Spiral Dynamics – A Way of Understanding Human Nature

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spiral dynamic model, showing nested systems of levels

click on image, then click again to enlarge

Creating lasting and effective cultural and behavioural change means recognising and working with values.

But where do values come from? Values spring from worldviews.

To effectively work with values means understanding worldviews - how people think, and why people adopt the values they do.

Insight into worldviews and ways of thinking is profoundly relevant to a range of areas including:

  • leadership
  • conflict management
  • organisational change
  • communication & marketing
  • working with diverse communities
  • cultural transformation

In my quest to learn more about this, I travelled to Melbourne in August to undertake four days’ Spiral Dynamics training with Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorovic.

What is Spiral Dynamics? 

Spiral Dynamics is a data-based, psychological approach to understanding worldviews or systems of thinking held by individuals, organisations and societies. It is concerned with:

  • how people to respond to the world around them in given circumstances and with their particular coping abilities (rather than categorising people as ‘types’)
  • how people think about things (conceptualisation), rather than what they think about (concepts) – for example, is their thinking binary and absolutist (‘if it’s not black, then it must be white’), or do they acknowledge and seem comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • complex questions about change including ‘HOW should WHO lead WHOM to do WHAT and WHEN?’

How Did Spiral Dynamics Originate?

There are many variations and references to ‘Spiral Dynamics’ (and a lot of misinformation) swirling around, as Cowan & Todorovic note:

Many people doing a web search have come to see SD as quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo rather than a useful program incorporating a theory of human behavior that can apply to many realms of life from personal growth to business and politics, including religion.

Here’s some background on where the theory and model came from.

Spiral Dynamics builds on the research undertaken in the 1950s and 60s by US psychologist Dr Clare W Graves of Union College, New York. Graves was seeking to understand human nature, and questions like:

  • why are people different?
  • why do some people change but others do not?
  • how does the mind respond to a world that becomes increasingly complex?

However he was frustrated with questions from his students who were being taught a range of theories by different professors, and quizzing him as to which was the ‘correct’ version:

In 1952 Clare W. Graves found he could not go back to the classroom and be a referee in the conflict over whose theory was correct on any given issue. He’d ‘had it’ with psychology as it was, and knew that he either had to reframe the problem or abandon the field.

Graves began looking for patterns of human development and how they related to other theories, and spent over 20 years gathering primary data from thousands of sources. He was originally seeking to validate his contemporary and friend Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but Graves’s data revealed that the hierarchy does not work universally. Cowan and Todorovic note that Graves:

…saw Maslow, as he saw most of his peers, as niche players who explored parts eloquently but were still missing the broader view and the engine that drives it.

Maslow eventually acknowledged that Graves’s model was superior to his own.

Graves’s research revealed eight kinds of responses (so far in human experience) or ‘levels’, tinted with variations as people entered and exited the eight levels.

Graves’s health declined and he died in 1986 before he could finish and publish his research, which is perhaps why his work is not as well known as Maslow’s, or as recognised as Myers-Briggs.

Graves’s work, also known as ‘Gravesian Theory’, was taken up and developed by two of his students, Christopher Cowan and Don Beck, who coined the term ‘Spiral Dynamics’. Beck later went on to work with Ken Wilber, the latter of whom is best known for Integral Theory. Cowan now works with Natasha Todorovic, and their Spiral Dynamics teaching remains closest to Graves’s original work, with the pair documenting Graves’s research in The Neverending Quest.

Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ Theory

After extensive data gathering, Graves’s research resulted in a theory he called the ‘Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory’ (or ECLET), that humans evolve not just physically but also socially and psychologically, which he summarised as follows:

The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process, marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change.

Graves observed that as certain thresholds of complexity were reached, the mind’s ability to make sense of the world became overburdened, and to cope, the mind must create more complex models of reality to deal with the new problems of existence.

