Rosenthal (2005) describes dualistic thinking as an black and white moral perspective common in teens that differentiates things in terms of right/wrong and good bad.  “Strict dualistic thinking implies a rigid adherence to authoritarian views, a childlike division between in-group and out-group, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 365).” Authority figures are not questioned and their dictations of right/wrong determine one’s moral thinking.

Stage #2: Multiplicity (Pre-legitimate)

This stage begins as a individuals begin to acknowledge that there are multiple viewpoints on matters with each contradicting the other (Rosenthal, 2005).  While maintaining a belief in authority figures and right/wrong thinking, a sense of confusion and uncertainty set in.

Stage #3: Multiplicity (Subordinate)

In this stage, “the individual grudgingly acknowledges the reality and legitimacy of multiple perspectives, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 366).”  Unable to readily dismiss viewpoints that contradict our own.  As individuals begin questioning authority figures, it dawns on us that we’re forced to figure things out ourselves.

Stage #4: Late Multiplicity

During late multiplicity, individuals that even authorities disagree regarding what is right or wrong. Perry observed two responses to this.  With the oppositional solution, “either authority is right, or no one is right, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 365).”  In contrast, the relative subordinate response involves evaluating some positions as more legitimate than others, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). Individuals begin engaging in a metacognitive endeavor that involves examining how “rational arguments are constructed and weighed, (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010, p. 366).”

Stage #5: Contextual Relativism

Rosenthal, (2005), describes relativistic thinking as moral thought process which acknowledges that there’s more than one way of seeing the world.  It is a major leap forward in one’s moral thinking since it no longer encompasses black and white thinking.  Instead critical thinking and judgment guide an individual’s moral thinking.   Individuals here are no longer able to “accept the fiction that everyone’s ideas are as good as everyone else’s, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 367).”  Students appreciate examining mental perspectives and develop a tolerance and respect of other perspectives

Stages #6-9: Commitment

In these final stages, individual’s “make a decision on how they will view the world, while realizing they may modify this choices based on new information, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  My course textbook describes this commit as a process.  This process begins with individuals foreseeing a commitment process.  They begin affirming their beliefs, while realizing that absolute proof is never possible (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010).  However, Perry also describes individuals who refrain from full commitment, by either remaining at a relativist perspective, or retreating to dualism for a sense of security that can come with absolutist thinking (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).


Broderick, P.C. & Blewitt P. (2010). The Life Span: Human Development for Helping Professionals. 3rd Ed. New Jersey: Pearson.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.

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