Spiral Dynamics

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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 change.

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 ending.

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

  1. 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.
  2. When a new system or level is activated, we change our psychology and rules for living to adapt to those new conditions.
  3. 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 closed state.
  4. 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 Personal Power
  5. 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


Learning System



Motivational System

Specific Motivation


End Values

Value System

Problems of Existence

AN Beige Habituation Automatic Loose bands Physiological Periodic physiological needs No conscious value system No conscious value system Automatic / Instinctive Maintaining physiological stability
BO Purple Classical conditioning Autistic Tribe-like groups Assurance Aperiodic physiological needs Traditionalism Safety Animistic / Tribalistic Achievement of relative safety
CP Red Operant conditioning Egocentric Empires Survival Psychological survival Exploitation Power Egocentric / Exploitive Living with self-awareness
DQ Blue Avoidant learning Absolutistic Pyramidal Security Order, meaning Sacrifice Salvation Absolutely / Saintly Achieving ever-lasting peace of mind
ER Orange Expectancy Multiplistic Delegative Independence Adequacy, competency Scientism Materialism Materialistic / Achiever Conquering the physical universe
FS Green Observational Relativistic Egalitarian Affiliation Love, affiliation Sociocentricity Community Relativistic / Sociocentric Living with the human element
GT Yellow All learning systems are open Systemic Flexible & Integrative Existential Self-worth Accepting Existence Systemic / Integrative Restoring viability to a disordered world
HU Turquoise All learning systems are open Differential Holistic & Global Experience ?????? Experiencing Communion 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 human behavior.
  • 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 circumstances).

Principles underlying Spiral Dynamics

  1. Human nature includes a capacity for new vMEMES to awaken without eliminating old ones.
  2. Changing life conditions can activate vMEMES which may emerge, surge, regress or fade in response.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. The emergence of thinking along the spiral is from lesser complexity towards greater complexity.
  6. 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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Forum discussions about Spiral Dynamics. Below you can ask a question about this topic, share your experiences, report a new development, or explain something.

topic Turquoise Specific Motivation in Spiral Dynamics
Where in the table it says ? for the specific motivation of a turquoise behavior, perhaps it could be something like: "Pursuit of excellence or perfection"....
Comments1 comments
topic Recommended Books on Spiral Dynamics
Who can recommend books on spiral dynamics, discussing the theory and providing further examples, cases etc.? Please indicate the level (beginner/advanced/expert)? Much appreciated....
Comments2 comments
topic Adressering a Red (Blue) Manager
In addressing an authority figure with red (and hints of blue) consciousness, what is the lever? So far I have used: 'That strategy many not allow us to survive in the future'. Is there a better on...
Comments3 comments
🔥 Assessing Leaders Using Spiral Dynamics
Good day, How can I assess my personal leadership and leaders at my organization using Spiral Dynamics?...
Comments2 comments

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One of possible ways to classify human (employee, consumer) needs is to break them down into: - Biogenic Needs (essenti...
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Sound recording

Announcement of the Emergent Cyclical Level of Existence Theory of Human Behavior

Graves 1975
Audio clip (1975) of Graves introducing the 'Emergent Cyclical Level of Existence Theory of Human Behavior'....

NLP: The 6 Neurological Levels

6 layers to view at the reality of a person or issue
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is used increasingly by businesses and individuals in HR, marketing, sales and organi...

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Compare with Spiral Dynamics:  Hierarchy of Needs  |  Hagberg Model of Personal Power  |  Theory of Needs  |  Leadership Pipeline  |  Whole Brain Model  |  Coaching  |  Mentoring  |  Moral Purpose  |  Ashridge Mission Model  |  Herzberg Two Factor Theory  |  Theory X Theory Y  |  ERG Theory  |  Expectancy Theory  |  Cultural Dimensions  |  Chaos Theory  |  Spiral of Silence

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