This interplay between the world and the human response to it – which is applicable to people as individuals, at societal level, or humanity as a species – is expressed in Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ system, which describes the relationship between:

Helix 1 (life conditions, reality): what’s the world like for this person or group? What are the times like, the physical place, the problems of existence, where is it necessary to put attention and energy?

and

Helix 2 (mind capacities, neurobiological response): what’s the toolkit that person or group has for dealing with that world? What is the ‘coping system’ an individual, group or society develops to cope with those life conditions?

The combinations of Helix 1 and Helix 2 represent the eight levels identified by Graves.

Levels of Psychological Existence

These levels represent a conceptual space, or systems in people – they are not a ‘Hogwarts Hat’ means of sorting people into ‘types’ and labelling them, although understanding people’s priorities and what matters to them are clues to what system/s might be in play.

Graves used a two-letter system to represent the eight levels he identified – the first letter (commencing with ‘A’) denotes the Helix 1 ‘life conditions’, the second (commencing with ‘N’), the Helix 2 ‘mind capacities’:

screen shot of double helix model for levels AN to IV

Image from Spiral Dynamics - click image then click again to enlarge

Graves identified what people seek out in life at each level of psychological existence as follows:

Level 1 BEIGE (A-N) existential: survival, biogenic needs satisfaction, reproduction, satisfy instinctive urges

Reactive, biologically driven, living in a state of nature, limited sense of cause and effect; there is very little of this level remaining, although people can regress into it (eg. Alzheimers).

Level 2 PURPLE (B-O) animistic: placate spirit realm; honour ancestors; protection from harm; family bonds

Subsumed in the group, no separate identity of ‘I’ – the focus is on co-operation, sharing, ritual; conflict will endanger the tribe, who have the forces of nature to contend with.

Level 3 RED (C-P) egocentric: power/action, asserting self to dominate others, control, sensory pleasure

Breaking away from the tribe, impulsive, seeking respect, honour and avoiding shame and establishing the self, might is right; the world is adversarial, uncaring, only raw power will let me prevail.

Level 4 BLUE (D-Q) absolutistic: stability/order, obedience to earn reward later, meaning, purpose, certainty

Emerges from the chaos of C-P – obedience to rightful authority, binary thinking, categorising, deny self for ‘the one right way’, stability and security is achieved through sacrifice and submission, doing things by the book/manual; bringing in new norms undermines control/authority.

Level 5 ORANGE (E-R) multiplistic: opportunity/success, competing to achieve results, influence, autonomy

Emerges from the rigidity of D-Q, how to manouver rather than comply, many ways and criteria rather than one right way or set of standards, goal directed, independent, self-sufficient, confident, experiment to find the best among many possible choices, future oriented and competitive; work for the good life and abundance, the winners deserve their rewards.

Level 6 GREEN (F-S) relativistic: harmony/love, joining together for mutual growth, awareness, belonging

Emerges in response to the excesses of E-R, can’t do it on my own and need to collaborate with others, group membership highly valued, tolerates ambiguity through encountering diverse perspectives, requires trust, doesn’t want to hurt others; high empathy and sensitivity to others – everybody counts.

Level 7 YELLOW (G-T) systemic: independence/self-worth, fitting a living system, knowing, good questions

Demands flexibility, autonomy, accepts paradoxes and uncertainties, self interest without harm to others, curiosity, learns from a variety of sources, contextual thinkers, can see things but not always be able to explain them, great awareness of what they do and don’t understand, punished by conventional education and corporate structures; not motivated by fear of survival, God or social approval, guilt and reward motivators don’t work - seeks to do well without compulsive drives and ambitiousness.

Level 8 TURQUOISE (H-U) still developing global community/life force; survival of life on a fragile Earth; consciousness

Existential problems this level will create still not fully known; may be: holistic focus on the well being of all entities, comfortable with many paths to knowing; self is part of a larger non-localised field.

Graves also noted an oscillating ‘locus of control’ - ie. where a person’s instructions on how to behave originate – in the levels. Commencing with the first level, and the odd numbered/warm coloured systems thereafter, the locus is ‘within me’, in service of me. This alternates with the even numbered/cool coloured systems where the focus is ‘outside me’, in service of us. 

