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Spiral Dynamics: Solving Problems with Developmental Psychology

Understanding the different levels of adult psychological development helps us see others and ourselves, and supports efforts to rectify seemingly irreconcilable differences within our families, communities, culture, and institutions.

“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,”

Dr. Clare W. Graves

Until the 1970s, Dr. Clare Graves was researching the “unifying field” of human nature, much like the discovery of Quantum Physics did for the study of matter. He sought to understand the emergence of new systems of values, morality, needs, and problems. His research, thousands of interviews over 30+ years, was simple in its brilliance. He interviewed people about their opinions on the “well-adjusted human being”, and recognized a pattern. Consciousness followed a similar pattern of evolution, universally.

He found that not only does all of human behavior fit the framework, but that it followed the same, step-by-step emergent process, always. If we examine the trajectory of history, it matches up almost perfectly with how individuals develop.

When Dr. Graves had to tend to his health, his research ceased. In the 1980s, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan continued his work and synthesized it into a coherent and psychoactive theory now known as Spiral Dynamics. Since then, Beck and Cowan have worked with businesses and governments around the world to help bridge cultural and religious divides.

Don Beck worked side by side with Nelson Mandela, making 63 trips to South Africa between 1981 and 2002 to reconcile the disparate ethnic groups and cultural differences post-apartheid. He and Cowan also did extensive research in Israel and Palestine before their funding was cut when the global recession hit in 2008. They were making real progress in reconciling the cultural divide.

The framework is simple, although it captures a depth of complexity and nuance that will be a challenge to convey in such a short paper.

Spiral Dynamics

Spiral Dynamics is a model of developmental psychology which shows how human consciousness evolves through systems of values or worldviews. It shows how what we care about changes as we expand our worldview in order to solve the problems created by our worldview.

Spiral Dynamics is a stage model. This means it proposes and recognizes a natural or nested hierarchy. It is important to discern between these types of hierarchies and dominator hierarchies. This is about recognizing what is good about the different stages, solving the problems created by each way of thinking, transcending, and including as we move through transformational dilemmas and conflicts between competing worldviews.

The stages are color-coded, which helps to de-personalize them. We apply them individually and collectively. Each stage is a response to the previous one, and they oscillate between individualistic and communal. They call them vMemes, pulling from Dawkins's work in the field of memetics.

Each emerging stage stands on the shoulders of the previous one. We move from less to more complexity.

The Stages

First, we have Beige, the instinctive and archaic self. Babies fall into this category, as do pre-tribal societies. There is no distinct self, and their only concern is survival. When hungry you become hunger. This is an individualistic stage.

Next, we have Purple, the magic and animistic self. This communal stage and way of living was organized as a way to permanently solve the problem of survival - the chief concern of Beige. Examples include tribal indigenous cultures. The self in this case is fully identified with the tribe and the environment it inhabits. Ritual is one of its most important tools as it petitions and sacrifices to the gods or the land. Purple lives in harmony with the animals and the land and recognizes the circle of life. Please do not mistake its placement lower on the spiral to imply it is unimportant.

Red comes next as the impulsive self distinct from the tribe emerges. The tribal organization becomes a prison for anyone who longs for something different, to express themselves with individuality. Feudal warlords emerged to unite the tribes under one “hero” as strength and creativity become values. The self is aggressive, impulsive, and egocentric. There is a naive and youthful freedom alive in red. Red lacks long-term thinking and cannot delay gratification. Strength and individuality are valued. Consider a schoolyard bully or even a toddler going through the “terrible twos”. We differentiate ourselves through dominance and defiance. Our individual needs are the most important thing, and we expect others to behave the same way. Gang and mafia culture are still deeply Red in their values, even if they use the structure of the next stage to establish hierarchy.

Next comes Blue, moving from Egocentrism in red to Ethnocentrism. Now it is people like us who matter, whose needs we can consider in our consciousness. We care about those who share our ethnicity and beliefs. If you fall outside that, you are a threat. Blue imposes an absolute code of conduct in order to mitigate the out-of-control impulses at red. It is a fundamentalist way of thinking that employs religion to maintain rigid social hierarchies. Blue values order, a response to the chaos of the impulsive self at Red. If you believe the same things, you are friends. If you believe otherwise, you are enemies. Red has a serious allergy to Blue, which can be seen as a beefed-up Purple, out of which Red has already broken free. Blue expands the notion of "tribe", but is still deeply tribal. Blue is an important step in our individual development, as it teaches the importance of discipline, consistency, and long-term thinking. Of course, pathological Blue brought about the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, where millions were slaughtered in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, a man whose central teaching was mercy and forgiveness.

