The Theory of emergent, cyclical, levels of Existence by Clare Graves (also:
Theory of Levels of Human Existence) was coined after his death (1986) "Spiral
Dynamics" by his students Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics...
Book: "Spiral Dynamics:
Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change (1996)
What is Spiral Dynamics? Definition
A brief summary of his theory is given by Graves himself:
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
And more comprehensively:
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
[AN Beige]. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living [BO Purple],
and this is followed, in turn, by a search heroic status, for power and glory
[CP Red], by a search for ultimate peace [DQ Blue], a search for material
pleasure [ER Orange], a search for affectionate relations [FS Green], a search
for respect of self [GT Yellow], and a search for peace in an incomprehensible
world [HU Turquoise]. And, when he discovers that he will not find that peace,
he will be off on his ninth level quest. While 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 while he solves one set of human
problems he finds a new set in their place. The quest he discovered, is never
Origin of Spiral Dynamics. History
An early article by Graves was: "An Emergent Theory of Ethical Behavior
Based upon an Epigenetic Model" (1959). His theory became more widely known
after publication in the Harvard Business Review, in an article called: "Deterioration
of Work Standards" (HBR September / October 1966).
Five key points of Spiral Dynamics
Human nature is not static, nor is it finite. Human nature changes as
the conditions of existence change, thus forging new systems. Yet, the older
systems stay with us.
When a new system or level is activated, we change our psychology and
rules for living to adapt to those new conditions.
We live in a potentially open system of values with an infinite number
of modes of living available to us. There is no final state towards which
we must all aspire. [It is here where Graves differed with
Maslow and most other
psychologists. Maslow, before his death, told Graves that he (Graves) was
correct and he (Maslow) was wrong in thinking of human development as a
An individual, a company, or an entire society can respond positively
only to those managerial principles, motivational appeals, educational formulas,
and legal or ethical codes that are appropriate to the current level of
human existence. Compare:
Hagberg Model of
A Spiral vortex best depicts this emergence of human systems as they
evolve through levels of increasing complexity. Each upward turn of the
spiral marks the awakening of a more elaborated version on top of what already
exists. The human spiral, then, consists of a coiled string of value systems,
world views, and mindsets, each the product of its times and conditions.
In other words, new times produces new minds.
The colors in Spiral Dynamics model
Clare Graves didn't use colors. Instead, Graves generally relied on his
original pairs of letters, as well as numbers and names on occasion. The color
scheme was applied to Dr. Graves's levels of existence in the 1970s by Chris
Cowan for making title slides for use in teaching the theory. The color code
was created as a design element for training materials and became a common
language when included as part of the publication of the Spiral Dynamics book
by Beck and Cowan in 1996. While there was a metaphor behind it, there was
certainly no metaphysical significance intended, nor was it derived from chakras
or anything else. The color code has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes
to the detriment of the model, since it makes discussion of the transition
stadia almost impossible.
Is Spiral Dynamics a typology?
The theory of Graves is of an emergent process, not a set of categories
or boxes for people, nor a series of essential developmental stages. These
are systems within the person or group, not kinds of persons or groups. In
theory, the potential for all of these systems lies within everyone with a
normal brain, and that's the vast majority of people. However, all the systems
aren't awakened because the theory is a process of interaction between the
neurobiology of the person (or group) with existential problems and conditions
in the external milieu. Don't ask: How do you deal with this kind of person?
Instead, seek to understand how to manage the form of thinking and behavior
as it is being exhibited by the person, regarding a particular thing, at this
time, under these conditions. Therefore ask: How do I manage the ER Orange
in this person?
Theory of Human Existence
- Clare Graves
Problems of Existence
Periodic physiological needs
No conscious value system
No conscious value system
Automatic / Instinctive
Maintaining physiological stability
Aperiodic physiological needs
Animistic / Tribalistic
Achievement of relative safety
Egocentric / Exploitive
Living with self-awareness
Absolutely / Saintly
Achieving ever-lasting peace of mind
Materialistic / Achiever
Conquering the physical universe
Relativistic / Sociocentric
Living with the human element
All learning systems are open
Flexible & Integrative
Systemic / Integrative
Restoring viability to a disordered world
All learning systems are open
Holistic & Global
Holistic / Experimental
Accepting existential dichotomies
Characteristics of vMEMES
vMEMES should be seen as: a kind of valuing systems. World views. Levels
of psychological existence. Belief structures. Organizational principles.
Ways of thinking or modes of adjustment.
vMEMES represent a core intelligence that forms systems and directs
vMEMES impact upon all life choices as a decision-making framework.
vMEMES can manifest themselves in both healthy and unhealthy forms.
vMEMES are a discrete structure for thinking, not just a set of ideas,
values or cause.
vMEMES can brighten and dim when life conditions change (life conditions
consist of historic times, geographic place, existential problems, and societal
Principles underlying Spiral Dynamics
Human nature includes a capacity for new vMEMES to awaken without eliminating
Changing life conditions can activate vMEMES which may emerge, surge,
regress or fade in response.
The overall Spiral is forged by a pendulum-like alternation between:
the self-expressive, internal controlled 'me'; survival, power, achievement,
flexibility). And: the self-sacrificing, externally-anchored 'we'; relatedness,
purposeful, consensual, global).
Each vMEME comes in phases, either in personal passage or historic epoch,
like waves on a beach. Entering as a surge, dominating the scene as a strong
peak, and then exiting from prominence. To be replaced by another.
The emergence of thinking along the spiral is from lesser complexity
towards greater complexity.
vMEMES coexist as mixtures. For example: a generally consensual GREEN-oriented
character may activate his or her power seeking RED aspect in sports, and
call up an ORANGE achievement orientation in marketing meetings.
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