The allocation of colours to Graves’s original letter pairs was incorporated later by Beck and Cowan to assist with understanding. It has no particular symbolism except in terms of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours, which respectively signify the primacy of the individual (‘express self’)  in the red, orange and yellow levels, and the primacy of the group (‘sacrifice self’) in the purple, blue and green levels.

The H-U (eighth) level is still not clear, and – if Graves’s theory holds – there will be another level beyond this, where the locus of control cycles back towards the external, expressive. This yet-to-emerge level would be called I-V and has been assigned a ‘warm’ colour of coral.

While the colours help in some ways, using the letter pairs keeps the emphasis on the double-helix approach, or the interaction between people and culture. When I arrived at the training, I was talking colours. By the time I had completed the training, I was referring to letter pairs.

Clarifying Aspects of Spiral Dynamics

One of the key aspects of Spiral Dynamics which is critical to understand is that it differentiates the content from the container, or thinking system(s); it recognises the difference between how people think about things, and the things people think about. Cowan and Todorovic offer the following example:

Each level represents a way of thinking about things…The absolutely certain theist and the equally certain atheist share certitude; they share the absence of ambiguity; they judge their opponents harshly; and they might share a zealous need to promote their views. Thus diametrically opposed contents in very similar containers.

So while the two positions, theist and atheist seem to be diametrically opposed, they share the same absolutist, D-Q (blue) worldview. Concepts like ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘sustainability’ can vary greatly in their expression, depending on the ‘container’ they are in. This was the biggest shift in understanding for me – that the words coming out of people’s mouths representing ideas, concepts, symbols, opinions, whatever, are one thing, but it is discerning what kinds of thinking systems are being used that gives insight into deeper worldviews, values and behaviours.

People or groups can be in a ‘closed’, ‘arrested’ or an ‘open’ state at any level.

Those who are ‘closed’ at a particular level can only think in terms of that level, see no alternatives and may simply not comprehend anything else. If someone closed in D-Q (blue) starts to have ‘E’ (orange) level problems thrown at them – such as a bureaucrat who suddenly finds him or herself in a privatised organisation or enterprise environment – their response is likely to be more rigid.

Those who are ‘open’ may be centralised in a particular level, but can accept different thinking and move between levels.

Those who are ‘arrested’ find their movement to another state is blocked by barriers.

These three states represent different kinds of characters within the same level or processing capacity.

Cowan & Todorovic advise caution in relation to people claiming to be certain levels, for example Turquoise (H-U), or D-Q (blue) or E-R (orange) which may be masquerading as F-S (green):

…we see the relationship that has confounded so many bright people – green-sounding ideas slid back into an absolute, authoritarian, dichotomous way of thinking about them, maybe even into an aggressive and rigidly dogmatic form. That’s not FS in operation, but it can certainly look Green at the surface.

Sometimes, people may have developed a broader way of conceptualising (such as R/orange), but be in a situation where they are coping with life of prior levels (such as C/red).

One of Graves’s key areas of research was to ask people what they thought was ‘the mature adult personality in operation’. He collected many of these samples of levels and their associated entering, nodal or peak and exiting stages, some examples of which can be viewed here. Notice the difference in what someone centred in C-P (red) perceives compared to someone who is exiting D-Q (blue).

In Spiral Dynamics, the ‘maturity’ of an adult is based on how they are responding to the world they find themselves in:

Graves recognized many forms of maturity at different levels. An end state, a target of completion like self-actualization, just didn’t exist for Graves. What he came to recognize was that maturity is a function of fit between neuronal systems – part of the conditions for existence – and existential problems in the milieu – part of the conditions of existence. Thus, for Graves, the search for the mature personality in operation was illusory. The quest was to understand how different people conceptualize maturity and how those conceptions are influenced and change, then how to deal with people effectively at their levels.