Out of blue evolves Orange, the rational scientific worldview that gained power through the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and the Protestant Reformation. Orange is the achieving self who acts in their own individualistic interest by playing the game to win. Orange begins to materially improve the lives of people by learning, mastering, and manipulating natural laws for gain. Industry booms and we realize that we can make our lives better in the present moment through reason. Real-life consequences become our deterrent in lieu of eternal damnation. Church and state become distinct from each other in order to satisfy the need for objectivity and solve the problem of religious tyranny.

Capitalism and the scientific method emerge as the method for achieving material gains and maintaining a preference for concrete thinking. Here, we strive to value the lives of all humans, even if we do not live up to those values in practice. “All men are created equal” is a virtue of Orange, as is the protection of individual liberties from tyranny and religious hegemony. Of course, the excesses of Orange have resulted in environmental degradation. We have also seen this outer achieving mindset lead to increased mental illness and a loss of meaning due to hyper-secularization and fixation on outer achievement. The “self-interest” which forms the basis for the philosophy of Capitalism leads to a lack of community and a new religion - money, and power.

Next is Green, who took control of the cultural conversation in the United States in the 1960s during the Hippie and Civil Rights Movements. These were two different manifestations of the same cultural vMeme. Green, which is sometimes referred to as “postmodernism" in academic circles, deconstructs and recognizes the infinite ways we are different, the ways we are all outsiders, and satisfies the very important need to include and consider marginalized people. Green sees that some folks have been left out of the equation and works to include them.

Green cares about the environment, a necessary step to “world-centric” thinking in response to Orange’s environmental obliteration. Community is valued, and emotions need to be recognized, felt, and validated. There is no “right way” - except egalitarianism, which is definitely right. Green gets caught in what Ken Wilber calls “performative contradictions” like, “it is universally true that there are no universal truths”. Anyone can identify as whatever they want to, because who are we to say? Unless, of course, your identification is someone who doesn’t think that’s a good thing. Intolerance is definitely not tolerated. The desire to validate the subjective experience of marginalized groups results in hypocrisy and denial of objectivity when taken to the extremes.

Green also sees a return to spirituality and a romanticization of stage purple - communal, tribal ways of living. The green meme, while appealing to virtues like acceptance and tolerance, is a harsh judge. Virtue signaling is an easy flaw to point out within Green value propositions, especially from lower stages on the spiral.

You may be noticing a trend. Each stage requires a lot more explanation the more we go. We evolve into more complex, higher-order ways of thinking that can hold more of reality in our consciousness. This is not a moral judgment. We have people all over “the spiral”, all over the world, and we cannot skip steps. We cannot move directly from Red feudalism to Orange/Green liberal democracy. Any attempt to do so will fail, as we have seen with efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East. We need a healthy spiral, not everyone at one stage.

The goal here is to “transcend and include” previous stages. Green contains Orange, which contains Blue, which contains Red, Purple, and Beige.

Everything up until now is part of what Graves, Beck, and Cowan refer to as Tier 1. Tier 1 believes their way is right and will demonize those who think otherwise. Everyone in Tier 1 believes they have found the answer and are in search of their gold, and cannot understand how anyone else would see things any other way. They think that if the world just saw things one way, everything would be better. All of the world’s problems would be solved, if only people weren’t so selfish, weak, nihilistic, secular, religious, ignorant, etc.

Enter stage Yellow, the first stage in Tier 2. Tier 2 sees the whole spiral, sees the multifaceted complex system of worldviews, recognizes the partial truths in each of them, and sees the natural hierarchy. Yellow moves green, pluralistic systems and looks for what binds them together so that we can move forward, making sure to include what is good about each lower stage.

Yellow embraces, includes, and integrates opposing perspectives into holistic spirals of integral meshworks. Yellow moves back towards the individualistic self, this time having integrated Green’s emotional, environmental, and community values. Yellow can be very intellectual and thinks in terms of systems. Yellow can become fixated on these models and systems that explain human behavior, though. At Yellow, the Integral Self emerges, a truly Kosmocentric consciousness that is concerned with maintaining the health of the developmental spiral so that generations to come can continue to explore and build upon what works. Yellow loves opposing perspectives, as they help it to see more of the picture, a clearer representation of the spiral.

Yellow transcends the self-righteous judgment of Tier 1 and seeks to understand the world from as many perspectives as possible, so that its viewpoint can be more whole - not "right". Yellow sees the value in all of the stages. Here, the need for outlets of exploration for all of the stages is recognized. We need places where we can compete. We need discipline and structure. We need to care about our impact on other people. We need to live connected to the land. We need to pursue our individual creativity.

Beyond Yellow is Turquoise, Coral, and more. Turquoise takes yellow and begins to build a community around it to evolve the source code of humanity. Turquoise is the Holistic Self, who recognizes its place within the whole of creation, and sees that the large problems facing humanity can be simplified and approached holistically if we can work with the foundational building blocks - DNA, consciousness, the Psyche, etc. Good examples of Turquoise are Dr. Joe Dispenza, and Richard Rudd of the Gene Keys. They are developing systems that can meet anyone where they are and help them become more whole. The spiral is never ending.

How does this work, practically?

Most people are lopsided in development, and we have needs that ought to be addressed all over the spiral. We may speak a very green language - ie. identity politics, social justice, spiritual - but we may do so for very red, egocentric motivations. Ken Wilber calls this "Boomeritis", although Boomers are certainly not the only generation to behave this way.

We also have different lines or axes of development. For example, we have cognitive development, moral development, emotional development, relational development, somatic development, and many more. We ought to be able to address each of these with a certain suite of practices.

In his book, Integral Meditation, Ken Wilber lays out a system for using mindfulness practices to examine the stages and discern what "parts" of our psyche may still be unconsciously showing aversion or attachment to the stages.

According to Don Beck, the division among the stages globally is something like the following:

Beige: >1%

Purple: 1%

Red: 20%

Blue: 35%

Orange: 30%

Green: 10%

Yellow or higher: <5%

Culture Wars

Where I see this model being most useful is in recognizing and reconciling divergent worldviews in today's culture wars.

In the United States, the division of consciousness is something like:

30% Blue

45% Orange

25% Green

Green would do well to examine if it has properly integrated Red, Blue, and Orange. Orange can't demonize Blue or Green, and should really begin to expose itself to "new age" ideas and tap into emotional awareness. Green is the lynchpin as I see it. Green needs to, as Wilber says, "clean it up" by examining its motivations and shadows so that it better embodies the values it espouses. Blue and Orange need to pass through Green, and Green looks like a total mess to anyone who doesn't see things that way. Those lower on the spiral are digging in their heels because they do not feel seen or heard by Green.

Blue sees its values being bastardized and destroyed by what it sees as nihilism, or meaninglessness, in Green. Discipline and objective truth are demonized as oppressive.

Orange still applies rationality to Green and often is silenced as it questions the postmodern ideology. They're probably not voting for Trump, but they're probably not very progressive, either. They're more likely to keep quiet until election day, for fear of being canceled by the left

Many in Green refuse to acknowledge the validity or value of Blue/Orange perspectives and do not examine the way Red still motivates many of their supposedly enlightened viewpoints.

Personal Development

Spiral Dynamics can help us to see ourselves more clearly too. We have all of the stages present in us and it is important to remember that as we hopefully scrutinize our own beliefs and question our motivations. Are you triggered by Blue? There's probably some work for you to do there. Green sees Blue as oppressive, but there is clearly value in adhering to an objective code of conduct. If it's all relative, your life will become exhausting as you try to weigh the pros and cons of each individual decision.

If you see yourself as Green/Yellow, but have not integrated Blue/Orange, it behooves you to inquire into what you are missing. Because we live in a world where Green exists and is highly visible, Red has no need to move to Blue. Instead, Red can cloak itself in Green, a welcome home for anyone who is allergic to discipline and hard work.

Many millennials look at Gen Z, for example, and admire their commitment to Green values. What if they are actually stuck at Red? How can a teenager possibly have developed to Green? Many people appeal to Green for selfish reasons. We want to forgive student debt because we want our debt forgiven. We want universal free health care because we want free health care.

Not Just for Psychologists

It's time that developmental psychology enters the mainstream conversation so that more people can understand how the psyche works. This is just one model, and there are countless others that echo the same trajectory using different names. Researchers like Jean Piaget, Robert Kegan, Freud, Maslow, Carol Gilligan, and more have all discovered stages of development which closely, if not perfectly, align with the stages of Spiral Dynamics.

If we do not, we risk further dividing and polarizing ourselves. If you care about Green values, you should be working to better embody them every day. If you want to make everyone feel seen and heard, you better apply that to Blue and Orange, too. If people do not see things your way, try to understand the value in the way they do see things, and the reason why they hold the values they do.

If we can begin to see how this works, then we can create spaces for the whole spiral to be expressed, integrated, and explored so that we create a more whole and integrated world, for generations to come.


Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change (Beck & Cowan)

A Theory of Everything (Ken Wilber)

Integral Meditation (Ken Wilber)


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