Levels are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – all levels have both positive and negative expressions. The container is not the content.

There is also an ethic to Spiral Dynamics – it is not about coercion or manipulation. Graves was adamant that a person had the right to be who he or she was, and that his theory was about how to rework social or organisational goals by approaching people as they are, not as others wish or perceive them to be. As Cowan & Todorovic note:

All too often ‘change’ is a directive rather than a process of opening possibilities, often with a tacit ‘or else’ attached. That is often accompanied by a vertical assumption that ‘up’ is the right and proper direction, thereby ignoring the other perfectly viable forms. Usually, downward change (back into congruence and a restoration of a comfortable state, even constructive downward mobility without disgrace) is dismissed as weakness rather than a possibility for better coping and adaptation. So if there is to be change, then facilitating the right kind of change at the right time with the right means for the appropriate people is essential to making effective use of the principles.

People don’t get smarter or better or more ‘superior’ as they move through the levels – which represent increased complexity, not intelligence, enlightenment or anything else – though they do expand their conceptual space, broadening their perspectives and increasing their options to act appropriately in a given situation.

image of human head with spiral and coloured layers of levels emerging on top of the other

People can be centred in a particular level, and they may settle in one for any range of reasons, but they can develop and flourish within that level. If someone is not coping at their present level, asking them to shift to another level isn’t likely to be successful – first, give them the coping skills they need at their present level.

If you want change in Helix 2 (individual response) to stick, its essential to ensure that you create the Helix 1 (life conditions) to enable that. Disruption needs to be congruent with where people are. Under certain circumstances (such as too much change, too fast), a person may return to a previous level where life is more familiar.

The Value of Spiral Dynamics

What sets Spiral Dynamics apart from other models which focus on personality traits and types is that it is about psychological evolution and the dynamic interaction between people and culture as represented by the double helix - not ‘what a person is like’, but ‘how a person thinks, in this context, at this level’.

All around us, we see what it’s like when people at different levels of psychological existence, who hear, learn and communicate things differently, need to live or work together, yet as Graves pointed out:

The error which most people make when they think about human values is that they assume the nature of man is fixed and there is a single set of human values by which he should live. Such an assumption does not fit with my research. My data indicate that man’s nature is an open, constantly evolving system, a system which proceeds by quantum jumps from one steady state system to the next through a hierarchy of ordered systems.

In the workplace, in our government institutions, in our communities and homes, what seems like a clash of personalities or values may actually be a clash of levels.

Consider this example from Graves’s work on How People at Different Levels Form Groups:

Graves has tested some of his theories on his students at Union College in New York. In one experiment, he grouped students according to their levels of existence and then gave them various problems to solve.

Students at the D-Q level split up into a number of groups, each with its own leader. Graves likens this to the feudal craft society with elaborate hierarchies within trade guilds.

E-R students had a huge argument which ended when an overall leader emerged.

F-S students worked well with no leader at all.

G-T students would choose a leader who was well-qualified for the task at hand. Later they would drop him for another leader better-suited for the next task.

The percentage of his students in the different categories has shifted dramatically in the past two decades. In 1952 Graves found 34% of his students at the D-Q level and 10% at the G-T level. Today the figures have approximately reversed, an indication of the U.S. shift away from the D-Q level.

In the school, community or workplace, those operating in C-P (red) level may be motivated by managing immediate survival problems, D-Q (blue) will do best with rules and processes, and G-T (yellow) will buck a system that does not offer them autonomy and freedom to do things the way they see they could best be done. Most people in the (post) industrialised West are at D-Q (blue), E-R (orange) or F-S (green) levels.

As part of the Spiral Dynamics course, I completed some questionnaires to provide an insight into my current state (there is an ethic associated with how this testing is undertaken, and who receives the results):

  • my Change State Indicator, or readiness and acceptance for change (which is not related to Gravesian levels);
  • my Values Profile, to determine which levels I have an acceptance for or rejection of, and to what extent; what ‘blind spots’ do I have;
  • my Discover Profile, to highlight which levels were most and least like me

It is easy to see the results of such questionnaires and be tempted to ‘spin a story’, which is why it requires a reasonable amount of expertise to interpret what the results mean, and to treat them as indicators of something that may be occurring, not a description of ‘what is’. A respondent’s results may reflect a situation that is occurring in a different context (eg. stresses in home life rather than work life).

Spiral Dynamics/ECLET/Gravesian Theory invites us to ask: what if we could consciously ‘change filters’ rather than unconsciously viewing the world through our own lens(es)? What if we could identify worldview-related areas of stress, strengths, potential?

What bearing would it have on how an organisation functioned in terms of management, sales/marketing and morale if they knew their project team to be F-S/G-T, their executive centred in E-R and their clients mostly D-Q?

How much of a difference would it make to be able to work with people’s worldviews as they relate to organisational culture or purpose, or a community’s goals instead of trying to ‘motivate’ them on the basis of a worldview they may not hold or even comprehend?

The insights and applications Spiral Dynamics offers could help people to better communicate, work together, manage, be managed and resolve conflict more effectively despite their differences.

Graves, whose model inverted Maslow’s pyramid (which implies an end point), believed humanity’s quest to be an open ended journey rather than a pinnacle to be achieved, which he succinctly captured in this narrative:

At each stage of human existence the adult man is off on his quest of his holy grail, the way of life he seeks by which to live.

At his first level he is on a quest for automatic physiological satisfaction. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living, and this is followed in turn, by a search for heroic status, for power and glory, by a search for ultimate peace; a search for material pleasure, a search for affectionate relations, a search for respect of self, and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world.

And, when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level quest. As he sets off on each quest, he believes he will find the answer to his existence. Yet, much to his surprise and much to his dismay, he finds at every stage that the solution to existence is not the solution he has come to find.

Every stage he reaches leaves him disconcerted and perplexed. It is simply that as he solves one set of human problems he finds a new set in their place.

The quest, he finds, is never ending.

Further Resources

Spiral Dynamics

Clare W Graves

Summary Statement – The Emergent, Cyclical, Double-Helix Model of the Adult Human Biopsychosocial Systems – Boston May 1981

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Comments

  1. A very interesting article and thank you Sharon Ede for directing me here.

    Something that concerns me in adhering to the notion of spiral dynamics as put forward here is the possibility, as with most things, of the politicization of such a concept. Though the article says that persons may flourish in any level and that there is no end point, the opposite is implicated in the theory itself. Such an example in the text is when Grave compares the students of group D-Q with “feudal craft society” implying that this group is un-evolved. By giving reference to them as a point in historical time is to liken them to a lower point in a line of progression when interpreted by our culture (dare I say “western”) as we generally assume time to be linear and progressive. I wonder if the students of D-Q ever read Graves work on them and I wonder how they would feel about it.

    This concept then becomes political and can be used to categorize others as lower or higher and by doing so imply authority of higher “levels” over others. I do not think this is what Graves intends but it is a possible outcome of adhering to this theory due to misinterpretations. I say misinterpretations but I also do think an implied hierarchy of persons is evident in Graves writings. Another example of this hierarchical depiction is in the article “Human Nature Prepares for a
    Momentous Leap” linked above, in that a person climbing a ladder from A-N through to H-U. The article above says that “people are free to be whoever they want” and that “humanities quest is an open ended journey” and that a person may flourish on any level, yet a ladder most certainly implies upward movement. What does one say to those at the lower rungs of a ladder? Do you say that it is fine to stay there and flourish on the lower rungs? But they will reply with, “but this is a ladder and it must be climbed for that is what a ladder is for.”.

    …..”People don’t get smarter or better or more ‘superior’ as they move through the levels – which represent increased complexity, not intelligence, enlightenment …..or anything else – though they do expand their conceptual space, broadening their perspectives and increasing their options to act appropriately in a given …..situation.”

    I think this sentence must be addressed more closely and built upon to alleviate my concerns. It is at once egalitarian and hierarchical which makes it a conflicting sentence in a post-industrial culture where “complexity” already carries connotations of superiority.

    • Thank you for this considered and thoughtful comment Luke.

      There is always a danger of *any* concept becoming politicised, misinterpreted, misused.

      I share many of your concerns with this idea of moving ‘up’ a ladder. Along with ‘levels’, it’s perhaps not a useful metaphor given how people are likely to interpret it, ie. it implies ‘up’ = ‘superior’.

      >Though the article says that persons may flourish in any level and that there is no end point, the opposite is implicated in the theory itself. Such an example in the text is when Grave compares the students of group D-Q with “feudal craft society” implying that this group is un-evolved.

      Did he? I don’t agree that Graves implied D-Q was unevolved at all – perhaps this is your own interpretation? If you read what the sentence said, Graves was describing the structures of how people organised themselves:

      ‘Students at the D-Q level split up into a number of groups, each with its own leader. Graves likens this to the feudal craft society with elaborate hierarchies within trade guilds.’

      >By giving reference to them as a point in historical time is to liken them to a lower point in a line of progression when interpreted by our culture (dare I say “western”) as we generally assume time to be linear and progressive. I wonder if the students of D-Q ever read Graves work on them and I wonder how they would feel about it.

      As you say, this depends on how ‘progress’ is interpreted. If we look back across history, we might find we were much more advanced on some aspects previously than we are now, and that maybe we’ve regressed in some areas in the 21st century! ‘Progress’, of course, does not automatically = ‘good’.

      People are not just one ‘type’ and that the vast majority of ‘Westerners’ are somewhere in the D-Q, E-R, F-S spectrum, and we may shift between them as different conditions arise. The ‘levels’ the students were grouped into would have been according to the dominant state they were in, at that point of their lives, according to their survey answers. The D-Q students saw the way things should be done as establishing a hierarchy and following a leader. That’s the norm, that’s how it should be, according to their way of seeing things – whether it takes the form of a feudal guild, a government department or a military outfit. They would not consider this unevolved.

      >This concept then becomes political and can be used to categorize others as lower or higher and by doing so imply authority of higher “levels” over others.

      Yes. Human ego comes into play, creating meaning that was not intended. This might be of interest:

      http://spiraldynamics.org/tiers/

      >>”People don’t get smarter or better or more ‘superior’ as they move through the levels – which represent increased complexity, not intelligence, enlightenment …..or anything else – though they do expand their conceptual space, broadening their perspectives and increasing their options to act appropriately in a given …..situation.”

      >I think this sentence must be addressed more closely and built upon to alleviate my concerns. It is at once egalitarian and hierarchical which makes it a conflicting sentence in a post-industrial culture where “complexity” already carries connotations of superiority.

      I appreciate you have a concern with the concept, but with all due respect, the sentence will remain as written – I produced this post as a means of documenting what I learned about Spiral Dynamics from the people who teach it, who knew Graves, and whose teaching has remained closest to Graves’s original work. I won’t be amending it to satisfy others’ concerns (and there are of course many people with many opinions on this!). I hope you appreciate that my goal here was to simply document what was conveyed to me over four days. No doubt the debates will continue.

      I think a lot of our cultural baggage tangles us up – ideas of ‘progress’, evolution, perhaps our own bias towards linear thinking etc, complicating what is a simple question – why and how people develop additional kinds of neurobiological means or ‘mind capacities’ in response to increasingly complex life conditions. If you are well-off financially and live in 21st century New York, you most certainly have different life conditions, and appropriate means of adapting to them, than someone who lives in a different context (places, time, or both). It doesn’t mean one or the other is inferior or superior. It means you have to deal with a different set – maybe more complex, maybe less complex – of ‘life problems’.

      At its core, this theory of Graves was about the interrelationship between what the world is like, and how human capacity adapts to cope in environments that create new challenges as they become more complex.

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